Mysterious Presence at Hogmanay – January 1903

So far back go the origins of Hogmanay that etymologists can only guess at the meaning of the word. Here, however, is one etymology which may serve as an instance: Au gui menez, meaning in French, lead to the mistletoe, said to have been the cry of French boys on the last day of the year. (See also Oxford Dictionary— Hoguinane, Norman French form of Old French Aguillanneuf, last day of the year, near year’s gift.).

My own recollection, as a small child of New Year’s Eve in Scotland, is that we each got an apple, an orange, and a piece of “bun” as the shades of night fell, and that the simple word of “hogmanay” made the fire burn with a redder glow, and filled the room and the dark outside night with a mysterious presence — half of awe and half delight, such as only early childhood can experience, and of which we elder people feel a faint thrill as we see it reflected from the solemn eyes of a child.

The boys were invited to a neighbour’s house, for their “hogmanay” consisting of more apples, oranges and bun which perhaps figured more largely in their imaginations than any “mysterious presence.” That, again, was perhaps only my small bit of feminine contempt to match their loudly expressed masculine contempt for the very absurdity of my existence as a “lassock.”

Certain it is that growing boys are greedy creatures, especially on festive occasions; and it is a very distinct memory with me, of standing on a stool (that my head and arms might be higher than the table) and watching with a wondering amazement the quantity of “currant bun” those dreadful boys consumed; and of seeing one of them pause to heave a big sigh in the middle of a slice, and exclaim — “I’ve had as much as I want, but I’ll stap it doon!” And not one of them appeared to look at the unearthly glow of the fire, or listened to the spirits in the wind huffling at the darkened window.

Seeing that Hogmanay, except as an occasion for childish feasting, had decayed before my day, I thought to inform myself of a generation earlier, and recall to my elder readers the picturesque customs of half a century ago and more. But, when I inquire, “What did you do on Hogmanay? the reply is that they did nothing. They did not even get apples and oranges and bun, for the bairns in a hard Scotch farming household in those days got few “good things.”

The father would say, as they all clustered round the blazing hearth after supper, “Weans! This is Hogmanay!” Did the peat, at that mysterious word, burn with a deeper living glow in the eyes of the children? If it did, that was the only unusual pleasure of the evening, for the oranges and the tea breakfast were reserved for the first morning of the year. To be sure, the callants, then, as now, had to be noisy about something, and went about all the last day of the year, roaring at the doors of neebour hooses” “Gie us oor Hogmanay, Or we’ll rattle at yer door a’day.” Perhaps they do that still, and are just as little regarded.

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