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First-Foot

<em>Picture: ben hanbury</em>

Picture: ben hanbury

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Like Christmas, Hogmanay is associated with eating and drinking, although not usually now in that order of importance. Formerly, though, Hogmanay was more associated with eating, particularly if you were a child. It was the custom for children to go round the houses asking for a gift, usually a cake or something sweet, giving the festival the name of Cake Day.

Incidentally, the giving of gifts on Hogmanay is thought by many people to have a bearing on the origin of the word Hogmanay, although the etymology is uncertain. The most widely accepted suggested origin is that Hogmanay is based on the French word aguillanneuf, meaning first a gift given at New Year and then the festival of New Year itself. The clue is in the second part of the French word which reads l’an neuf, French for New Year.

Nowadays, Hogmanay is still associated with the giving of gifts and it is thought to bring ill-luck to a household if a visitor crosses the threshold in the early hours of New Year without some form of gift. This is particularly true if the empty-handed visitor is the first foot, first fit in Scots, the first person to cross a threshold after midnight has struck.

Sometimes New Year gifts still take the form of sweet things such as shortbread or the immensely calorific black bun, a kind of cake consisting of a pastry case surrounding an extremely rich fruitcake mixture. Sometimes the gift will be a piece of coal, traditionally given to ensure a steady source of warmth throughout the year, although this could be a vain hope in these days of soaring fuel costs.

Mostly nowadays, though, visitors at New Year will be clutching a bottle of whisky. Unless they are exceptionally generous or exceptionally drunk, the bottle of whisky is not actually a gift. The gift for the host is just a glass poured from the bottle which is hastily put back in the visitor’s pocket.

And at last I get to the reason for the title of this article! Forget the cake and even the shortbread and black bun. Hogmanay and New Year are now largely drinking festivals, a time when what Burns described in Tam o’ Shanter as “drouthy neebors” meet to see in the New Year in an alcoholic haze.

Drouthy, also commonly spelt droothy, means thirsty, although the thirst involved is usually a desire for strong drink rather than for water or other beverage. (In the quotation from Burns, neebors is Scots for neighbours.) Often the desire for such a drink is not just a thirst but an addiction. A drouthy neebor may well be an alcoholic one. Those of Tam o’ Shanter were almost certainly so.

Originally, drouthy referred to the weather and meant dry or exceptionally dry. I seem to remember that we used occasionally to have drouthy summers, but recently these have largely disappeared. They still have these in the south, although not so called, but they have become part of the north/south divide, leaving us with several inches of rain while our southern neighbours complain of a drought.

Originally, drought meant simply dryness and it is etymologically connected with Scots drouth, from which drouthy is formed. Both drought and drouth have their roots in Old English drugath.

Drouth can also mean thirst, and Hogmanay revellers are likely to have a great drouth on them. If they regularly give in to such a drouth too often, they may themselves grow into drouths, in other words habitual drinkers or alcoholics. Eventually, they may end up literally dying for a drink.

But away with such a depressing and sobering thought. It’s Hogmanay! Slainte! All the best for 2012!

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

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By Betty Kirkpatrick

Photo: sharedferret on Flickr

Edinburgh at Hogmanay

Nothing stays the same and Hogmanay is no exception. It is till alive and kicking and living in Scotland, but changes have inevitably taken place to this festival. Some customs have been modified and some are either on the wane or have perished

Probably the best known Hogmanay custom, apart from drinking whisky, is first- footing. Nowadays, the word first-footing is often used to describe the practice of going round the houses visiting neighbours, family and friends after midnight. In fact, as the name indicates, only the first person to cross a threshold after midnight has struck has the right to be called a first- foot, known in Scots as first-fit.

It was, and is, a requirement of first-foots (for I cannot believe that it should be first-feet) that they carry some kind of gift over the threshold of the house which they are visiting. Gifts and Hogmanay have an old connection. Formerly on Hogmanay, people, especially children, would go round the houses knocking on doors and asking for a gift, usually a cake or something sweet, Hogmanay being sometimes known as Cake Day. As they went on their merry way, they recited:

Rise up, guid wife, an’ shake your feathers,
Dinna think that we are beggars:
We are bairns come out to play,
Get up and gie’s our Hogmanay!

But back to our first-foots. Being first-footed by someone who was empty-handed was formerly regarded as a great disaster. There was much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands. The reason for this was that an empty-handed first-foot was thought to bring bad luck to the household for the rest of the year.

Some householders were sharp enough to spot the absence of a gift in the hands of the first-foot before this person crossed the threshold. The first foot would then be handed something, such as a well-recycled tin of shortbread, to carry in. Bad luck was averted.

If it was too late, and the giftless first-foot was already through the door, then swift action was called for to avert bad luck. This included throwing some salt in the fire, burning a piece of straw up a chimney or taking a glowing ember from the fire and putting it in a bowl of water next morning. Do either of these actions work? I don’t know, but they’re worth a try. Who wants to have bad luck all year?

I suspect that people in general are less superstitious these days. They may object to an empty-handed first-foot because this indicates meanness rather than because it presages ill-luck. In fact, it is not only the first-foot that is expected to bring a gift. Everyone who crosses the threshold at New Year should do so.

Now we come to the nature of the gift carried by the first foot. According to tradition, one of these gifts should be a piece of coal or peat. Such a gift is supposed to ensure that there will be a steady source of warmth in the house throughout the year. In these days of central heating, I wonder if any of the energy companies have thought of producing a gift voucher to replace the coal. I think I will patent that idea.

Again, according to tradition, the first-foot should be carrying some form of food, often cake, to ensure a steady source of sustenance throughout the year. Time for that recycled tin of shortbread again! An alternative to shortbread, and now considerably less common, is black bun, a kind of cake consisting of a pastry case surrounding an extremely rich fruitcake mixture. A very small piece has enough calories to see you through the whole of January at the very least.

Most importantly, then and now, the first-foot should be carrying a bottle of whisky. Unless he is exceptionally generous or exceptionally drunk, the first-foot is not expected to hand over the bottle as a gift. Instead, he pours a glass for his host and the host reciprocates with a glass from his own bottle. They exchange seasonal greetings of ‘a guid New Year ’. For those in need of a translation, guid means good.

I do not think that many of the younger generation at least will worry too much about the appearance of the first person to cross their threshold after midnight on December 31. It was not always thus. Traditionally, the first-foot has to be male. First-footing is no job for a mere woman.

The next requirement for a first-foot is that he should be dark-haired. This did not seem to be a particularly difficult qualification when I was young. In those day in my part of rural Scotland at least, most people seemed to be dark-haired or darkish, well, dark mouse at least. Where did all these fair-haired people that are around nowadays come from? They are by no means all bottle blondes. I suspect that there was another more recent and secret Viking invasion.

Preferably the first foot should be tall, but, on the whole, the Scots are not known for their extreme height. There was no official test of height. Anybody but the very small, those who in Politically Correct English would be referred to as vertically challenged, would probably pass muster.

What happened if your first-foot was not a relatively tall dark male? It will come as no surprise to you that this would result in bad luck overcoming the household for the rest of the year. Many families averted this potential source of bad luck by designating their first foot ahead of time, often a member of the family. Such an important thing could not be left to chance.

People belonging to certain occupations were unwelcome as first-foots because they would bring ill-luck. These included ministers, doctors or gravediggers. Presumably this was because of the connection between these occupations and death.

It was considered unlucky not to have a sparkling clean house with which to greet the dawning of the New Year. Thus, women spent hours dusting, sweeping and scrubbing in order to achieve such a gleaming home by midnight on December 31. (Note that this, unlike the more arduous practice of first-footing, was considered to be women’s work.)

All the cleaning, including the carrying out of ashes from the fire, had to be completed by midnight. When everything was spick and span, dried juniper used to be burned in the house. Then the door was opened to let a blast of fresh air in to finish the cleansing process. Nowadays, you can just buy a perfumed room spray at the supermarket. I doubt if they have juniper, though.

There are a great many ways to put yourself at risk from ill-luck on the last night of the year. One of these ways is to be away from your own home ‘for the bells’, that is at the moment when midnight is sounded by local church bells, or more recently by Big Ben on the TV. People who are worried about ill-luck, and who are already out revelling, come rushing home to be with their family as midnight strikes before rushing out again to continue with their revels.

At Hogmanay parties it is now common to sing a version of Auld Lang Syne to celebrate the New Year. Please do try not to pronounce syne as though it begins with the letter z. It rhymes with sign, meaning indication or omen, not with the second syllable of resign, The z version grates on Scottish ears, especially mine.

Why not bring in the New Year with the more traditional Scots New Year song below? Note that guid=good, ane=one, a=all, an=and, mony=many

A guid new year to ane and a
An mony may ye see.
An during a the years to come
O happy may ye be.

This translates loosely as All the best for the New Year. Happy New Year!

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