I’m writing to you from a cozy room decorated with streamers, snowflakes and ornaments. We are coming into the festive season and winter is nipping at the windows and doors with icy teeth – another gale!
Christmas is a big deal for children but traditionally it wasn’t the biggest celebration here in the Highlands. It’s likely because both the Free Kirk and (to a lesser extent) the Church of Scotland acknowledged Christmas but did not encourage celebration the way we do, today. They didn’t discourage it, exactly, but faith was meant to be a year-round endeavor rather than, say, only Christmas and Easter. As a consequence, in terms of celebration, Christmas took a back seat to ‘Hogmanay’ (hog-ma-NAY), which is what they call New Year’s Eve, in Scotland.
The Christmases I have spent here have been a bit strange, far away from family, but the ubiquitous Christmas carols are in the shops, and more and more people seem to put up lights and decorations, too. Like many other places our village does a Christmas tree lighting, though here it’s a pipe band which plays carols before the tree-lighting!
One of the villagers happily spearheads the Christmas lights effort as the primary fund-raiser, purchaser, and installer, and the village gets more colorful every year. He is also a rather hard man, when need be, and a once-and-possibly-current poacher, which makes it an interesting twist. The Highlands are full of people like him – mixtures of toughness and kindness. He comes from a family about which people say, “they are mad for work and daft about their animals, but never cross them!”
So Christmas is a pretty big deal here now, but for generations it was very different! The night everyone anticipated was Hogmanay, the one time of the year that folks really let loose. Whisky was expensive then, so people only had it for special occasions with little else on offer, and Hogmanay was all about drinking up and visiting friends. In the country, where one farm was far from another, there would be just enough of a walk in the cold night air to sober up a bit in time to have another warming “wee dram” or two before heading to the next house.
My husband used to make up big plates of sandwiches and have plenty of whisky on hand for whoever might come to the door – and lots of people did! After midnight he would go out to visit friends too, and that is where the tradition of “first footing” came into play. It means the first person over your threshold in the new year, and it was said that if your ‘first foot’ was tall, dark and handsome, you would have a good year to come. There was a lot of visiting from midnight until sun-up, the whisky flowing like water, and laughter ringing through the streets.
Times have changed and other than a few die-hards, the tradition of first footing has faded, but last year I had my first post-midnight Highland Hogmanay Experience. I was in the kitchen and Sem was in the den when I heard a slight commotion in the hallway. I listened, and heard this conversation:
“Yer in the wrong hoose, man!”
“I’m no’ in the wrong hoose!”
“Ye are, Tam!”
I stepped out into the hallway and saw ‘TNT Tam’, so known because he can explode in an instant. Tall, ungainly and very drunk, he swayed, blinked, and peered at me. I retreated to the kitchen. I knew Sem would be fine, as he has known Tam for years. (Tam, I must add, did not know me at all, hence his dawning realization…)
After a startled silence he said, “Oh… I am very embarrassed. I’m in the wrong hoose!”
“That’s all right, Tam. Go on now… Happy New Year… out ye go.”
I heard the door open and as he tottered out into the night he said with all the dignity he could muster, “I am scho – so sorry. I was in the wrong hoose!”
Door firmly shut and locked behind him, I couldn’t keep from laughing. Now THAT was a Highland ‘first foot’ to be remembered!
Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands. Equally surprising to her is that she now has a small business restoring and selling old fountain pens. These two facts have convinced Deb that life is either beautifully random, or filled with destiny created by someone with a sense of humor. She hopes the fine north state residents will accept her as an honorary member, since she has some cousins in California who she visited once, but even more importantly because the north state folks she actually knows are fabulous people, who are also the reason for her presence here on anewscafe.com. An enthusiastic amateur photographer, Deb is grateful that she lives in a place that’s about as point-and-shoot as it gets. Her tortoiseshell cat, Smartie, rates her as an average minion, too slow with the door-opening but not too bad on the food-dish-refilling, and her husband hasn’t had her deported back to the States yet, so things must be going all right there, as well.