Hogmanay and Happy New Year!

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ADMITTEDLY my Encyclopaedia Britannica was published in 1958, but have things really changed so much?

I speak of "HOGMANAY, the name in Scotland and some parts of the North of England for New Year's Eve...." The definition continues: "On the morning of Dec. 31, the children go from door to door singing:

Hogmanay

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Trollalay

Gie's o' your white bread

and nane o' your grey;

and begging for small gifts or alms. They usually take the form of an oaten cake."

My Scottish better half was suffused with incredulity. "I've never heard of that," she said. A thing of the past, it appears.

One thing is unchanged, though: The Scots are still inextricably connected with New Year in the popular mind. Take "Auld Lang Syne," for example, sung worldwide. The trappings of New Year in Britain are conventional if touristy: Kilts, bagpipes, neat dances, and sentiment are apparently unavoidable ingredients of the annual televisual bash as the old year is kicked out and the new one grabbed.

Instead of experiencing this inner moment-of-truth as midnight strikes - we watch others, in a TV studio, experiencing it for us. This is a bit odd. We have to do everything second hand or it doesn't seem quite authentic. We do go around the room kissing each other - it's the tradition - but with half an ear on the "live" celebrations on TV.

Live?

Well, yes. There are degrees of "live." I mean, we might videotape our Hogmanay visitors for later viewing ("So that's what you looked like in 1992-3, Auntie!"), but presumably we wouldn't record the TV New Year party and watch it over again. There survives something poignant about the actual moment. Something still matters about that shared instant, about the promise of difference. We still have a sense of reckoning as the old year dies; a hint of hopeful determination as the new one is born. We mutter,

as diarists immemorially have, with relief, self-congratulation, or sadness: So ends the old year.

The timing is a lot of nonsense, naturally. It's different the world over. And the seasons have little to do with "New Year's" (as my American friends call it). In Australia, presumably, this day in hottest summer is as inappropriate as Christmas. In the northern hemisphere we have our New Year at about the deadest center of winter, when clearly spring, the time when nature gets out of bed, would be far more apt. In most Christian countries in the early Middle Ages, the New Year began March 15. The Jewis h ecclesiastical calendar is even more season-sensitive, beginning the year at the spring equinox, March 21.

BUT I suppose we are stuck with things as they are, and whenever it happens, New Year still carries a certain weight. In Scotland on Dec. 31, there is unquestionably a feeling in the air that houses should be cleaned from top to toe, bills paid, and accumulated enmities forgotten. Until really very recently, people went to work on Christmas Day in Scotland, but never on New Year's Day. Now we have both holidays, with as much vacation before, between, and after as can be mustered. It's probably the hedgeh og in us - the instinct to hibernate. When the nights are longest in this northern clime we feel, maybe, the best thing to do for a week or two is ... nothing at all.

On the other hand, there is also, in spite of such sedentary collapse, an innocent kind of lively dottiness which hangs on - or has only very recently disappeared - in some places. It's only 12 years ago when we spent New Year's in Crete, and in the process discovered the strange and wonderful practice there of providing every child with a bright-colored caveman's club. Fortunately these clubs are made of light plastic, so the delighted energy - the symbol of new life, no doubt - with which even very sma ll Cretan persons wallop everyone they meet on the head, does no lasting damage. As foreigners we were generally not walloped, which was a little disappointing. But then at last one particularly carefree kid, after only a moment's hesitation, gave us thwacks to remember.

You can't always explain what you do at New Year. When I was at university, I remember a bunch of us spending New Year's night, until dawn, walking about London, determined not to feel tired. And - without by-your-leave - we shook hands with literally everyone who passed us. We must have wished hundreds of people a happy new year.

A certain amount of "First Footing" does, without doubt, continue in Scotland: This is when (usually) young men go from house to house proffering at the very least a piece of black bun (a spiced fruitcake), maybe still the traditional piece of coal, and a bottle. Members of abstemious households stay within doors mostly though, and see out the old and in the new quietly enough.

Christmas has gained such a foothold in Scotland now that it seems unlikely any children, even in the Highlands, put out their stockings on Hogmanay, as older Scots remember was done when they were young.

ON the remote island of Lewis, the most northerly island in the Outer Hebrides, our friend Margaret (now in her 30s and moved to near Glasgow) remembers the tail end of what must have been an ancient pre-Hogmanay custom. She believes it is no longer done. Television and videos have even taken over her island like everywhere else. But, in the mid 1960s, groups of boys under 15 would go around to the houses. One boy would be draped with a sheepskin (cragan caora in Gaelic). Another would wield a stick (a s teabhag) with which he lightly tapped the sheep-skinned lad.

They would visit homes and would all walk slowly around a chair set in the middle of a room, reciting a poem which intimated they would be quite happy with bread without butter, or butter without cheese. They were then given money for the party they planned to hold on Hogmanay. As they left with their gift, they blessed the house. No gift, no blessing; instead they would wipe their shoes as they left as a sign of disapproval. Each year a different local woman was approached and asked (very politely, but with really no choice in the matter) if she would let the boys hold their party at her house. This party and its location were kept a close secret. "In case," says our friend, "the boys from another village found out."

I wonder how many centuries this tradition had continued?

Perhaps someone somewhere up there still carries it on. Why should mere electronics be allowed to spell the end of enchanting and harmless traditions which give communities character? This Lewis tradition had already adapted to change without disappearing: The chair in the middle of the room was a substitute for the peat fire which used to burn in the center of the old black houses of the island.

Maybe they should start circling round the TV set.

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