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Hogmanay and Happy New Year!

By Christopher Andreae / December 31, 1992



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

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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

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.