Hogmanay: Great Balls o' Fire!:
Hogmanay (pronounced hog-ma-NAY) is the Scottish holiday that celebrates the new year. Observed on December 31, festivities typically spill over into the first couple of days of January. In fact, there's a tradition known as "first-footing", in which the first person to enter a home brings the residents good luck for the coming year -- of course, the guest must be dark-haired and preferably male; redheads and women aren't nearly as lucky! Author Clement A. Miles says in Christmas in Ritual and Tradition that this tradition stems from back when a red- or blonde-haired stranger was probably an invading Norseman. Gifts are exchanged, and one of the popular food items on the Hogmanay menu is the black bun, which is a really rich fruitcake.
In addition to national observance, many local areas have their own customs when it comes to celebrating Hogmanay. In the town of Burghead, Moray, an ancient tradition called "burning the clavie" takes place each year on January 11. The clavie is a big bonfire, fueled primarily by split casks. One of these is joined back together with a big nail, filled with flammable material, and lit on fire. Flaming, it's carried around the village and up to a Roman altar known to residents as the Douro. The bonfire is built around the clavie. When the burnt clavie crumbles, the locals each grab a lit piece to kindle a fire in their own hearth.
In Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, the locals make giant balls of tar, paper and chicken wire. These are attached to several feet of chain or wire, and then set on fire. A designated "swinger" whirls the ball around his head and walks through the village streets to the local harbor. At the end of the festival, any balls still on fire are cast into the water. This is quite an impressive sight in the dark!
The town of Biggar, Lanarkshire, celebrates with a bonfire. In the early 1940s, one or two locals complained about the size of the fire, and celebration organizers agreed to have a smaller fire. This was erected as promised, but before it was lit, the local traditionalists trucked in cartload after cartload if coal and wood, making a giant pyre, which then burned for a whopping five days before running out of fuel!
The Presbyterian church has disapproved of Hogmanay in the past, but the holiday still enjoys a great deal of popularity. If you get a chance to visit Scotland over the winter holidays and want to celebrate with the locals, check out this link for all things Hogmanay-related: Hogmanay.net.