For Auld Lang Syne

Hogmanay in Edinburgh
Hogmanay in Edinburgh
Tonight is the last night of 2010. In various corners of the world people will observe the passing of the old year and welcome the new. The publication of various “top ten” lists from top science news to top gadgets this week reminds us that this is a time for reflecting on the events of the past year before welcoming the opportunities and challenges of the new. In reality of course, it is true that any day can be treated as the first day of the rest of your life, but there is an added significance when the calendar changes as well, heralding the gift of another year, another opportunity to start afresh.

In Scotland New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay) is a big deal, almost a bigger holiday than Christmas. Originating from the old Celtic winter solstice celebrations, the festivities go on all night and are marked in Edinburgh and Glasgow by spectacular fireworks displays and streets packed with revelers. Google “Hogmany” and you can find a variety of traditions associated with this holiday. Some have (thankfully) died out long ago (like dressing up in animal skins and being beaten with sticks), however the traditions of first footing, gathering with friends, and ringing the bells at midnight are still going strong.

Your first foot is the first person who comes into your home after the New Year. The first visitor. Tradition says that it is good luck if your first foot is a tall dark stranger. But in practicality, you take what (or who) you get. The first foot is supposed to bring you a lump of coal (signifying a wish that your home will be warm all year) and a drink (because this is Scotland after all). It seems that the association of dark hair with luck comes from the days when Vikings were common invaders and the sight of a blond stranger approaching your door was most decidedly unlucky. Starting with the tall dark handsome stranger at the top, the “luckiness” of visitors goes down through various other men to women, doctors, and ministers, and finally arrives at grave diggers who are only marginally above Vikings on the scale.

First footing today involves traveling from house to house amongst friends and neighbors greeting each other with a “Happy New Year” and a friendly kiss. In the town where I grew up, the ringing of the midnight “bells” and the sounding of horns from the boats in the harbor marks the passing of the old year and the start of the new. In some places it is traditional to sing the words of Auld Lang Syne as the New Year comes in.

Should Auld Aquaintance Be Forgot?
At it’s essence the New Year celebration is a time to reconnect with friends and family, welcome strangers, and take the time to wish everyone the best in the New Year. As we bid farewell to 2010 and welcome 2011, I hope that you have the opportunity to celebrate with family and friends, to appreciate past associations and together celebrate the new beginning represented by the arrival of another year.

So take my hand my trusty friend
And gies a hand of thine
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet
For the sake of Auld Lang Syne.
Robert Burns

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Isobel Maciver

Isobel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and of Aston University in Birmingham, U.K. She is a technical writer and editor, and is also manager of the Scientific Communications group at Promega. She enjoys writing about issues in science and communication.

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