Hogmanay is something of a religious experience for my husband, he says half seriously - as close as it gets for him, anyway. So while we've had another quiet one, just us together with a curry, whisky and wine, it is indeed a special time.The past and the future hang in the balance, and in between it all, there's family. The people who are really important.
One year we went on holiday to the Maldives - just as George Bush was announced president in (some said) dubious circumstances and much controversy. I was still at university, in the middle of my final year and desperately trying to stay on top of my dissertation as well as everything else, and off we went to a tiny island in the arse end of nowhere, and celebrated the new year mid-air with a tiny plastic cup of cheap fizz courtesy of the airline. I was banned from doing any coursework, just some much needed relaxing. We snorkelled, we ate, we drank, we indulged ourselves with a bizarre massage (a marma massage - that I learnt about as it happened...), and watch a meteor shower on the beach and marvelled at it until we realised we were absolutely surrounded by crabs crawling around everywhere...Hmm.
Another year, we went to Tunisia over the new year, and my dear husband surprised me with a marriage proposal (which he'd planned for Hogmanay, but it didn't quite work out that way...he ended up proposing the day before and surprised me with a ring). The hotel we were staying at had a seven-course meal and an evening of entertainment planned, but the hotel was more than a little odd, we thought, and it didn't bode well when we went to the lift to go to the restaurant that evening, to find that the theme tune from M*A*S*H* was playing on a muzak tape over the speakers. 'Cos suicide is painless...
Five hours later and only two or three courses down - one of which was a small piece of melon, and another of which was a prawn cocktail, which neither of us eat - we gave up, having seen in the new year with a couple from the Navy who were sat at our table and clearly unhappy at having to share. We ended up booking a Saharan tour for the rest of our stay, and that was great fun. For my husband, especially, seeing as most of the sights we saw involved various sets from Star Wars.
Another Hogmanay, sometime after we were married, we have a quiet night in and after the bells my husband phones his parents to tell them that they're going to be grandparents - their third grandchild, but our first, and oh is everyone hoping it'll be a boy to carry on the family name...No pressure on my uterus or anything.
The year after that, we have friends staying - they've come to meet Tom for the first time since he was born that September. One of the couples has brought their daughter with them - only three at the time - so the morning after we go for a walk with Eddie (my dog) to the park to give the kids some fresh air and Eddie a good run around. We talk about this and that, including how my grandad's doing - his health and mind have been declining for a while now, but the doctors have been trying experimental drugs with him and they seem to be helping a little. I'm upbeat and optimistic about it all, hoping that if he has to end up like his mother did, then maybe the drugs will buy him some time at least.
We come home and my husband takes me into the front room to tell me that my dad's phoned. I know it's bad because he chokes as he tries to tell me, and just pulls me into a big bear hug so he doesn't have to look at me as he tells me, and so he knows that I have someone there, to collapse on, scream at, rage against, cry into, whatever. My grandad's had a massive heart attack whilst out for a walk with my nan - his wife of at least 50 years - and on this day, new year's day 2006, he's dead. Suddenly, horrifically, messily dead. Totally unexpected. My dad left a message to the effect that my nan doesn't want anyone to go and view the body. She feels it would be too distressing, given his state - death wasn't pretty, for Poppy, as me me and my sister called him. Ten years earlier, only a few days later to the day, my (maternal) gran did the same. I know how it goes.
The house is quiet. After the shock settles, I cry. I go upstairs to have a bath and some time alone before having to face everyone and feed Tom. Life goes on.
But thinking back now it all reminds me that life is precarious. There's good, there's bad, there's things that don't really bear commenting on, one way or another. Considering previous years, the year just past probably rates in my top ten. There have been tough spots and fears, but nonetheless I can't complain. I'm thankful.
I guess aside from finally getting the idea that yes - Hogmanay is a big deal and for my husband to continually choose a quiet one - ish - with my own self is truly the biggest compliment I could ever receive from him, it's poignant in another respect too. We went down south to my hometown for Christmas, spending the day with my sister and mum. We dropped in on dad and his girlfriend too, and only briefly got to see my nan. It was poignant for me because the kids were really looking forward to going to see my family again - it's been a long while since we managed a trip altogether, so it was long overdue. At Samhainn I reminisced with the kids about those in the family that I've loved and lost. I told them stories about my childhood, about the grandparents who are no longer with us. I showed them pictures.
At all of three years old, Rosie seems have taken my grandad 'Poppy' to heart. She loves visiting my nan, and knows that my nan and Poppy were married. They should be a pair, as far as she's concerned, still. She doesn't understand why there are pictures of him and Tom, but not herself, as babies. She was upset when I told her she couldn't see him this time round, when we spoke about it just before Christmas, so this New Year's, marking the fifth anniversary of his death, is doubly meaningful to me. It's a big reminder that even when things are going well, things can be so unpreidactable. Life can throw a curveball or two, at a moment's notice. Sometimes they're a good sort of curveball, sometimes not so much. Most of the time, expect the unexpected.
This is what I associate the new year with - and while I'm sure many go with Samhainn or Bealltainn as the 'official' new year, or even Imbolc, Hogmanay is it for me. It's one of the few times I can join in with others, including having someone in the family scheduled to visit for a first foot, to ensure a good omen. While we had a good first foot (technically my husband, who fits the general stereotype of an auspicious firstfooter), I woke up on New Year's day with Tom informing me that Mungo had shat in the spare room. Nice.
As wake up calls go, not the best. But considering previous form for the day, maybe not the worst? I do hope so. Yesterday was spent at the in-laws with the usual steak pie dinner and surprising sobriety all round. It's rude not to arrive with something, so the kids and I made some sugar doughnut muffins to take over - a compromise, really, because coming from a long line of bakers I don't think my shortbread will ever pass muster compared to what my father-in-law grew up with (even if my efforts are dinosaur shaped, as the kids insist on). But I know my mother-in-law likes the muffins, having done those before, so I did those and received the surprise honour of a promise of the family black bun recipe in return after the offerings had been officially tasted. There's no one in the family to carry it on, and a black bun requires skill and dedication apparently. I feel honoured to even be considered.
But still, returning to the whole Hogmanay theme, we ate, we drank, and before that we all spent the day cleaning and tidying the house from top to bottom to make sure it was in good order for the new year to enter into. I sained the house and made offerings throughout the day (though I've yet to make any bannocks, properly) and as it happens, stumbled across a Scots version of a saining in a book of children's nursery rhymes, which I thought I'd share:
Wha sains the hoose the nicht?
They that sains it ilka nicht -
Saint Bryde an her brat,
Saint Colme an his hat,
Saint Michael an his spear,
Keep this hoose frae the weir,
Frae rinnin thief,
Frae burnin thief,
An frae a' ill rea
That by the gate can gae,
An frae an ill wicht
That by the gate can licht.*
(Who blesses the house tonight?
They that bless it every night -
Saint Brigid and her mantle,
Saint Columba and his hat,
Saint Michael and his spear,
Keep this house from the fear,
From running thief,
From burning thief,
And from all ill trouble
That goes by the road,
And from an ill (meaning) fellow
That by the road can light.)
I've never seen one so explicit, I don't think, so it certainly piqued my interest.
And so with that, all that's left for me to do is raise a glass to my grandad's honour, and then wish you all a good year. May it be one of peace and plenty, health and good wishes to you all.
Beannachd diathan dhuibh.
*From Traditional Scottish Nursery Rhymes, by Norah and William Montgomerie, 1985, p122, with my own translation.