Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Hogmanay blessing

Although it's not quite certain, it's thought that the name "Hogmanay" - which is what the Scots call New Year's Eve - comes from the French word "hoguinane," which itself is ultimately related to the Old French word "aguillaneuf," or a New Year gift. In addition to giving gifts - special gifts that symbolise prosperity, warmth and good will, like food, drink, salt or coal - there is a strong tradition of blessing and divination, and all of these things can be incorporated into a Gaelic Polytheist practice, I think.

One of the most interesting customs that could be revived (because as far as I'm aware it's not done anymore) - in groups where there are enough bodies to do so - is the merry band of the gillean callaig or 'Hogmanay Lads.' The gillean callaig would come round the houses with their songs, bull-hides and sticks, to solicit donations of food and drinks from the household in exchange for a blessing and saining. The sticks would be used to beat around the house as they went around sunwise and called the inhabitants to come out - on the one hand the whole thing was to get the household's attention, but on the other, with the noise and the sunwise turn, and someone dressed in the hide of a magnificent bull, there's the sense of a protective rite, too, scaring away the evil spirits with the noise and a bigger, scarier beast (the bull) as anything that might be around, perhaps. The bull - typically the hide preserved from the winter bull killed at Martinmas - might also symbolise the winter itself, and all of the things that loomed in the season - cold and want, death and illness. The household, in giving the lads hospitality, effectively paid it off, in the hopes of avoiding any of the wintry dangers in future.

Once inside, the bull-hide might be singed and the smoke wafted around the room, just like the juniper and water that would be used the next day, and every member of the household would lean in to inhale the fumes and stench. If the household gave the gillean callaig hospitality to their liking, the lads would leave with a blessing, like this example given by Alexander MacGregor:

Mor-phiseach air an tigh,
Piseach air an teaghlach,
Piseach air gach cabar.
Is air gach ni saoghalt' ann.

Piseach air eich a's crodh,
Piseach air na caoraich,
Piseach air na h-uile ni,
'S piseach air ar maoin uil'.

Piseach air beann an tighe,
Piseach air na paistean,
Piseach air each caraide,
Mor-phiseach agus slaint dhuibh.
Great good luck to the house,
Good luck to the family,
Good luck to every rafter of it,
And to every wordly thing in it.

Good luck to horses and cattle,
Good luck to the sheep.
Good luck to every thing,
And good luck to all your means.

Luck to the good-wife.
Good luck to the children,
Good luck to every friend.
Great fortune and health to all.

This would be said as the head of the gillean callaig went around the hearth (or a proxy - a chair set out specially for the job if the house didn't have an open, central hearth) reciting the blessing, as the rest of the group beat their sticks. Later on in the evening, the household might take to making a right racket themselves, opening the doors and windows as midnight struck, and making as much noise as they could to scare away any evil spirits (and all the negatives of the old year) again. 

A large part of this kind of Hogmanay rite relies on the giving of hospitality. There's an element of challenge at first - the lads beat their sticks and sing their song, demanding to be let in, and it's up to the household to let them in or not (and face the consequences). It all becomes a kind of dance, everyone carefully following the steps in order to maintain a balance at a time when order and chaos are very much hanging. There's an interesting article on all of this - the giving of hospitality, the threshold, and Scottish 'thigging' (sanctioned begging) here, which is well worth a read if you're interested in looking into all of this further. For now, though: Bliadhna mhath ùr dhuibh uile! Agus na h-uile la gu math duibh. Happy New Year everyone! And may all your days be good.