Archive for December, 2009

Hogmanay is  the Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration, although by all accounts, much wilder than how your average American rings in the New Year.  Its roots go back so far that the origin of the word itself is no longer known, but it originated in deep winter celebrations of sun and fire, and moved from there into the Roman Saturnalia, a Baccanalian event if ever there was one.  The Reformation drove much of the Hogmanay celebrations underground until the 17th Century, and in recent years, they have become far more extravagant even than what most of the 20th Century knew. 

Hogmanay celebrations these days are large events, often held at castles.  They include music of all sorts, rock bands, pipe bands, drinking, revelry, lots of kissing– it is New Year’s Eve, after all–fire ceremonies, swinging fire balls, fireworks, and singing of Auld Lang Syne.  In smaller towns, Hogmanay may be celebrated with ceilidhs (dances).

One youtube clip shows “1000 Pipers” marching down the Royal Mile outside of Edinburgh Castle: 1000 Pipers  Be prepared: this is a lot of bagpipes!  And I’m saying that like it’s a good thing.  It’s quite a sight to see so many marching in their kilts and sporrans, all playing together.

Scottish History at Suite 101 explains the reasoning behind the “first footing” tradition of it being considered good luck for the first person to cross your door at midnight to be a tall, dark-haired man: in the days of the Viking attacks, you didn’t want to see shorter, blonde men.  They were often raiding, pillaging, and raping.

Interestingly, as I search for details on how Niall might have celebrated at Glenmirril, I find that, with the exception of a few sketchy paragraphs about old traditions, and no details as to just how old those traditions are, there is virtually nothing.  There is plenty about medieval Christmases, but no mention of Hogmanay in the same period.  As Niall lived just after the days of the Viking raids, he may have still been celebrating very much like their Yule, which is also thought to have been a strong influence on Scottish Hogmanay.  He lived long before the Reformation that drove it underground, so chances are high that he did in fact celebrate it.

January 1, in medieval times, was not the new year.  That happened in March, by the Julian calendar by which they still lived.  For them, it commemorated the circumcision of Jesus which, according to Jewish custom, happened on the eighth day.

Only with January 6 did the medieval population conclude the Christmas season.  It is on this 12th day after the birth of Jesus, that the wise men, the magi from the East, are said to have found him.  They gave him gold for kingship, frankincense for the priesthood, and myrrh symbolizing death.  It must have been a heart-breaking gift for Mary, knowing what lay in store for her newborn son.  In remembrance of the gifts they gave, this was the day of gift-giving at that time.


Sources:,,,,,, Children’s Literature…

December 28 was Childermass Day in the medieval calendar, known today as the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  It is the day Herod slaughtered all the baby boys two and under, in his hunt for the newborn king he believed to be a threat to himself. 

One source reports that children were beaten on this day in memory of Herod’s cruelty.  As a rule, the day was considered ill-luck: not a day to marry, or take on a new project.  Edward IV would not be crowned on Childermass Day.  And throughout the following year, on whatever day of the week Childermass fell, no new clothes would be bought, and no new undertakings begun, on that day.

But by far the most interesting part of Childermass day is the issue of the boy bishops.  Throughout Europe, and especially England, the day was celebrated by making a boy both bishop and head of the town for one day.  At first reading, it sounds like a joke of sorts, something for fun and laughs.  But on further reading, it’s an eye-opening look at medieval society and medieval childhood. 

Prior to the advent– no pun intended– of Protestantism, the ‘boy bishops’ were elected on the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6.  Throughout the Christmas season, they presided over various festivals from then until Candlemas on February 2.  On December 28, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, the boy bishops preached sermons.  (It is interesting to note that, for a time reputed to be so patriarchal, some places had girls preaching, too.)  The earliest records of  boy bishops date from the 1220′s, in York, Salisbury, and St. Paul Cathedrals, delineating their duties.  There are also surviving records of the miniature copes, staffs, and rings used by these boys.

The boy bishop, elected by his peers, headed an entire group of school or choir boys, all replacing their elders in the performance of various duties within the religious service, for 24 hours, beginning with Vespers on the night of December 27. 

Warren Wood discusses these sermons in his book Children’s Literature of the Early Renaissance.  He gives a fascinating and detailed contextual background in which the sermons were preached, telling of the various feasting and customs surrounding the day of the Holy Innocents, before examining the three surviving sermons from that time. 

That from St. Paul’s Cathedral is ‘direct and homely,’ while the one written by Richard Ramsey of Gloucester Cathedral and delivered by John Stubs, Boy Bishop of 1558, was ‘racy and colloquial with a spicy vernacular flavor.’  Wooden reports, however, that they were “far more than mockeries of adult sermons,” but rather dealt with serious subjects.  The three surviving sermons may have had very different tones, but all dealt with the subject of the feast day, the slaughter of the Innocents, and each discusses the New Testaments attitudes about children, particularly that found in Matthew 18, the admonition that unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.

Wooden goes on to make a fascinating distinction between the middle ages’ view of what makes one childlike– innocence and purity– in contrast to the much later Romantics’ ‘veneration’ of chronological childhood, and further mentions that at least one sermon stresses there are elements of childhood, such as frivolity, which are not what Matthew is speaking of.

The tradition of boy bishops lasted for several centuries, ending with the Protestant Reformation.