New Year — Used To Think It was Just a Scottish Thing.

20 Dec

We never celebrated New Year much when I was a kid growing up in Chesterfield, in England’s East Midlands. For my family, it was just a Scottish thing. Afterall, “Hogmanay” doesn’t sound very English does it? On flickering black and white television we watched shows beamed into our living room from Glasgow or Edinburgh presented by men in kilts. First of all I had to put up with  a kilted Kenneth McKellor, who my mum loved, singing earnest but tedious songs such as ” Bonny Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond” in his rich, tenor voice. Things livened up a bit when boring Kenneth was replaced by cheeky Andy Stewart, who my mum hated. She would sit there with a sour expression on her face, enduring his naughty rendition of “Donald Where’s Yer Troosers?” while I sniggered in the background. These shows invariably featured marching bagpipers, Highland dancing and much talk of Haggis eating. Live pictures came in of a massive open-air party in Princes Street, Edinburgh. Finally, after the striking of the midnight hour, came the traditional singing of ” Auld Lang Syne”, a mysterious song full of incomprehensible Scottish slang, which was originally published by Robbie Burns in the late 18th century. You cannot get much more Scottish than that!

Of course, I conveniently forgot the massed throngs in Trafalgur Square, London, plus all the people listening in reverence to the 12 chimes of Big Ben, before exploding into celebration. No doubt, even in provincial Chesterfield, people were celebrating at parties and gatherings, but in our house nothing much happened, apart from me speculating what lay under Andy Stewart’s kilt and what on earth he stored in his sporran. ( I still don’t know.) We had spent most of our money and energy on Christmas. Afterall, that was a “proper” festival because it was religious. The church, or I should say the chapel, ruled in our household. My cousin Avril, who also grew up in Chesterfield, told me that her father, my Uncle Leslie, was often chosen to be a “first-footer” as he was ” tall, dark and handsome.” Apparently, his task was to visit neighbour’s houses in the first hour of the New Year and poke their fires. This was supposed to bring them good luck. I’ve read about tall, dark first-footers arriving with a piece of coal to put on the open fire, again to bring good fortune. It must have been a pretty dirty job being a temporary coalman. Presumably this tradition died out with the coming of gas fires and central heating. ( Santa must also now have a big problem, trying to climb down non-existent chimneys.) So Chesterfield did acknowledge the turning of the year, even though it was largely ignored in our house.

Much later, in 1979, I moved up to Whitley Bay near Newcastle upon Tyne with my first wife and young family. New Year seemed to be much bigger in the North-east, maybe because of the proximity of the Scottish border. ( Yes, I’m still clinging to this Scottish theory!) We ended up going to New Year’s Eve parties and joining in all the traditions. We didn’t eat haggis however as we were vegetarians. We had some good times but not all our attempts to be jolly New Year revellers  were a 100% success. Our one try at first-footing was a disaster as the people we called on pretended to be asleep and didn’t open the door! So they were warm and snug in bed while we shivered on their path outside, frustrated that we weren’t being allowed to be festive!  Then there was the time in the 80’s when we decided to have an “at home” on New Year’s Day. We issued plenty of invites, got in all the food and drink, re-arranged the furniture, sorted out the background music, and waited. We waited and waited but not one person knocked on the door. So our New Year started with an embarrasing anti-climax! Instead of feeling popular and wanted, we felt neglected and rejected. We also had a hell of a lot of food to consume!

Despite these set-backs I have usually taken part in New Year celebrations since leaving home. As time has marched on, the festival has inexorably grown. Its definitely no longer a merely Scottich phenomenum. The closeness of Christmas and New Year on the calender has led to the 2 festivals virtually merging into one big one with most of the country closing down for the duration. However, the turning of the year did not always have totally positive connotations for me. For much of my life, it has signified that the holiday was almost over with the unwelcome reality of the return to work getting uncomfortably close. January 1st always felt colder and bleaker to me than December 31st.

The New year also means resolutions. How could I not mention that? This was one tradition that even my family embraced. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve vowed to stop biting my poor nails. I was usually gnawing them to a quick again shortly after returning to school. In more recent times, my resolutions have been about getting more exercise, eating a heathier diet or embracing a greener life-style. The results have been mixed but at least I’m trying. ( Some people say — very trying!) However, I think it’s good to set oneself targets for self-improvement even though they may not be 100% met.

The two-faced Roman god Janus, as well as giving his name to January, is very suited for the turn of the year. One face looks back, reflecting on the past year. The other face looks expectantly forward full of hope for the future. This is the time when nostalgic memories are stirred but in the same swirl of thoughts, new plans are made and aspirations launched. As soon as the reviews of the past year have finished, our esteemed leaders announce their plans and hopes for the new year. Unfortunately, just like my nail-preservation wishes, our politicians’ hopes for peace and harmony are usually quickly dashed by a new round of: arguments, disputes, outrages and wars. I sometimes think of January 1st as being like a lawn covered with a carpet of fresh, pristine snow. Just for a moment it is beautiful. But then everyday life walks all over it, soils it and its fragile beauty and the hope it symbolises is destroyed.

As with Christmas, I’ve had a strange and changing relationship with New Year as the years have passed. It has long since ceased being an amusing Scottish side-show. It has gradually inched towards centre stage. At times I have found the festival to be more and more emotionally -laden. The increasing hype surrounding it has sometimes made me feel a miserable failure if I didn’t have anything special to do on the evening of December 31st. I was like a teenager stuck at home on a Saturday night! Subsequently though, as I have grown more secure within myself, I have actually looked forward to a peaceful evening in on my own or with my partner, thankful that I didn’t have to be in the midst of a “jolly” crowd. I didn’t have to pretend to know the words of Auld Lang Syne and didn’t have to kiss a load of people I only half knew. Then at the end, one can still watch the free firework show provided by all the neighbours.

Over the decades, New Year has proved to be something of an emotional roller-coaster ride for me. It has acted as an annual barometer of my self-esteem and a measure of my self-development. It has led me through a whole gamut of emotions which I have somehow survived. But having said all that, I still don’t know what a Scotsman keeps in his furry sporran! I must Google it!


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