First-footing at Hogmanay

Traditionally, in Scotland Christmas was a purely religious festival and New Years or Hogmanay was the main holiday. John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian church considered Christmas to be Papist and so it was banned for nearly 400 years.  Christmas became a public holiday  only in 1958.

The Presbyterian Church generally disapproved of Hogmanay as well. Its roots go back to the pagan celebration of the winter solstice among the Norse. The winter festival went underground with the Protestant Reformation and ensuing years but reemerged near the end of the 17th century, the time of my novel Exiled from Eden.

John Dean was a serious Presbyterian and probably would not have approved of the pagan rituals of Hogmanay. However, I could not resist incorporating the custom of first-footing in my novel. This is the most widespread custom that starts immediately after midnight. The first person across the threshold of a friend or neighbour must bring a symbolic gift of salt, coal, shortbread, whisky or a black bun. A tall, handsome, dark-haired man was strongly preferred. According to popular folklore, a man with dark hair was welcomed because he was assumed to be a fellow Scot; a blond or red-haired stranger was assumed to be an unwelcome Norseman.

My mother tells me that they had Scottish neighbours in Edmonton who always requested my grandfather Everett Dean should be the first across their threshold on New Years Eve. So I thought it only fitting that his great-great-great-grandfather John Dean should be in demand for first-footing in Ellon back in the 1780’s!

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