by Beth Schreibman Gehring
“The house was bright that night, with candles lit in the windows, and bunches of holly and ivy fixed to the staircase and the doorposts. There were not so many pipers in the Highlands as there had been before Culloden, but one had been found, and a fiddler as well, and music floated up the stairwell, mixed with the heady scent of rum punch, plum cake, almond squirts, and Savoy biscuits…Something of the light of that Hogmanay feast lingered on his face, and I felt a small pang, seeing it.”
Diana Gabaldon – Voyager
In Scotland, December 26th marks the beginning of the week leading up to Hogmanay, a yearly celebration of farewell that takes place on December 31st. The history of Hogmanay is somewhat vague, with roots beginning in the 16th century. It’s an ancient celebration of the arrival of the New Year in a way that’s full of fire and ritual.
A contemporary New Year’s Eve celebration has never held much interest for me, so instead, for many years when we still lived on our farm in Burton, we would gather on December the 31st for a Hogmanay inspired celebration, fueled by really good single malt, folk music, celebratory bonfires, soup, roasted meats, and candlelight. I have always felt a deep affinity for anything and everything Scottish, and I married a man with a deeply Celtic soul, a family tartan, and a love of raucous gatherings.
Windesphere, our farm, was built in 1848 by a Scotsman named Samuel McBride, and our home was perched atop a hill lined with willow trees. It was a magical place to gather with my family for any holiday, but the quiet of New Year’s Eve after the hustle of the holidays was perfect.
Living on that small farm gave me a completely different connection to the natural world and it was easy for me to imagine what it must have been like in centuries past as the days got longer and colder and darker. I am completely sure that the attitude with which the New Year would have been greeted is one of absolute revelry.
Loving any excuse for continuing wassailing and caroling, the week after Christmas would find me preparing for the New Year, making clove-studded oranges and lady apples to simmer in apple cider, red wine, more spices, rosemary, hops, honey, rum, and ale for my traditional New Year’s wassail bowl. In some parts of Scotland, wassailing is a still a traditional part of the Hogmanay celebrations, and in centuries past the farmers and their families would go out to their orchards, singing at the top of their lungs while drenching the trees with the delicious wassail and hanging wassail-soaked toast in the branches. This ritual would supposedly get rid of any evil spirits lingering, while blessing the trees so that the following year would bring an abundant harvest.
Every December 31st, after a very thorough house cleaning and smudging with a blend of sage, lavender, and pine, out would come the fragrant bayberry and beeswax tapers that I’d been saving for months. They would be lit, infused with our intentions for an abundant year. We’d then lift our glasses to toast the new year and “sain” the house, an old Hogmanay blessing custom from the Scottish Highlands. Years before I even knew what I was doing, I’d take a crystal pitcher and dunk it into the artesian spring by our barn, and then I’d bring the fresh water in to use for the blessing, sprinkling it all over the hearth, rugs, and beds, finishing with hugs and kisses all around. Traditionally in Scotland and in my home, “Auld Lang Syne” is sung to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight as the wheel turns to the new year.
One of the most well-known traditions of Hogmanay is called ‘first footing’. When the first visitor to a household in the new year appears, he will traditionally bring gifts that are thought to bring great fortune and luck to the house in the coming new year. The person who has the honor of first footing the household (hopefully a dark haired man for the best kind of luck!) gets a healthy dram of whisky, cookies, and plenty of kisses for his trouble!
Living as far out as we did, there weren’t a lot of dark handsome strangers roaming about, so instead, when my son and nephew were still very small, we would pretend that we were Vikings and build a large bonfire up on the back hill. Then we’d wander out into the pastures to look and listen for the first owls at midnight, a new year’s pastime we still call “owling”.
We’d walk through the back woods as quietly as we could, and if we were lucky we’d see deer as well as the occasional fox or raccoon. Suddenly, the three of us would be taken by surprise by a great span of wings overhead, powerful yet unearthly quiet. We’d stand very still, huddled warmly together, and we’d wait for the hoots to begin! It always felt like the very best kind of good fortune with which to begin the New Year!
In those shared moments, I learned that magic is truly possible when allowed to bubble away happily in the cauldron of your heart. We three had so much fun stalking the wild things ever so quietly under the New Year’s moonlight while splashing cups of wassail all about, tying pieces of wassail soaked toast onto our apple trees and hanging homemade pinecone ornaments of bird seed and peanut butter for the winter birds to enjoy!
Life is very good this year and I am most grateful for it all, especially my husband’s good health and my beautiful new grandson.
As I write, my dog Malcolm is sleeping peacefully in the corner and my cats are curled up on the couch by the fire with not a care in the world, totally stoned on fresh catnip sent by a friend. I’m filled with the peace of another year gone swiftly by, making potato leek soup and watching the snow falling softly outside my kitchen window.
I wish all of you a warm and cheery Hogmanay, filled with love, peace, joy, and everything else that you could possibly desire and more. As they say in Scotland, “Lang may your lum reek.”
I feel so blessed to have all of you in my life. Thank you for reading my words and letting me know that they’ve touched you.
It means everything to me.
See you on the other side of 2022!
Beth’s Wassail recipe:
First things first! Make several pomanders using some of the smaller apples that you’ve picked as the base. You’ll do this by taking the apples and studding them with cloves in all manner of beautiful patterns. While you’re doing this, create patterns that you love and use them as a simple way to make a very good wish for a safe, abundant, and love filled New Year. Then do the same with several small seedless oranges and set them aside. Use as many cloves as you wish, because the fragrance will be absolutely intoxicating! When you’re ready to use them , slice the oranges in half. Remove the core from the apples and halve them as well.
Then in your favorite cauldron (I used to make this in a cast iron pot on top of my wood burning stove when I lived in the country) add one gallon of freshly pressed cider, two cups of honey, one tablespoon of fresh powdered cinnamon, about five large cinnamon sticks, one teaspoon of good vanilla extract and half a teaspoon of fresh nutmeg, five star anise pods, three tablespoons of dried or fresh rose petals for love (from your garden if you have them), one tablespoon of fresh rosemary for remembrance, about one cup of dried hops flowers for relaxation and fertility, and the pomanders.
Bring this all to a lovely rolling boil and then turn down the heat so it’s just simmering. Add one bottle of very good red wine, a couple of bottles of dry hard cider and about two and a half cups of dark spiced rum, and then stir in one stick of salted organic butter. You can add more honey if you’d like a bit more sweetness, or even brown sugar. Let it simmer for about 15 minutes then turn down the heat. Keep this hot but not boiling and serve it happily and carefully, as this is one potent brew!
Beth Schreibman Gehring is a lover of all things green, delicious, growing, beautiful, magical, and fragrant. She’s also a lifestyle blogger, storyteller, and occasional wedding and party planner who uses an ever-changing seasonal palette of love, life, and food to help her readers and clients fall madly in love with their lives! Beth lives and works with Jim, her husband of 40 years, and is owned by 17 full sets of vintage dishes, hundreds of books, two cats, one dog, a horse, a swarm of wild honeybees, a garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and old rambling roses, too many bottles of vintage perfume and very soon, a flock of heirloom chickens! In 2014 she took a stab at writing a book called Stirring the Senses: How to Fall Madly in Love with Your Life and Make Everyday a Day for Candles & Wine. Available on Amazon! Join her in her gardens at https://bethschreibmangehring.substack.com/, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org