Scots Mark New Year With Fiery Ancient Rites

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In Stonehaven, a town on Scotland's east coast, the Ancient Fireballs Ceremony unfolds as sixty locals march through the town swinging large flaming spheres over their heads.

Even more extreme is the ritual known as Up Helly Aa, which is carried out in towns in the Shetland Islands on the last Tuesday in January. A custom dating only back to the early 1800s, Up Helly Aa involves entire towns dressing up as Vikings and ceremonially burning a replica of a Viking ship—followed by raucous celebrating.

No one can say for sure which traditions came from exactly where exactly when, only that thousands of years of history have blended to create the cultural centerpiece of the Scottish holiday season.

Hogma-what?

Even the origin of the word Hogmanay is a subject of debate. A few possibilities: It may derive from the Gaelic oge maiden meaning "new morning"; the Celtic hogunnus meaning "new year"; hoog min dag, a Flemish-Dutch phrase meaning "great love day"; or the Old French word aguillanneuf, which refers to both the last day of the year and the gift traditionally given on that day. The last possibility seems especially likely since one of the old Scottish traditions was for children to run from door to door on New Year's Eve asking for presents and shouting, Hogmanay!

Whatever its origins, Hogmanay is an integral part of Scottish culture today. Apparently, one day to recover isn't enough: January 2nd is an official holiday in Scotland, too.

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