Five Must-Knows About Hogmanay

The word Hogmanay sounds like it belongs in Harry Potter’s world, but in Scotland, it’s synonymous with December 31 and welcoming the new year.

In the land of wild, rugged landscapes and small-but-significant urban centers, revelers celebrate Hogmanay in a huge way with spectacular fireworks, A-list concerts, carnivals, and parades. Cozy celebrations at home are equally spirited.

“Scotland has always been known as more of a New Year’s place than a Christmas place,” says Joseph Winders, chief concierge at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh.

In Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland, hotels are often jubilant hubs of Hogmanay, when visitors enjoy fancy dinners and boisterous champagne toasts.

Here’s what else I discovered about this epic party, including something I already knew (the last one):

1. Edinburgh is host to one of the world’s biggest parties.

Edinburgh’s population swells twice a year: during August’s Edinburgh Festivals and during Hogmanay, when it plays host to the massive Princes Street party.

Years ago, it used to be a free for all, but party-goers must now purchase a wristband for entry (at a cost of £15 this year). Though places like New York City’s Times Square pack in more people, Edinburgh plays host to a slew of events over several days, including a triathlon, a carnival, a torchlight procession, and even a dog-sled race called Dogmanay!

2. It’s the most social event of the year in Scotland.
“It takes the Scots to show the world how to party,” says Ivor Renwick, chief doorman and the last remaining original staff member at Edinburgh’s Scotsman Hotel. “You have to witness it for yourself to really feel it.”

The Scotsman’s fantastic views of Princes Street make it an ideal home base for Hogmanay. But for many Scots, Hogmany is the time to see friends and family, so homes are made ready for visitors. Proving just how important the New Year’s celebrations are in Scotland, January 1 and 2 are both bank holidays.

3. The Balmoral’s legendary clock is only correct on Hogmanay.
The Balmoral’s clock tower is a proud Edinburgh mainstay year-round, but especially on New Year’s Eve. “It’s always set three minutes fast because it’s above a railway station and we don’t want people to miss their trains,” says Winders. But sometimes it’s good to break with tradition. Once a year, on Hogmanay, the clock reflects the correct time because it acts as the official timepiece as the city counts down to the new year.

The Balmoral hosts the glamorous, sell-out Hogmanay Gala Ball each year, with celebratory cocktails, highlands dancing, pipes and drums, and, of course, “Auld Lang Syne.” Traditional dress is worn, with men in kilts and ladies in sashes. At midnight, revelers gather at the champagne bar on the second floor to watch fireworks burst over Edinburgh Castle. (After chatting with several Scots, I’ve added the Hogmanay Gala Ball to my lifetime travel wish list.)

4. Gleneagles is about more than just golf.

You know it’s a fabulous party when guests make a tradition of returning to year after year. That’s the case at Gleneagles, a resort known worldwide for its golf courses (it will host the 2014 Ryder Cup) that has been setting the standard for Hogmanay revelry for a decade straight.

“A lot of the regulars book their rooms on their departure day for the next year’s Hogmanay,” says Guest Relations Manager Iris Marhencke. “For the Hogmanay dinner, which has a dress code of ‘Black Tie and Touch of Tartan,’ we will offer Scottish country dancing lessons during the day,” she says. The hotel also provides a fortune-telling station, a military-style band with bagpipers and drums that plays when the clock strikes midnight (known as “The Bells”), and a late-night feast in the first hours of the new year.

5. A tall, handsome man is good luck.
First-footing is one of the most important traditions of Hogmanay, when neighbors go next door to be the first to cross the threshold to welcome in the new year. “The tradition is that the first person who comes into anybody’s house should be a tall, dark handsome man,” Ivor Renwick says (though he claims ignorance on  the tradition’s origins).

Handsome or not, every”first foot” that crosses into their neighbor’s home is expected to bring a gift for their hosts. In return for being the first over the hearth, the first foot receives a gift (usually a lump of coal, salt, whisky, shortbread, or cookies) and the promise of good luck in the new year.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her travels on Twitter @anniefitz.