A holiday by any other name is Hogmanay

Celebrating Christmas in the days of Fort Victoria

In the 1840s and 50s there was conflict at Fort Victoria between the early Hudson’s Bay Company men over the issue of whether they ought to have Christmas Day off as a holiday.

The HBC men of the fort were divided, more or less, into two groups: one was the lower-ranking French-Canadian Catholic contingent of experienced fur traders and trappers, and one was a higher-ranked, mainly Scottish Protestant officer class.

The French Canadians embraced Christmas and all its merry traditions and were staunchly in favour of having the day off.

The Scots, on the other hand, were reluctant to permit it, as they were mainly Presbyterian and their Calvinist doctrine bade that they only observe feast days that were specifically mentioned in the Bible.

There is, of course, no scriptural support for Dec. 25 as the actual birthday of Jesus Christ, and it is entirely accepted by scholars that this date was chosen by the church as Christ’s feast day as it corresponded with pre-existing “pagan” holy days that centred around the winter solstice. That way, people who converted would be keeping the same calendar, just worshipping a different deity. It made for an easier transition.

Pre-Christian cultures around the world celebrated the solstice with feasts and rituals, from Juul in Scandinavia, to Saturnalia in ancient Rome, to Chaomos, which is still marked today by the Kalasha people of Pakistan.

The First Nations people here in Victoria also marked the solstice season, and the early journals from fort record the smoke from great fires and the sound of the drums and dances echoing across the harbor from the Songhees village.

The majority of Catholics and Anglicans won out at fort Victoria and were given the day off, though it normally devolved into a drunken mess. Many men spent the night and Boxing Day in the brig of one of the fort’s bastions, sleeping it off.

The Presbyterian tradition in the meantime was to treat Dec. 25 as if it were any other day. Indeed between the 16th and mid-19th centuries, Christmas was rarely acknowledged in Scotland, and certainly not by the Kirk (church). Instead, the Scots at home and even here in Fort Victoria preferred to celebrate Hogmanay at the new year instead.

The origin of the word Hogmanay is debatable. It seems to be related to the Viking tradition of Yule, whose preceding feast was called ‘Hoggo-naut’ and it echoes a Norman tradition of going around door to door and giving out gifts on the last day of the year.  This is but one of myriad potential etymologies from languages including Anglo-Saxon, French, Gaelic and Norse.

The core of the tradition is to gather with friends and loved ones, and to exchange gifts and food. A feeling of welcome is the most important part of the night, but there are all sorts of wonderful superstitious rituals that go along with Hogmanay, like clearing the ashes from your fire and throwing them out, or cleaning your house before midnight, or ensuring that all your debts are clear before you start the new year.

All these little traditions have the same theme (as did the ancient pagan rituals of solstice) of starting with a clean slate and a fresh perspective when embarking on the new solar cycle.

My favourite old Hogmany ritual is that of “first-footing”.  For good luck, you were meant to ensure that the first foot through your door after midnight of New Year’s was male, dark complexioned, and bearing symbolic gifts of whisky, salt, black bun, shortbread, and coal.

Pre-Christian (and not a few Christian) Scots celebrated Hogmany by lighting bonfires, and parading through town in cattle skins. The famous swinging fireballs seen in modern festivals in towns across Scotland continue the tradition today, as does the primal sense of shared celebration, which has served to cement familial and community bonds for millenia.

There are regional variations to the celebration across the country, but all contain the same core themes. The Presbyterians of the 16th through 20th centuries would not necessarily have embraced all of these ancient rituals, but at least the convivial gatherings, gift giving, and sense of togetherness would have been observed.

With the 20th century the Presbyterian church began to include a Christmas service more frequently in its liturgical calendar, though today there are some congregations that still do not observe Dec. 25.

In Fort Victoria, the Songhees, Presbyterian, Catholic and Anglican people may not have observed the exact same holiday, with the exact same name, but the rituals, metaphors, stories and timings of these festivals had an awful lot in common: messages of renewal, light and community.

•••

Kate Humble is an historian and the education curator for the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. Questions can be sent to: khumble@mmbc.bc.ca.

 

 

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