New Year Traditions

It is the night before New Year’s Eve and I am looking forward  to our traditional family gathering during which we feast and play games and feast some more.  I hope that everyone reading this has plans to ring in the new year in their own special way.

Someone asked me about New Year’s traditions as they pertain to Ireland and Scotland. The truth of the matter is that there is no evidence of an indigenous midwinter celebration in Ireland.   In fact, Irish historian Kevin Danaher has made a convincing argument that the four season days of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lúnasa, and Samhain are likely the  indigenous Irish seasonal festivals assimilated by the immigrating Celts and spread to Scotland and other areas where they were celebrated. Hutton concurs pointing out that the stories of the Ulster cycle “do not mention any midwinter feast at all, but emphasize those at the beginning of the seasons.”

It seem likely more likely that Romanized Celts brought the midwinter celebrations with them,  which were very shortly afteward assimilated into Christian customs.  There were  two Roman festivals, surrounding the solstice The first, Saturnalia, was a feast decreed by the emperor Aurelian, in 274 CE beginning first on the 17th of December and lasting several days. The second was Kalandae, a festival held from January 1st to January 3rd was the feast of the new year-January 1st having been declared the official start of the year in 153 BCE. These feasts signified sort of the opening and closing of the midwinter celebrations and spread throughout the empire. Both celebrations included feasting and libations while the Kalandae festival was distinctive from the Saturnalia merrymaking in that gifts were exchanged at this time.

According to Hutton, the date December 25th was the date that Caesar’s official calendar marked the winter solstice and the first day of Saturnalia in later years and it was chosen by the early church as the date to celebrate Christmas for this reason. So ostensibly Christmas and the solstice used to be the on the same day. While successful in replacing Saturnalia with Christmas, the council of Tours also attempted replacing the Kalandae festival with the feast of Epiphany held a bit later in January. The New Year celebrations held fast though and eventually the church conceded the battle and pronounced January 1st the feast of Christ’s circumcision. Consequently we have the custom of the  12 days of Christmas as it was recognized all through the medieval era.  Incidentally gift giving on the New Year rather than Christmas  continued to be the case through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in the UK, with New Year’s gifts being the norm rather than Christmas gifts.

That isn’t to say that significant traditions haven’t developed over the centuries.  Along with  gift giving, another tradition associated specifically with the New Year celebration  is that of the wassail cup. The word “wassail” finds its roots in the phrase waes hael which translates to “be you healthy”   The practice is commemorated by the classic carols  “Here We Come A-Wassailling” and “The Gloucestershire Wassail” which begins:

Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

Her are a couple of links to  authentic wassail recipes:

Traditional English Wassail
Lambswool Wassail

In Ireland,  New Year’s Eve is referred to as Oiche na Coda Moire meaning “night of the large portion”  as it is traditional to eat a large meal on this evening to ensure an upcoming year of plenty.   A ritual Kevin Danaher shares is one in which household members would bang on the door of the house with a large barm brack while the head of the household recite would recite “Happiness in and misfortune out From tonight to this night twelve months In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen” Barm Brack incidentally is the the Irish tea bread I shared the recipe for the other day.  Here is another recipe which mentions the original ingredients. I like the modern ingredients better.

New Year’s Eve is called Hogmanay in Scotland.  The New Year’s tradition there was that of “first-footing” where men wandered the community bringing gifts and luck for the coming year to the household they set first-foot in on New Year’s Day.

Het Pint is the traditional Scottish Hogmanay drink which was carried around by the first-footers in toddy kettles and passed around in cupfuls in a manner very similar to the wassailing tradition.

Het Pint

2 quarts ale
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ cup sucanat or honey
3 large eggs
1 cup Scotch whisky

In a large pan combine the ale and nutmeg and heat through. Add sucanat/honey and stir until dissolved. In another bowl mix the eggs and pour 3/4 hot ale mixture into the eggs beating to blend well. Stir this into the hot ale mixture in the saucepan beating until warm and then stir in the Scotch whisky

Another traditional Hogmanay drink is Atholl Brose.  I’ve run across a lot of really complicated recipes for adding oatmeal to the drink when it really sounds to me like what is being used is a nice thick homemade oatmilk so I simplified the recipe I have to the following recipe:

1 cup of oatmilk
1 cup of honey (traditionally this would have been heather so I like to use wildflower)
2 ½  cup Scotch whisky
1 cup light cream

Bring your oatmilk to a boil and add honey stirring until it is dissolved. Gradually add whisky and stir until it is mixed in well. Stir in the cream and remove from heat.

Spiced CiderOne of our newer favorites for toasting in the New Year is hot buttered rum which is just a nice variation on the hot toddy. I’ve played with this recipe a bit. Most of your traditional hot buttered rum recipes call for boiling water which I have replaced with hot cider. I can’t claim coming up with the idea myself as I saw it on a blog somewhere, but I am very particular about my mulling spices.

Starting by making some mulled  apple cider. I use a modern teaball to hold the mulling spices rather than bothering with tying it up in linen. In each tea ball I place 7 black peppercorns, 6 whole cloves, 6 elder berries, 6 allspice berries, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon chips and some dried orange zest. If I have bits of nutmeg that are left from grinding, I add those too.

Making the mulled cider is easy. Just pour a half gallon of cider into a sauce pan and add the tea ball. Since this is going to have some rum added in, I like to float a few oranges on top, too. I’ve never understood spiking them with cloves because the cloves never get down into the liquid.

Hot Buttered Rum
Hot Buttered Rum

While this is simmering on the stove-top make the rum batter by mixing the following ingredients:

1 cup softened butter
¼- ½ cup sucanat or honey
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon mace
4-5 threads of saffron (special holiday treat)

To make hot buttered rum you simply add 1-2 oz of rum to a glass with a nice scoop of the steaming cider. Top this with a dollop of the rum batter and a dash of cream and stir it around until it melts.  You can add whisky in the place of the rum and maybe even mull some hard cider if you are having a grown up only affair.     The nice part is that the kids can share in the tradition by partaking of only the mulled cider and the batter.

This seems to be the appropriate time to go off on a scientific tangent  because it occurs to me that these traditions are little drink laden.  This makes sense as historically many of the brews put up at the harvest would just be ready for drinking around midwinter.    But it was interesting to me that so  many traditional drink recipes call for eggs, cream or butter, so I read a little more about it.  As it turns out, this practice has been proven prudent by modern science.  These ingredients add saturated fats to the diet.  In addition to keeping you warm when you are out in the cold, saturated fats mitigate the damage that alcohol has on your liver. For some this is probably old news as dietary saturated fat has been studied for therapeutic use in liver disease since the early nineties. One study concluding that a “diet enriched in saturated but not unsaturated fatty acids reversed alcoholic liver injury” attributing the effect to the down-regulation of lipid peroxidation. (Nanji AA, 1995) This study has been backed up by a more recent study which concluded that “formation of triglyceride-enriched lipid droplets and induction of autophagy are protective mechanisms against fatty acid-induced lipotoxicity” (Mei S, 2011) This may be attributed to the fact that ingesting saturated fat increases the production of a hormone called adiponectin which triggers a hepatic signaling pathway resulting in hepatoprotective effect. (You M, 2005)So there you have a brief, and possibly yawn-inducing, foray into the scientific defense of  spending your New Year’s Eve nipping a little wassail or het pint.  As to the concern about eating raw eggs, I’d like to point out that while I haven’t a bit of scientific research to back this up, yet, common sense dictates that mixing the raw eggs with alcohol is likely to kill off disease causing pathogens. Traditional spices included in these recipes are likely to have a similar effect.


Danaher, K. (1982). Irish Folk Tradition and the Celtic Calendar. In R. O. Ed., The Celtic Consciousness (pp. 217-242). New York: George Braziller Inc.
Dowden, J. (1910). The church year and kalendar . Cambridge: Cambridge, The University press .
Hutton, R. (1996). Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: UK: Oxford University Press.
Mei S, N. H. (2011). Differential roles of unsaturated and saturated fatty acids on autophagy and apoptosis in hepatocytes. Journal of Pharmocology and Experimental therapeutics, 487-498.
Nanji AA, S. S. (1995). Dietary saturated fatty acids: a novel treatment for alcoholic liver disease. Gastroenterology, 547-554.
You M, C. R. (2005). Role of adiponectin in the protective action of dietary saturated fat against alcoholic fatty liver in mice. Hepatology, 568-577.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website

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