NOLLAIG is the Gaelic for Christmas, but before anyone starts complaining that's now over and done with for another year, it's not. For Nollaig covers the week-long period from Christmas until New Year's Day. Christmas Day itself was known as Nollaig Mhòr (Big Christmas) and New Year's Day as Nollaig Bheag (Little Christmas).
In my childhood it was a religious and not a shopping festival. Midnight mass was the highlight, when we celebrated the birth of Jesus rather than the arrival of Santa Claus. I don't think he'd been imported into Uist at that time. Travelling by MacBrayne's was perhaps a journey too far. I have no recollection of the red-cloaked figure anyway, though we did receive presents, thanks to my mother's aunt who lived in Alberta and sent wondrous parcels across the ocean. I once received a pair of roller-skates, while my brother got a Rupert Annual.
The real business happened at Hogmanay – Oidhche Chullaig (the night of the Candle or the Pelting), when the youngsters from every village would gather, each with an empty sack, and then walk from house to house to welcome in the New Year. We had a Duan Callaig (Hogmanay Ballad) which we collectively chanted at every door. I can still remember it:
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Tha mise nochd a' tighinn dh'ur n-ionnsaigh
A dh'ùrachadh dhuibh na Callaig,
Cha ruig mi leas a bhith 'ga innse,
Bha i ann ri linn mo sheanar …
(I am coming tonight to you
To renew for you Hogmanay;
I have no need to tell you of it,
It existed in the time of my grandfather …)
And then came the dangerous bit with the tallow candle, carried by one of the lads. This was a stick on which was tied a strip of skin from the breast of a sheep killed at Christmas with rags dipped in tallow and set alight. And in the darkness we'd chant:
Mo chaisean Callaig na mo phòcaid,
'S math an ceò thig as an fhear ud:
Thèid e deiseal air na pàisdean,
Gu h-àraid air bean an taighe …
(My Hogmanay skin-strip in my pocket
And good is the smoke that comes from it:
It will go sun-wise round the children
And especially round the housewife ...)
The chant would finish with the demand: Fosgail an doras is lig a staigh mi (Open the door and let me in),when we'd be given entry into the house and gifts for our sacks. But not before the tallow-candle was handed to every member of the household, who would turn it sunwise above their heads three times. I saw some old people refuse to take it, for if the candle went out as it was passing over a person's head it was a sure sign of death. Better not take that risk.
These and other New Year rituals safeguarded the borders between the past and the future. The fire had to be kept burning all night for it carried you over from one dispensation into the next. It promised continuity. The last wind of the departing year would prove to be the prevailing wind of the coming year.
Not only did you carry the securities of the past forward, you also guarded yourself against the dangers of the future. The first day of the year was a quarter-day (the first day of the first quarter of the year), so precautions were taken for keeping evil from houses and cattle. Houses were dressed with mountain ash, and the animals were marked with tar, and it was unlucky if the first visitor you had in the New Year arrived empty-handed.
Our ancient rituals give us a sense of continuity with the past – the hope (or fear?) that things will always be as they were, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Borders and margins are exciting and dangerous places. You leave one country and enter another; you fall off the edge of the page into the void.
The page in front of us – the new year ahead – is not blank at all. It is already half-filled with the past , like a country which we've never visited but will not astonish us when we get there because we've previously seen it on television. That's a pity, because the future should be a surprise.
The past too is no surprise: it's already back to the future with the Bay City Rollers headlining BBC Scotland's Hogmanay celebrations. Central media has replaced village skin-strips as the signifier of life and death.
May the tallow candle, or the remote control, burn brightly as you turn it sunwise three times. Bliadhn' Ùr Mhath. Happy New Year.