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Auld Lang Syne

John Masey Wright and John Rogers’ illustration of the poem “Auld Lang Syne,” circa 1841 (Public domain)

"Get your haggis right here! Chopped heart and lungs boiled in a wee sheep's stomach! Tastes as good as it sounds! Good for what ails ya!" – Groundskeeper Willie, "The Simpsons"

Yeah, about those lungs: The FDA banned them for sale as food back in 1971. So Willie must’ve procured his through the black market.

Otherwise, he’s spot on about the composition of haggis. Mix in some minced liver, beef suet, oatmeal and spices, and you have Scotland’s national dish.

Sound yummy? You can taste for yourself during the Hogmanay celebration scheduled for 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Oliver Miller Homestead in South Park.

Yeah, about Hogmanay:

Ever wonder why we sing a song that opens with a Lowland Scots phrase to launch each year? Robert Burns composed “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788 to accompany the already long-standing Scottish celebration known as Hogmanay, which also has given us other New Year’s-type traditions that we might not realize came from across the pond.

“On New Year’s Eve, you wanted to open up your windows and get everything bad out,” Bethel Park resident Jim Chatham explains. “Even today, the tradition of clanging your pots on New Year’s Eve or setting off fireworks, it’s derived from getting the evil spirits out of your home.”

He and other participants – his wife, Beth, among them – in the Oliver Miller Hogmanay celebration plan to recite the time-honored: “Shoo, shoo, away with you. Out with the old, and in with the new.”

The event has taken place each December for the past several years to close the season at the Oliver Miller Homestead, which traces its roots to members of a Scots-Irish family who settled in the 18th century on what then was the American frontier.

The Chathams are organizing the celebration this year, along with fellow Oliver Miller Homestead Associates Fred and Paula Bowman. “The Scots never really celebrated Christmas,” Jim explains. “In fact, Scotland did not allow Christmas celebrations until the 1950s.”

Yes, as enacted by the Parliament of Scotland for religious considerations, the ban on celebrating Yule lasted more than three centuries. Meanwhile, nothing prohibited anyone from whooping it up a week later.

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Haggis preparation

Preparing the haggis

As for the word “Hogmanay,” even Scotland’s official website admits no one knows of its origin, with guesses that it may be Gaelic or Norman-French. Whatever the case, the New Year’s extravaganza comes with a cornucopia of customs that the Oliver Miller folks enjoy re-creating.

For example, there’s the clearing of debts.

“If you owned somebody money, you brought them their money,” Jim says. “If you borrowed a gun or borrowed sugar or salt, you paid that back before the end of the old year, so you went into the new year with no things that you’re beholden to.”

And the first footer, the initial person to step into a Scottish home after midnight:

“Somebody would knock on the door, and typically the lady of the house would answer. If she saw a dark-haired man bearing a gift, he would have to step with his right foot first through the threshold, and that would bring you the most luck.”

Dark hair would be optimal because of the prevalence of fair hair among the Norse, whom the Scots didn’t like because of conquering their land and everything.

“The order of preference is: If you didn’t have a dark-haired tall man, the next would be a fair-haired tall man, followed by a dark-haired lady, followed by a redheaded man, followed by a redheaded woman.”

Oh, the misogyny! And oh, the rigging of the system!

“If you could afford it, you would hire your first footer to come in for you,” Jim explains, as tall, dark-haired fellows would make their rounds collecting money and reciting:

Get up auld wife and shake yer feathers,

Dinna think that we are beggars.

We’re only bairnies come to play,

Get up and gie’s oor Hogmanay.

Jim says he’ll do the same on Dec. 2 in his finest Scottish brogue – his ancestry is mostly English, actually – plus give the “Address to the Haggis,” also by Robert Burns:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!

Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace

As lang’s my arm.

Along with partaking of haggis and other Scottish fare, some of the Hogmanay participants will play Highland games inside the expanse of the Oliver Miller Homestead barn. That includes tossing the long, thick, hefty log known as the caber.

“You’re holding it down near your waist with your hands kind of cradled,” Jim explains. “And basically, with one thrust, you toss it up and try to flip it 180 degrees, so that the top ends up down and then it falls forward. You score the most points by having it fall at 12 o’clock.”

Another competition involves taking a winnowing fork to a sack of hay and flinging it over the top of a strategically placed bar. And some of the participants will throw a shot put-sized stone in the manner of, well, a shot put.

“Of course, the women will do that with a haggis,” Jim reveals. “They’ll have a haggis toss.”

The culminating Hogmanay activity, of course, comes with the stroke of midnight. It will be closer to 4:30 in this case, but still.

“We do a toast to the new year, but we use cider,” Jim says, with a wink: “At least, officially.”

For more information, visit olivermillerhomestead.org.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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