A Child's New Year in Scotland
I hear that the old traditional ways of celebrating New Year are in decline. During my younger years, New Year was a very important holiday, a time when the extended family would congregate at my grandparent’s house and exchange presents.
We children were allowed to stay up as late as the adults. Food was an important part of the celebration. On New Year's Day, the main dish would typically be a turkey of sufficient dimensions to feed everyone. The stuffing was based on oatmeal and cooked in the bird. Dumpling was a must.
I doubt that anyone of my generation can pass by dumpling. There are variations on the basic recipe. Each family has its own preferred version. Dumpling is made from dough redolent of cinnamon and mixed spice. The
dough is placed in a clean cloth, which is tied around with string at the top. The fragrant package is then boiled in water for about four hours resulting in a large pudding that develops a characteristic rind from the flour used to coat the cloth. As unlikely as it might sound to the unitiated, this process produced a dessert of life-long significance to anyone from that time and place.
While the dumpling took pride of place on the table, it was only one of a comprehensive selection of desserts. Shortbread was a common companion, together with biscuits, fancy pastries and perhaps gingerbread. There was
beer, sherry, and port for those adults who drank alcohol. Not all did. My father, for example, was a strict teetotaller. For the children there was ginger wine. Ginger wine is, I am told, still available in Scotland. The source was a small bottle containing a proprietary essence that, combined with sugar and water, was turned into a beverage. Ginger wine has a very distinctive flavor with a bite that would probably not appeal to blander modern tastes. I tried some again on a visit to Scotland a few years ago. It remained exactly as it was, possessing one of those tastes and aromas that can transport you in memory to a long lost past.
There are a number of traditions associated with New Year in Scotland. First
footing is well known. My grandfather, however, likely because of his nautical connections, had one of his own. Just before the ‘bells’ he would open the window. “To let the old year out and the new year in,” he would say. He would wait to hear the cacaphony of ship whistles and sirens from the docks in Glasgow that heralded the arrival of the new year. I have immortalized this tradition of his in my novel Roses of Winter.
The holiday was so important a part of the year for us that two New Year scenes found their way into Roses of Winter. One comes just a few months after war breaks out, the other a short time after the war ends. There is a symmetry to the book. It opens and ends by a fireside, the hub of life since time immemorial until only recently in modern life. It remains so in much of the world. And the holiday also anchors both ends of the story. In that time, as now, for a brief evanescent evening it makes plain our hopes for better tomorrows.