Hogmanay in 19th century Australia & New Zealand

This post first appeared in The Scottish Banner, Vol. 36, No. 6 (December, 2012)

Just as Caledonian societies and St. Andrew’s organisations were formed by émigré Scots across the world in order to preserve a sense of national and ethnic identity, Burns’ Nights, Halloween, St Andrew’s Day, and other highlights of the Scottish cultural calendar were transported across the world in the global Scottish diaspora.

Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year, has always been a time of merriment and jollity and was a staple of the Australian cultural calendar for many decades while first generation immigrants continued to arrive in large numbers. In large part, official Hogmanay events were maintained by Caledonian societies, and some New Year’s traditions continue to this day in Australia and New Zealand.

New countries, auld traditions

The recreation of these traditions in new countries was seen by some as lacking in authenticity. Reporting in the Glasgow Citizen in 1856, one Scot who had returned home reported that the “institutions of the fatherland have been copied in some degree by the Australians; but they want that peculiar savour of antiquity which is half their relish at home.” He goes on:

But worse than this is the season at which Ne’erday comes upon us. Here the year is inverted in every sense of the term. In Scotland the associations of the day are snow and frost, great-coats and gloves, long nights and blazing fires. In Australia they are heat and dust, airy pants and wide-awakes, muskeeters and locusts, all-overishness and a feeling as if your corporeal substance were reduced to the consistency of butter! The idea of eating roast beef and plum-pudding, while the perspiration is poaring off you at every pore, and the heat reminds you of a whiff from the mouth of one of Dixson’s furnaces, is more preposterous.

Commemorating Scotland

Although the Australian environment presented special challenges to some of the traditional features of Hogmanay, it was still an important way for Scots to commemorate their homeland. Innocuous cultural activities can help migrants to maintain a sense of connectivity with their birth countries, and assist in retaining a notion of national identity, without damaging a migrant’s chances of getting ahead in their adopted countries.

One Scot in the late 1850s, while on a harbour cruise with some fellow countrymen in Sydney on New Year’s Day, wrote:

As we chatted of Auld Scotland, our very hearts warmed within us, and we felt proud of our country, and no less proud of her sons, who are to be found from Sydney to Southampton, pushing their fortunes with all the energy that is characteristic of the race. It seemed so strange, that all by chance, such a regiment of Caledonians had met together in the out-of-the-way place.

Of course, the celebrations were not exclusive: the group of Scots on their harbour cruise came across a poor and hungry boy from England, and invited him on board to join in their luncheon.

Intermingling cultures

In a colonial societies like Australia and New Zealand, migrants from many different countries came into contact with each other’s traditional celebrations and cultural events. For example, in 1851, the following poem appeared in Melbourne’s Argus newspaper:

Let Donald praise his hogmanay,
Let Pat rejoice on Patrick’s day,
Let baith get drunk on New Year’s Day
On Highland whiskey,
and roar and sing the live-long day,
Baith blythe and briskly.

The author goes on to observe, “John Bull holds them baith in scorn, Nae change to him brings New Year’s morn.” For some, the Scottish traditions were an entirely new experience. In 1866 at Wellington in New Zealand, a correspondent reported

As the clock struck 12 on the night of the 31st, an unearthly din broke for in the township, which would have made a stranger fancy that the Wellingtonians had suddenly gone cranky. This was, however, cause by a number of men, who were keeping up what I believe our Scotch friends term Hogmanay, or the advent of the New Year. Supplied with bottles of spirits and various instruments of noise, they went from house to house, arousing the inmates, and interchanging drinks and good wishes.

Hogmanay was a prominent expression of Scottish identity, and left lasting impressions on the wider culture of colonial societies. In Ballarat in 1869, newspapers reported that some who saw the New Year as a solemn and religious occasion attended their various places of worship, while “the majority indulged in such festivities as are common to the occasion, our Scotch friends in particular being rather demonstrative in their Hogmanay recollections.”

Transforming traditions

Hogmanay celebrations were dotted around the country and throughout the years, reaching a peak in popularity during the 1880s and 1890s, with perhaps a small resurgence in the 1930s as fresh Scottish migrants arrived in Australia. One observer put the waning popularity of Hogmanay in the 1920s down to the success of the temperance movement: “Hogmanay usually saw the beginning of the Caledonian’s mysterious rites, and in the days when the licensing laws were not so strict a start was made early, and a round of the hostelries kept up till the wee short hours ayont the twal.”

Some individuals in the diaspora today maintain Hogmanay in a purer form, while others simply go along with the traditions of their new homelands. Nevertheless, many nations in the English-speaking world have adopted, in a broader sense, the joviality and fun of Hogmanay that impressed observers so much in the nineteenth century. And, indeed, no New Year’s celebration would be the same without the memorable refrains of Auld Lang Syne floating in the air at midnight.

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