A cool, dark winter morning and my daughter, Lorna, is driving up the Cypress Mountain road. She is going to the Lookout parking lot, the one with the marvelous view. With her are three young Japanese women.
Why a trip to a lookout, and in the dark? Because it is New Year’s Day, that’s why! The parking lot is almost empty when their car pulls in. As the darkness lightens the crowd grows. Soon the Lookout is packed with Asian people. All are here to greet the first rays of sunlight on the first day of a new year, and from the highest point reachable. Harsuhinode, as the sunrise ritual is called, is unique to Japan although there are similar ones in other Asian countries, complete with their own cultural differences.
The atmosphere is one of anticipation, excitement, and celebration. The sun peeks over the horizon, pouring out its life-giving rays as it does. The crowd roars with delight. Cameras flash, prayers are chanted and joyous confusion reigns. Each person makes his or her response to this special moment of the New Year.
Later that day I marvel at the experience recounted by Lorna and her friends. After all, New Year’s has never been my favourite celebration. Indeed, I remember being surprised when we met Sheldon’s cousins in Edinburgh. For them, New Year’s topped the list of all things Scottish!
Sheldon’s father was born in Scotland. He died young, and the Canadian Gibsons lost track of the relatives in Scotland. Years later we took our family to Scotland, for the first of many trips there, and re-established contact with Sheldon’s cousins. They undertook to educate us – from haggis to history to Hogmanay.
The Scots’ long, rich heritage associated with New Year’s—Hogmanay—dates to Viking days. In Scotland this date seems to be more important than Christmas. History give a clue for how this happened. In the mid-17th century the way Christmas was celebrated in England changed radically. Oliver Cromwell took over England about 1645. Supported by his Puritan military forces, Cromwell undertook his self-appointed mission to cleanse the country of decadence. In 1645 he enforced an Act of Parliament banning Christmas celebrations. He believed them to be an example of excessive waste and drinking, and downright debauchery. The Puritans thought such parties to be an unwanted inheritance from the Catholic Church. It seems reasonable to suspect that the trouble in England influenced the situation in Scotland, and turned their popular choice of times to celebrate from Christmas to New Year’s.
And so we come to Hogmanay, also called the First Footing custom. The first person to set foot in your home after midnight on New Year’s Eve receives a special welcome. New Year’s is regarded as a time for a clean break with the old year, a time to welcome friends, and start the future on a happy note.
Sheldon’s cousins are now long gone, so I turned to Betty Copland, a Scottish friend of mine, for a personal perspective. Remembering her childhood, she contributed this account: “An extra special welcome was given if the First Footer was a tall, dark-haired man. He was expected to be carrying a bottle of Scotch whiskey, a silver coin (sixpence or shilling), and a piece of coal. He hands the host the bottle, puts the silver piece in the host’s hand, and places the coal on the burning fire. This signifies health, wealth, and happiness to start the New Year. The host shakes hands, and then pours a drink from his own bottle… and so the party begins.”
Betty remembers walking with her parents at 2 AM around their neighbourhood. They went from house to house, greeting their neighbours and wishing them well for the New Year. Her father was a teetotaller, but that did not lessen his enjoyment of the First Footer event.
Thinking of that Scottish perspective on New Year’s, I wonder: Among my neighbours in this culturally diverse city, are there many who hold New Year’s special? What about on this continent, or the world at large?
My curiosity is getting me into trouble. This investigation will be too large to handle. It needs limits. I return to this one small exposure to a Japanese celebration. Something about it appeals to me, and gives a glimpse of their culture. What am I responding to? The first thing is the celebratory and optimistic atmosphere that exists. Secondly it is a family occasion, where very old and special customs and rituals are used. Thirdly, the whole event evokes strong emotional reactions in the participant, which pull me into the scene.
Having been enticed into this venture by exposure to the Japanese Harsuhinode, the whole world beckons to me. To keep this within manageable limits, I’ll choose countries for which the extended Gibson family has a representative.
Korea, China, and Japan fit my requirements. All honour New Year’s. All have a Gibson family member who is connected to one of these countries and who will add their personal experiences to my factual Google descriptions.
My next post will look at New Year’s celebrations in South Korea, China, and Japan.