Like most New Zealanders, my ancestry is a bit of a mixture. On one side, I’m a 5th generation Kiwi – my paternal grandmother was named Charlotte Jane, after the ship her grandparents came from England to New Zealand on (for my American readers, this is like having arrived on the Mayflower). Then there’s my paternal grandfather, whose antecedents are a bit more hazy – his father was definitely German, but there’s no record of how he got to New Zealand – family legend says he jumped ship. And my mother is Scottish (although her surname is a Welsh one) – she and her parents emigrated when she was a child. So I’m part English, part German, part Scottish, probably part Welsh, and who knows what else.
But at this time of year, I mostly think of myself as Scottish, and I always feel nostalgic for the New Year’s Eves of my childhood. New Year’s Eve was always a family event, and almost more important than Christmas. You got presents at Christmas, but New Year’s was special. There was always a party at my grandparents’, but not the raucous drunken parties most people associate with New Year’s – this was a much more civilised, family-centered party. There was plenty of whiskey drunk, of course, but an equal amount of tea. Most of the guests would be people of my grandparents had met on the ship from Scotland, and their families. As the years went on, and people died or moved away, the parties dwindled to just our family, with perhaps a few neighbours dropping in, but the preparations were still the same: the whole house would be cleaned, as much out of superstition (that you should greet the New Year with respect, as the way you start the year will determine how the rest of it goes) as in preparation for visitors, there would be copious amounts of sandwiches, shortbread and mince pies made, and the best whiskey and sherry brought out.
At midnight, everyone shook hands or kissed, and there’d be singing, usually led by my Granda – Auld Lang Syne, of course, but also A Guid New Year, and Granda’s favourite, The Green Oak Tree, a song about Greenock, their home town. Then would come the first footing. Just before midnight one of the visiting men (preferably someone tall and dark-haired for good luck, but any man not of the household would do in a pinch) would have left the house, and would now knock on the door, and be greeted as the “first foot”, the first visitor to cross the threshold in the new year. Then we’d usually go en masse round the neighbours to first foot them, taking symbolic gifts of food, drink and a piece of coal or wood (to represent the wish that in the coming year the recipients’ home would never been short of food or warmth (just as important as food in a Scottish winter – there’s an old Scottish saying “Lang may yer lum reek” (i.e. “long may your chimney smoke”) which is said as a half-joking blessing, but before the days of central heating, keeping the fire burning was a serious thing)).
Without my grandparents, New Years has never been quite the same. I’ve been to “real” New Year’s parties, I’ve spent New Year’s Eve in a crowd of thousands on Queenstown’s waterfront the year that was *the* place to be, I’ve spent it in a London pub, even spent it in Scotland one year. But those wild parties never felt as much fun as those parties at Granny and Granda’s, the nostalgic celebrations of a home they’d left behind (and that had probably never quite existed anyway in quite the way they remembered).
And so every New Year’s Eve I feel a bit wistful, wishing I could be with my grandparents again, remembering the time Granda dragged me up with him to sing The Green Oak Tree to our bemused neighbours, because he knew I knew all the words and he was too drunk to remember them all (so I, who have absolutely no confidence in my singing ability, was left singing most of it on my own to a roomful of strangers!); the time we all piled into the car and drove for miles into the countryside so we could first foot some friends of Granny’s that were on a camping holiday (and poor Dad couldn’t drink all night because he’d have to drive); remembering the fun and laughter and music and friendship. And so tonight, although I always say I can’t be bothered with New Year’s, and that it’s just another night, I’ll stay up until midnight anyway. And I’ll wish I was at one of those parties, and I’ll vaguely consider first-footing the neighbours (but I won’t, because I know it won’t mean the same to them, and they’d just be confused if I brought them a log of wood).
And although I’m not at all superstitious really, today I cleaned the house from top to bottom. Because you have to. It’s New Year’s.