Saturday, 14 June 2008

Lang may your lum reek!

Originally published in Redbrick Vol 71 Issue 1301 [Features], December 2006

"Lang may your lum reek!"

THESE were the words upon which the health and luck of our Glaswegian flat depended. All I had to do was say them correctly. Not “long may your mum reek” or any other such silly suggestion offered by my peers, but a word-perfect “Lang may your lum reek”, or “long may your chimney smoke” to the rest of us. This is the traditional saying of the First-Footer, the first person in the New Year to step over the threshold of a friend or neighbour’s house, bringing fortune.

One of the many traditions of Hogmanay, the First-Footing requires a drink, a source of fuel and a tall, dark, handsome stranger. Dark hair is supposed to symbolise a true Scot; after all, a red-haired or blonde male brings with him a history of those pesky Norsemen. The trouble is, there is not a trace of Scottish ancestry in my blood – I was just a southern sassenach staying with a friend in Scotland. Fitting the ‘dark haired and tall’ criteria, I was armed with a match and a glass of water (not quite the coal and dram of whisky of olden days) and ready to immerse myself in tradition. If only I could remember that phrase…

Once again it’s that time of the year, or - more precisely – next year. In the excitement of Christmas we put to the back of our minds the fact that 2006 is counting down. The time for fireworks, champagne and Jools Holland shouting “Hootenanny!” is nearly upon us.

But what defines this year we so eagerly usher in? We are so used to our calendar that we forget it has not always been this way, and yet the clues are all around us. September is our ninth month, but its prefix means seven. In fact, all of the final months of the year are two months out of place. We have the Romans to blame for that. When Numa Pompilius added January and February and a leap month (Mensis Intercalaris) to the start of the calendar, he thought he’d solved the riddle of the missing 61 days of winter each year. But the leap year was added too infrequently and time drifted away from the seasons. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar consulted his astronomers and replaced the Roman calendar with his own.

The Julian calendar gave us our modern day month lengths. Mensis Intercalaris was removed and replaced with the February leap day. To the casual observer it was perfect, if a little confusing: 46 BC lasted 445 days to align the calendars and when Julius Caesar was assassinated only the next year, records cannot quite decide on which date he died, having not yet accustomed to the new system.

Alas, even the great Dictator of the Roman Republic can get things wrong. Pontifices who defined leap years were adding a day to February every three years instead of four. It fell to Augustus to correct this, setting the Empire into a regular four-year cycle after 36 years of temporal drift. It is because of the roles of these Roman leaders that the months of Quintilis and Sextilis were renamed Iulius (July) and Augustus (August), much to the annoyance of future leaders.

The Julian calendar is incorrect by, annoyingly, eleven minutes each year. Such a small error was not noticeable in the reign of Augustus, but by 1582 things were sufficiently out of synch. In waltzed Pope Gregory XIII, after whom our modern Gregorian calendar is named, with a plan to stop this drift. The big difference? Drop 3 leap days per four hundred years. Not a massive change, but an essential one. When Britain adopted the system in 1752, Wednesday 2nd September was followed by Thursday 14th September. Eleven days never happened. Even more startling, many parts of the world did not adopt this system for centuries. Russia, for example, waited until the end of the Revolution in 1918.

Given that a pope decreed our calendar, and our years are numbered after the traditional birth year of Jesus (Anno domini means “In the year of our Lord”), why do we celebrate January 1st as the start of the year, rather than the 25th December? The truth is, we once did.

New Year’s day has often been associated with Catholic feasts. There have been Christmas-style New Years on the 25th of December, but also celebrations of the Annunciation (the revelation of the archangel Gabriel to Mary), on the 25th March and, perhaps pivotally, the feast of the Circumcision of Jesus on January 1st. Yet before that, the pre-Julian Romans had settled on January 1st as the start of a new office.

And so to the present day. The current western Liturgical calendar began on Sunday at the start of Advent, the new Orthodox year will begin on the Julian 1st of January (our 14th of January until 2100) and the Jewish Rosh Hashannah celebration takes place in September. Other cultures choose the start of spring. Many Southeastern Asian countries celebrate in April. Then there are calendars based on the moon: the Chinese Year of the Pig begins on February 18, 2007 and in 2008 Muslims will get to celebrate two New Years.

For the Western world though, 2007 will begin at midnight on January 1st. Perhaps you will sing Robert Burn’s Auld Lang Syne, or watch the Waterford Crystal Ball descend in New York’s Time Square. Perhaps you might like to see the swinging of metre-wide flaming tar balls in Stonehaven, or sit back and eat traditional doughnut-like oliebollen in Holland. Perhaps you might celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which came into effect on the first day of 1862, or stare at a Euro note and wonder how it got to be eight years old. Or, more likely, you’ll be drunk.

I’ll still be reliving the memory of taking part in the world’s largest Strip the Willow, an enormous Ceilidh at the Night Afore celebration in Edinburgh, one of more than 3,500 people swinging around strangers to the beat of the Portobello band. I’ll reminisce about Mark Saul’s trance-bagpipe music and some truly bizarre street theatre. Oh, and the fact that that Dryburgh flat is still going strong. Long may its chimney smoke!

No comments: