Monday, 31 December 2012

A Scottish Cricketer's Hogmanay

An Edinburgh tram of many years ago..........

Time was when Scottish cricketers had nothing of this Christmas thing. The Presbyterians had discouraged it in the 15th Century and their influence only disappeared slowly.  Even as a very junior member, Fantasy Bob can remember his father going to work on Christmas Day - and he did not work for Ebeneezer Scrooge. Christmas Day was not a holiday, far less Boxing Day, and only became a bank holiday in Scotland in 1958.

FB can remember the milk and Scottish newspapers being delivered on Christmas Day until well into the 1960s. But milk and the newspapers did not appear on New Year's Day. For that was the Scottish holiday. This meant that to find out if he had been mentioned in the New Year Honours list, FB's Dad had to drive to Aberdeen station, the only place where the English newspapers were available. FB's resulting annual encounter with the Daily Telegraph has left a lasting impression on him.  And FB's father never found his name in the honours list.

New Year was the thing in Scotland - an inheritance of all manner of celebrations of the winter solstice. It came with a distinct set of traditions which cricketers would be wise to observe.  With the arrival of T20 cricket many of these traditions are dying out and are overwhelmed by firework displays of gargantuan scale.  For those cricketers who wish to do things the right way, FB has compiled a short reminder.

Debts should be paid by Hogmanay, for to enter the New Year in debt was considered bad luck. (So it has proved).  But time was when cricketers would be beating the doors of the clubhouse down to pay off their bar bills and some even paid their long overdue subs to the club. Many a club treasurer would like to see a return of this tradition.

During the day of Hogmanay there should be frenzy of dusting and sweeping and cleaning. For the New Year could not be welcomed into an untidy or unclean pavilion - that would be more bad luck. The ashes of the fire would be swept out and examined for portents of the year to come in the ashes - leading to the term redding being applied to the whole cleaning orgy. In many cricket clubs the away dressing room would get its only once-over of the year during the redding.

Doughty Groundsmen would forage for pieces from a rowan tree to place above a door to bring luck. They would hang mistletoe to prevent illness to cricketers (none of this kissing among Presbyterians). Pieces of holly would be placed to keep out mischievous fairies or leg spin bowlers.  Pieces of hazel and yew also had magical powers and would protect the pavilion and its cricketers. The pavilion was then considered ready to bring in the New Year.

Then there was the long and painful wait for the bells at midnight. This was made incalculably worse by BBC's Scotland's lamentable programming throughout the evening. This drove many a cricketer to drink.

But at last came the midnight hour. In cities there were gathering places beneath the church clocks and forgetting about their Presbyterian heritage kisses were exchanged with everyone adjacent.  In some towns there are fire festivals - Stonehaven has a particularly impressive cleansing of the old year from the wicket with a procession of swinging fire balls, a festival that FB enjoyed many times. As much noise as possible could be made to frighten off the bad spirits - ships at harbour and at sea would sound their horns and bells.

The back doors of cricket pavilions were opened to let out the Old Year - sometimes chased out with fire. Then the front door was opened to let the New Year in and the tense wait for Front Footers began. A tall dark stranger was what was required to bring luck for the year ahead.

Cricketers who went front footing had to have regulation kit with them - salt, black bun, shortbread, coal, a bottle of whisky.  Not much by way of a cricket tea perhaps but each had its symbolic significance for the year ahead.  A front footer could expect no leniency from the umpires - they would not be allowed on the field of play without these items. 

On New Year's Day itself there were big football matches - local derbies took place that day so as FB grew up, Aberdeen would be pitched against Dundee which is as local as it got.  Many teams had to play on both 1 and 2 January.  And they all took the field without gloves.  Large crowds would assemble - for everything else was absolutely closed.  Elsewhere in Scotland the ritual tribal war of  Rangers v Celtic would be played out.  But no cricket matches were played.

No wonder that it took the full year to recover for the next Hogmanay.

The Stonehaven fireball ceremony

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