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This article by Bart Jackson and Lynn Miller was prepared for the December 22, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
May Old Annoyances Be Enflamed
‘May the curse be lifted and may the ashen corpse of the spirit malicious spew forth to heaven.” So rose the ancient Scottish chant on every Hogmanay — the Scottish new year. Kilted dancers circled a huge bonfire, hurling into the flame tokens of evil spirits from the old year. Dating further back than the witches of Macbeth, the tradition of burning small images of all those spirits that have plagued you throughout the previous year is still honored in many a Highland glen — and also in Lawrenceville.
This New Year’s Eve those with an urge to revert to the pagan may want to wend their way off of Princeton Pike and down the old dirt road that leads to the historic Brearley House. There at 6 p.m. revelers will gather and Grand Firemaster Joe Logan will set torch to a magnificent teepee-style bonfire. Pencils and papers will be supplied and you can write down those specific pests that made your 2004 a living hell and cast them off to — well, whatever inferno you choose.
“The early hour of 6 p.m. was selected to make it convenient for families with children and those with other, later parties to attend,” says Logan. An off-beat gem, this Hogmanay festival in the brisk winter air typically draws about 150 revelers, affording a bit more elbow room than say, Times Square.
Participants in this seven-year-old Brearley House tradition have been known to toss into the flame evils such as annoying supper time solicitors, those maniacal crazies who tailgate along Route 1 during rush hour, and even a stock broker or two. Fearing that the written word may not possess sufficient power, it is rumored that vengeful celebrants have brought photos of in-laws, supervisors, and recently elected politicians. Logan assures us that you are invited to discharge multiple condemnations. (A separate sheet for each, please.)
As the bonfire glows high into the night sky and the evil spirits are dispelled, kilted bagpiper Graham Kronk circles the fire and leads the festive crew into the 18th century Georgian-style Brearley farm house. Fiddlers then strike up the kind of Scottish tunes that doubtless filled these rooms when James Brearley first erected the house with his father, John, in l761.
Logan, himself of Scots/Irish descent, grew up in Savannah Georgia, a land thickly settled by Scots since the 17th century. He recalls the traditional New Year’s Eve bonfire from his youth and all the Highland trappings that went along with Hogmanay. These fires stuck in his memory.
He began his journey north after earning a bachelor’s degree in from Emory University. He spent much of his work life with the sales force of the major newsprint manufacturer, Abitibi Consolidated. Moving with the company, he came to Lawrenceville 27 years ago and now, retired, volunteers his time at the Brearley House.
Logan has kept the celebration of Hogmanay low-key, but historically accurate. Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh annually lights up the New Year sky with a torch light parade, leading to a bonfire, and sometimes to a fireworks display. On a more modest scale, most villages retain the bonfire in which the last year’s evils are joyously condemned.
The location also fits the tradition. John Brearley I, before leaving for the New World in l695, lived in Yorkshire, a northern part of England richly filled with Scots and Scottish influence. The actual percentage of Scots blood in the Brearley lineage is unknown, though ceaselessly argued. Arriving in Maidenhead, now Lawrenceville, Brearley purchased farmland along the Shipetauken creek, in an area known as the Great Meadow. It was here that his son John and grandson James built their house, complete with glazed brick headers which still remain.
Did the Brearley clan gather wood from around the local neighborhood for a Hogmanay bonfire as Firemaster Logan does? It is unknown. But it is likely the family rang in the Hogmanay with at least a hint of the Highland influence, even if it was only the quiet Scottish practice of clearing both debts and ashes from the fireplace before the bells of midnight.
The origins of Hogmanay are not completely clear. The Flemish, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and French all take credit for the term Hoag-ma-na-ae, with the Flemish “Great Love Day” getting the most popular vote. A celebration marking the return of the sun, seen in the gradual lengthening of days after the winter solstice, was universal throughout the northern hemisphere for centuries. The Vikings, passing through Scotland as they emigrated from their dark northern homeland, created a New Year Festival to mark the turn from the shortest days of the year into those with ever-increasing light.
When Christianity came to Scotland the winter solstice observance was theoretically shifted to Christmas, but the Hogmanay still retained its high status in the celebration. During Europe’s great Protestant reformation of the l600s, the Puritans exerted more control in Scotland. Fearing an outbreak of joy, their Grinchly clerics forbade the celebration of Christmas — a ban that haunted the land well into the l950s. Thus the spirit of happiness became increasingly relegated to pagan festivals, strengthening the Hogmanay practices.
Great balls of fire, symbolizing the long awaited sun, would be hung on poles and swung through the streets on the eve of December 31. The familiar craving for a fresh start that comes with the new year swept over every celebrant. Out with the old and evil — in with the innocent and new — was the Hogmanay cry.
To help with this cleansing, young Scots men dressed up in the skins of cattle and dashed through the town as images of the evils of old. To aid them on their flight, village folk would beat these pestilential scape-cattle with sticks, and send them scampering.
One’s more personal tormenting spirits were quite naturally condemned to the fire. Such incineration of evil is scarcely Scottish alone. Sir James Frazier’s classic anthropological text, “The Golden Bough,” is rife with tales of cultures that traditionally made images or etched symbols of enemies, both real and supernatural, and then destroyed their power by burning the images. Throughout parts of Southeast Asia, the West Indies, and Mongolia, similar rituals are still widely practiced.
Like so many symbolic acts, such token destruction may well have emerged from a more literal cleansing. Even recently, in parts of northern Tibet and the hinterlands of Peru, actual enemies or their livestock have met their ends in such rituals. But Firemaster Logan hastens to assure this year’s Brearley House celebrants that only paper will fuel the fires of his Hogmanay and that grand music, grand fun, and grand revels will be had by all.
Hogmanay, Friday, December 31, 6 p.m., the Brearley House, Lawrenceville. Free. Call 609-896-0782.
While Princeton no longer offers its own version of “First Night” for New Year’s revelers, there are nevertheless plenty of ways to welcome in 2005, including activities for all ages, in and around the Princeton area. Whether it is dinner and a movie, music or drama, or a big gala, reservations are suggested for all events.
New Year’s Eve Concert, Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra, Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton, 609-396-5522. Music by Shostakovich, DeFalla, Walton, and Khatchaturian. The second half of the program features orchestral big band selections of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Artie Shaw. $25 to $65. 8 p.m.
Post-concert gala in the George Washington Ballroom features cocktails, buffet supper, and dancing to a 13-piece big band. Register. $75.
Darla Rich Quintet, Hopewell Bistro, 15 East Broad Street, Hopewell, 609-466-9889. Dinner, $45 fixed price. By reservation. 7 p.m.
Rodgers & Hart Songbook, Forum Theater Company, 314 Main Street, Metuchen, 732-548-0582. “Beguiled Again, The Songs of Rodgers and Hart,” with champagne, wine, and finger food, $45. 7:30 p.m.
Bed Full of Foreigners, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Dave Freeman’s comedy about a European vacation gone awry. $35. Waiting list for New Year’s Eve. Call for available performances. 8 p.m.
Hogmanay New Year’s Eve Bonfire, Lawrence Historical Society, Brearley House, Meadow Lane, Lawrenceville, 609-895-1728. See story above.
New Year’s Weekend Retreat, Center Heart, 80 Elm Ridge Road, Princeton, 609-730-9933. “Presenting the Essential Self” led by retreat leader, musician, and author, David La Chapelle. Chanting, meditation, and discussion. Daily potluck lunch. Suggested donation is $100 per day. La Chapelle is author of “Navigating the Tides of Change,” and the CD, “Destiny Lines.” Ananda Foley offers Body Prayer, a yogic form of movement. Through January 2.
New Year’s Eve Party, Integral Yoga of Princeton, 122 Carter Road, Princeton, 609-683-9199. An evening of dance, games, food, and meditation. Vegetarian pot luck. Children are welcome. Alcohol and smoke free. Register. $15 to $20 donation. 7:30 p.m.
New Year’s Eve Celebration, Amalfi’s Cuisine, 146 Lawrenceville-Pennington Road, Lawrenceville, 609-912-1599. Special menu, open bar, music and dancing, champagne toast, noisemakers. $190 per couple. 9 p.m.
New Year’s Eve, Amarone’s Windsor Inn, 29 Church Street, Windsor, 609-448-7144. Food, wine, and entertainment by Meg Hanson and Donnie Love. Three seatings available. By reservation. 8 p.m.
Dinner and Comedy, Catch a Rising Star, Hyatt Regency, 102 Carnegie Center, 609-734-4241. Four-course dinner, comedy show, four drink tickets, party favors, champagne toast, dj and dancing. Comedy with Joe Bublewicz and Dina Blizzard. $165 per person. 7:30 p.m.
New Year’s Eve Party, Conduit, 439 South Broad Street, Trenton, 609-656-1199. Dewey Gold entertains. Open bar, hors d’oeuvres, and party favors. $40 to $55. 9 p.m.
New Year’s Eve, Doral Forrestal, 100 College Road East, 609-452-7800, ext. 5132. Gala celebration include hors d’oeuvres, open bar, champagne toast, continental breakfast, and entertainment by DJ Cisco and Company, $75 per person with advance reservation. With overnight accommodations and brunch, $289 per couple; $215 for single. 9 p.m.
Nu Metal New Year’s Eve, Finnigan’s, 529 Route 130 North, East Windsor, 609-448-8012. Jaded Faith performs, ages 21 and up. $10. 9 p.m.
Crystal Garden, Hyatt Regency, 102 Carnegie Center, 609-987-1234. Four course dinner, dancing, DJ, balloon drop at midnight, party favors, champagne toast. $130 per person. 8 p.m.
New Year’s Eve, Jazz Night Club, 75 Lalor Street, Trenton, 609-443-8937. Jazz with the Rick Fiori Band. 9:30 p.m.
New Year’s Eve, KatManDu, Waterfront Park, Route 29, Trenton, 609-393-7300. Flying Mueller Brothers is the featured band. The Vegas Style theme includes buffet and open bar until 1 a.m. By reservation, $65. 8:30 p.m.
La Mirage Motor Inn, 3775 Route 1, Monmouth Junction. 732-297-2400. Jacuzzi rooms and water bed rooms.
New Years Eve Spectacular, The Stress Factory, 90 Church Street, New Brunswick, 732-545-4242. Call for details and prices. 8 p.m.
New Year’s Eve Celebration, Tre Piani Ristorante, Forrestal Village, Plainsboro, 609-452-1515. Cocktail hour, five-course dinner, champagne toast, and dancing to music by Miracle. By reservation, $85. 7 p.m.
New Year’s Eve, Westin Princeton, Forrestal Village, 888-627-7036. Five-course dinner for two at Bimi, the Hibachi-style steak house and sushi bar, featuring Teppanyaki fare and a bottle of sake. $125 per couple; $299 with overnight stay and buffet breakfast. 9 p.m.
Teaming up with Tre Piani, the Westin offers a five-course dinner beginning with hors d’oeuvres at 7 p.m., continuing with dancing to the music of Miracle, and ending with a champagne toast at midnight. The Westin offers an overnight package for $399 per couple.
Bedbug Eddie, Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street, 609-924-7855. Cover rock band, noisemakers and midnight champagne toast, $10 cover. 10 p.m.
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