I ALWAYS remember at this time of year my dad teasing my mum that she would be ‘washing the coals’ next during the big Hogmanay house clean up.
For a full week she would systematically work her way through the home she kept so beautifully all year round – no corner was left undusted, no carpet unvacuumed and no piece of silver or brass unpolished.
The oven and cooker gleamed, linen was pulled out and re-folded, cupboards were emptied and scoured, and you could eat your dinner off the kitchen floor after she’d scrubbed it – a mop wouldn’t do a good enough job, according to mum.
I used to resent being roped into helping my houseproud mother as the eldest daughter while my brothers lounged about, but now I’m grateful for the skills she taught me while I scowled and grumbled at the rampant unfairness.
My mother spent most of her adult life looking after her husband and four children as we moved from Hyderabad and Delhi to the Zambian bush, from Madrid to Surrey, from Caracas to Lisbon, and finally in their retirement, to Edinburgh – and in each new place she made a welcoming and elegant home.
A bright and artistic woman whose ambitions for a professional career were side-lined by the times she lived in – her father thought it was a waste of money to send a girl to university – she channelled her taste and energy into what Americans call ‘home-making’.
But as well as knowing our way around a mop and duster, she left my sister and me with another legacy: she impressed on us from the early age the importance of getting a degree and having a career. Marriage and children were a given, too, for a woman of her generation, and she was appalled by how hard it has been for us to keep all the balls in the air as working parents.
But I’ve had that choice thanks to my mother’s encouragement, which is why I won’t be following her tradition of cleaning the house from top to bottom in time for the Bells.
My mum didn’t rate Christmas much – you didn’t even get the day off in Scotland in the 1950s when she started work as a secretary for a publishing firm before marrying my dad – but Hogmanay was the highlight of the year. As such it was honoured by Scottish housewives who scrubbed and polished and dusted until their homes shone, hence the joke about washing the coals.
Cleaning the house for New Year’s Eve was once as traditional as getting in shortbread and whisky for the first footers, but has no doubt gone the same way these days when many of us no longer live within walking distance of family and friends, and few of us know our neighbours well enough.
Tradition had it that before you welcomed in the New Year you had to see off the old one, and that meant sweeping the fireplace to get rid of troubles. You’d have to have a big fireplace stuffed with ashes to get rid of 2021, weighed down as it was by loss, illness, disrupted school and university lessons, and restrictions that affected our working, family and social lives.
Cleaning was a frenzy that had to be completed before the New Year otherwise bad luck would follow, according to the Scots tradition of ‘redding’, which also recommended clearing off any debts and paying bills. The idea is rooted in good sense, to welcome the New Year with a clean and tidy home, with finances in order, ready for a fresh start.
I’m sure the tradition of tidying and cleaning for Hogmanay persists in some households but clearing off debt is a taller order in these days of easy credit and spending on Christmas.
There is something deeply satisfying about cleaning and, according to recent studies, it’s good for the mind and body, with vacuuming for 30 minutes burning around 130 calories.
The World Health Organisation and the NHS recommend 150 minutes a week of ‘moderate activity’, including housework, while reducing sitting time can have far-reaching health benefits.
However, while my home will be benefit from a tidy and clean, I won’t be following in my mum’s footsteps and doing a deep clean to welcome in 2022.
I’ve spent the festive break mostly resting and reading, watching films, and working on my next novel, but I can hear my mum’s voice in my head tutting over the state of my unwashed skirting boards. Not loudly enough to make me reach for the Marigolds, though.