Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble

New Year’s Eve revelers celebrate Hogmanay with a bonfire.

By: Hilary Parker
   It’s just the typical New Year’s Eve celebration — a
giant bonfire in the Scottish tradition brought to New Jersey by a man from
Savannah, Ga. Well, perhaps it’s not so typical, but the Hogmanay bonfire is
certainly a celebration.
   Held at the Lawrence Historical Society’s Brearley House each
New Year’s Eve, the Hogmanay bonfire starts at 6 p.m. and ends by around 7:30
p.m. Regardless of the cold temperatures, the annual event draws a huge crowd
(roughly 500 people last year) and the warmth from the fire, hot cider and good
humor is more than enough to keep warm on even the chilliest of nights.
   Believing it would make for a great story, firemaster Joe
Logan says he brought the tradition of a New Year’s Eve bonfire to Lawrence
long before he knew of its connection to his Scottish ancestry.
   "When I was a kid living in Savannah, Ga., we always had a
great big bonfire down in the heart of the city on New Year’s Eve," he says.
"No one ever mentioned the fact that it was a Hogmanay, but after we got into
things around here, we started looking back into history." As they investigated,
members of the LHS discovered that Hogmanay — the Scottish word for the
New Year’s Eve celebration — has been synonymous with a hugely festive
occasion since Celtic times.
   Then, LHS members remembered that the Brearley family hailed
from York, England, where a strong Hogmanay tradition existed — having
made its way from nearby Scotland — and it is quite possible that they
participated in their own Hogmanay celebrations back in the 1600s. So it was
highly apropos to bring the celebration to the Giant Meadow next to the 1761
Brearley House in Lawrence.
   "One of the traditions that come from the Scottish practice
is that people will write on notes of paper bad practices they want to rid themselves
of, and throw them into the fire to start the new year off clean," Mr. Logan
   Members of the LHS explain the practice to revelers as they
hand out the pieces of paper prior to lighting the fire. Once the fire is lit,
they also open up the house for tours, music and, in recent years, dancing.
   When it comes to music, no Scottish celebration would be complete
without a bagpiper, and that’s where Graham Kronk comes into the picture. A
senior at Penn State University, Mr. Kronk begged for a set of bagpipes while
other kids yearned for drum sets or electric guitars.
   His parents finally conceded when he was in high school, and
he has been playing for the past seven years. Currently a member of the MacGregor
Pipe Band in Newtown, Pa., Mr. Kronk came to play bagpipes at Hogmanay after
attending in 1999 and recognizing the need for a good bagpiper. At the time,
he met Mr. Logan and it was agreed that he would provide the music for the 2000
   While he loves his piping, Mr. Kronk is also an accomplished
fiddler. After the bonfire gets going and people move inside for music and dancing,
Mr. Kronk trades in his bagpipe for his fiddle as he makes music for the merry.
   "After a year or two of just playing the pipes, I began playing
the fiddle inside the house for the after-party," he says. "Especially with
last year’s turn out of serious dancers, the indoor festivities have come to
rival the fire itself as my favorite part of the night."
   The Hogmanay celebration’s grand finale is a rendition of
"Auld Lang Syne," but Alison Roth, a former board member of the LHS, insists
it’s "Auld Lang Syne" Scottish-style.
   "In Scotland, they sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ very fast and happy.
In Scotland, for Hogmanay, it has a lot of zip to it. And that’s how it’s done
here," she says, a change from the typical slow and somewhat depressing American
version that laments the passing of the years.
   The bonfire is all in good fun, and all in good safety. While
the Savannah bonfires that still burn in Mr. Logan’s memory were lit with kerosene,
the Lawrence Hogmanay bonfire is started with run-of-the-mill fire starters
from the grocery store.
   "No explosions," he says, sounding slightly nostalgic for
the carefree Savannah celebrations of yore.
   The Lawrence Fire Department has investigated the site to
ensure its safety, and is always on call during the annual event. Just to be
cautious, though, Mr. Logan and his assistants also always take a few handheld
fire extinguishers out into the field where the fire burns.
   While the fire may be started in a different (and safer) way,
and Mr. Logan is far more knowledgeable about its historical context, in some
ways it’s not so different from the celebrations of his youth. Just as he collected
old boxes and wood as a boy after Christmas in New Orleans and threw them in
the big stack in the center of town, he has his work cut out for him in the
upcoming days. He’ll be making the rounds, collecting wooden palettes, old doors
and boxes left out on the side of the road.
   It may be a new year, but some things never change.
The Lawrence Historical Society’s Hogmanay Bonfire burns brightly in the
Great Meadow at the 1761 Brearley House at the end of Meadow Road, off Princeton
Pike, Lawrence, Dec. 31, 6-7:30 p.m. Free admission. For information, call (609)
895-1728. On the Web: