/ The Edinburgh Guide
Edinburgh — By Andy Hayes on December 23, 2009 at 10:21 am

Scottish Christmas Traditions, Past and Present

Come, everyone, and gather around the fire.  I’d like to tell you a little tale about Scottish Christmas traditions.  I think you’ll be surprised by what I have to say.  In the style of A Christmas Carol, let’s have a look first at Christmas Past.

logs in fire

Back to When it All Started

Modern day Scotland during the Christmas season doesn’t look or feel a lot different from other younger nations, such as the typical America traditions.  To understand that, we need to step back in time.

Christmas was a time-honoured tradition prior to the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries.  There was quite a blur between Christmas, which was called Nollaig Beag (’Little Christmas’) and New Year, as the festivities tended to continue between the two events.   It was called Little Christmas because Christmas itself was a rather sombre event, and slowly gaining steam until the bigger celebrations for Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve.  The word Hogmanay is believed to descend for the colloquial French word of the time for Christmas, Homme est ne (Man is Born).  Keep in mind France and Scotland were very tight neighbours at this time in history, under the Auld Alliance.

The Reformation and the Victorians

The Reformation all but ended any traces of Christmas celebrations in Scotland – and indeed those found celebrating could be punished!  Even bakers making Christmasy breads and treats were fined and forced to give the names of their customers.  In 1638, the Edinburgh General Assembly tried to ban Christmas outright.

As hard as it is to believe, this lock down on the festive season continued until the Victorians in the mid to late 1800s tried to revive Christmas.  From hand made crafts to lavish food and drink, the Victorians used Christmas as a major celebration of the year and introduced some of the customs that we see in modern nations.  However, the Victorian period was a distinctively English phenomenon.  Because of this, the revival and creation of these new traditions was frowned upon in Scotland.  This kept Christmas well at bay while giving Scots all the more reason to boast bigger and better Hogmanay celebrations.

In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago when Scottish public servants were given Christmas day off as a public holiday!  It sounds hard to believe, but some things are slow to change.  Christmas was first officially a public holiday in 1958.

Christmas Present

Let’s leave Christmas Past alone and join our journey into Christmas Present.  We all know far too well the stuff that you’ll see in Scotland today during the Christmas season:  bulging shopping bags and throngs of shoppers on the streets, Christmas markets with steaming mugs of mulled wine, Christmas parties every night of the week.  Much of those traditions are imports.  But here’s a few things that are truly modern Scottish Christmas that any visitor lucky to enjoy should consider themselves thankful (and a well versed traveller, I might add):

  • Burning the Fire.  You won’t see this often because many homes don’t have fireplaces anymore!  But a few Scottish families I know do keep this tradition if for no one else but the children.  There are lots of myths about why one should burn the fire throughout the night on Xmas eve; some day it keeps the mischievous elves at bay, while others burn “the Christmas Old Wife”, a wood figure shaped like an old woman that keeps death away when burned.  But it’s usually cold here so if you’ve got a fireplace it will likely be raging anyway.
  • The Bees Swarm.  I found many references to this but few people who can claim witness to it, but they say in Scotland on Christmas morning bees all swarm from their hives and then return.   There’s no explanation (except for those mischievous elves previously mentioned?).
  • Black Buns.  What else would you expect for a classic Christmastime Scottish treat than a fruitcake soaked in whisky?  That’s a Black bun, and you should have made yours already so it can soak prior to eating.  Rampant Scotland has a very good Black bun recipe if you want to give it a go.
  • Window Candlelights.  While this sounds a very modern practice, it is an old tradition from all the Celtic countries.  The purpose?  To light the way of a stranger.  It was called the Night of Candles, or Oidche Choinnle in old Scots.

With the jumble of religions, religious control, and the suppression of the Reformation, figuring out what’s truly old Scots and what’s just an import is a difficult task.  I say take the old with the new, and enjoy.

Christmas Future

Scotland is continuing in a journey for national identity and the strive of whether to belong to the United Kingdom or become an independent nation.  Either way, I think our modern day Christmas will continue – and given everything that’s happened to get us here today, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

If you’re in Edinburgh on Christmas Day

If you’d like to sample some Christmas fayre on Christmas Day and find yourself in Edinburgh, one of the best of the few places open is The Granary in Leith.  Go to their website and check out the Xmas menu, the book a table now as they’ll likely fill up.

Photo by johntrainor

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  • Jenni Ingersoll says:

    I am an instructional assistant at an elementary school in Indiana. We have a family of 3 boys who recently moved here from Scotland. They were going “home” for the holidays, and no wonder they were so excited! I can’t wait to ask them if they burned the fire or ate black buns!!

  • Andy Hayes says:

    Jenni, That’s awesome. You’ll have to tell us if they did the traditional stuff ( to be honest, not many families do, which is a shame).

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