A History of Christmas in Scotland

Edinburgh at Christmas Time

Edinburgh at Christmas Time

It’s hard to imagine that once upon a time Christmas was banned for over 400 years in Scotland. Today shops are full of anything and everything Christmas related you could ever need, you can spot Christmas trees in almost every sitting room window and fairy lights adorn houses and businesses across the land. Up until 54 years ago, Christmas day was just another working day in Scotland. The ban was surprisingly only lifted as recently as 1958 and Boxing Day was only recognised as a public holiday in 1974.

So where does this turbulent history of Christmas in Scotland begin? Celtic Pagans who were kicking about in Western Europe between 500 BCE and 500 CE held celebrations around the time of winter solstice (usually around the 21st or 22nd of December). The festivities were in part to brighten the dark winter days, and to appease the Gods to allow the sun to return. Traditions included the burning of the Yule log, with the charred remains being used to protect the house throughout the year, and kissing under mistletoe (a fertility rite). It is the pagans too who have been credited with the early tradition of decorating a tree. It is thought that they hung shapes from an evergreen brought into the house to symbolise life.

With the establishment of Roman Catholicism in Scotland in the 5th and 6th centuries, Pagan winter solstice traditions were mishmashed with Christian traditions, perhaps explaining why they are still around in some form or another to this day. Prior to the Scottish Reformation of 1560, Christmas in Scotland was known as Yule and celebrated in a similar fashion to the rest of Europe. Yule is a Scots word that comes from the Old Norse jól, their word for winter solstice festivities. Traditionally Yule refers not just to Christmas Day but the festive season associated with it, which began before Christmas day and continued till after the new year.

John Knox, Leader of the Scottish Reformation

John Knox, Leader of the Scottish Reformation

Post-Reformation of 1560, in which Scotland formally declared its split with the Catholic Church, anti-Catholic sentiment towards feast days and church holidays was high. John Knox, the leader of the Presbyterian movement, banned the celebration of Christmas in Scotland in 1580. He saw the holiday (including St. Nicholas) as one created by the Catholic Church and instead favored the continuation of Hogmanay as a time to celebrate new life. This eventually led to the 1640 Act of Scottish Parliament which officially abolished the “Yule vacation and all observation thereof in time coming”, and was strictly enforced by law.

The Act stated (in Middle Scots):

“… the kirke within this kingdome is now purged of all superstitious observatione of dayes… thairfor the saidis estatis have dischairged and simply dischairges the foirsaid Yule vacance and all observation thairof in tymecomeing, and rescindis and annullis all acts, statutis and warrandis and ordinances whatsoevir granted at any tyme heirtofoir for keiping of the said Yule vacance, with all custome of observatione thairof, and findis and declaires the samene to be extinct, voyd and of no force nor effect in tymecomeing.”

(English translation: “… the kirk within this kingdom is now purged of all superstitious observation of days… therefore the said estates have discharged and simply discharge the foresaid Yule vacation and all observation thereof in time coming, and rescind and annul all acts, statutes and warrants and ordinances whatsoever granted at any time heretofore for keeping of the said Yule vacation, with all custom of observation thereof, and find and declare the same to be extinct, void and of no force nor effect in time coming.”)

Nevertheless there are many accounts of folk who continued their Christmas festivities, with some receiving fines or even prison sentences. On 27 December 1583, five people in Glasgow were brought before the kirk session and sternly ordered to make public repentance for ‘keeping Yule’. In the same year the Scot’s Church forbade bakers from preparing mincemeat pies, a chiefly tradition in pre-Reformation Christmas festivities. Anyone found baking them would be punished, or as more often happened, bakers were encouraged to inform on the customers who ordered them. In order to fox the Church, mincemeat pies became smaller and easier to hide. During the Christmas of 1605, five Aberdonians were prosecuted for going through the town ‘maskit and dancing with bellis’

For anti-Christmas humbuggery on a spectacular scale, it’s hard to beat a demonstration by students at Edinburgh University in 1680. In a letter entitled The Scots Demonstration of Their Abhorrence of Popery, with all its Adherents, the author recounts how the students had themselves a jolly Christmas by burning an effigy of the Pope. “Our Chriftmafs, this morning very pleasantly began” begins the letter, describing how the students burnt the effigy in public, despite a plea by authorities against “tumultuous affemblies.”

Even though the Victorians revived Christmas traditions to some extent, up until the 1960s Scots were mostly indiffernt to Christmas. With the fading of the influence of the Church and influence from the rest of the UK and elsewhere, Christmas time in Scotland today is celebrated with all the trimmings.


About Nadine Lee

Originally from New Zealand, Nadine is a documentary researcher now based in the north east of Scotland.

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