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A History of Christmas in Scotland

christmas in scotland history

Winter days in Scotland are dark, cold and long, but it’s the Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations that make winter bearable.

But did you know that Christmas was once banned in Scotland for over 400 years? The history of Christmas in Scotland, like much of Scotland’s history, is turbulent.

In my opinion- this makes it all the more interesting! In this quick guide to the history of Christmas in Scotland you’ll learn why Christmas was banned in Scotland, and what a modern Christmas in Scotland looks like today!

From the beginning…

Let’s go back to the time between 500 BCE and 500 CE, where the first evidence of Christmas celebrations [known as Yule in Scotland] emerged.

Back then pagans celebrated the winter solstice by having a flurry of activities around December 21st until the new year- the darkest and coldest time of the year.

Back then folk were highly superstitious, and so the celebrations were mainly to appease the Gods so that the sun would return and they would have good fortune going into the new year.

It’s also thought the celebrations were to honour their ancestors in the darkest time of the year.

I can imagine winters in Scotland would have been tough way back then, so it makes sense that the festivities were also a way for people to distract themselves and have a bit of fun despite the dreadfully cold weather! The pagans were also credited with the tradition of chopping down and decorating a tree in their home, which was used to symbolise life.

It wasn’t until Christianity arrived in Scotland during the 5th and 6th centuries that Christmas was celebrated on December 25th. Christmas itself is historically thought to have first begun in Rome, spreading throughout European countries to Egypt and then England, and then to the rest of the world.

I think most religions across the world would have had some form of winter celebration to appease their gods, until Christianity spread throughout the world and defined Christmas as how we celebrate it today.

The mixture of pagan traditions and Christian traditions are still evident today, which is quite remarkable when you think about it!

>> Read more: A quick guide to the Christmas Markets in Scotland

Why Christmas was banned in Scotland

After the Scottish Reformation in 1560, Christian celebrations were heavily frowned upon. In 1640, Christmas was officially banned in Scotland.

The following were seen as a serious crime, punishable by jail time:

  • singing a Christmas carol
  • putting up a Christmas tree
  • buying a mincemeat pie around Christmas time [it was also illegal for bakers to make them!]

Not every Scot obeyed the rules, however. In 1583, five people in Glasgow were ordered to make public repentance for celebrating Yule, and in 1605, five Aberdonians were prosecuted for going through the town ‘maskit and dancing with bellis.’

The ban was revoked in 1712, however celebrating Christmas was still heavily frowned upon by the Church.

Listen to the Life in Scotland podcast episode: Christmas in Scotland

What’s the Scottish Reformation?
The Scottish Reformation was when Scotland separated itself from the Catholic Church. Scotland developed a new religious movement known as Protestantism. The Protestant versus Catholic sentiment still exists today and has spilled over into professional football. You can often tell if a Scot comes from a Protestant family or a Catholic one depending on which football team they support. For example, Celtic supporters are often from a Catholic background, while Rangers fans are likely from a Protestant background. Fans of each team aren’t allowed to mix at games, and so you’ll see one set of supporters sat on one side of the stadium to the opposition. This is because fights often break out between the fans!

In the early 20th century, Christmas wasn’t really celebrated, with many fathers working on Christmas Day. Christmas was seen as an English celebration, while Scots focused on celebrating Hogmanay. Children would also wait until Hogmanay to open their presents.

Though Christmas was celebrated in other parts of the United Kingdom, it wasn’t an official public holiday in Scotland until 1958. The Victorians were responsible for bringing Christmas back to Scotland.

This means that 2021 will only be Scotland’s 64th Christmas holiday in 381 years!

What is Hogmanay?
Hogmanay is what Scots call New Year. According to the Hogmanay tradition of First Footing (where the first guest to enter the household on New Year’s Day is a bringer of good luck), it is desirable for the guest to be a dark-haired male, as fair-haired males were considered unlucky. This attitude towards fair-haired individuals may reflect an unwanted Viking entering a household.

>> Read more: What’s open in Edinburgh during Christmas and Hogmanay

Christmas in Scotland today

Since I’m from New Zealand, and it’s summer at Christmas time, we have a very different experience of Christmas.

In New Zealand we often have a barbeque at a family member’s house, spend some time at the beach, and have a bonfire at night.

Kids run around outside in the back yard playing with their new toys, father’s in jandals [flip flops] or bare feet are in charge of the barbeque [a very serious responsibility] and someone’s mum or aunt is usually responsible for making [or buying a store-made] pavlova for dessert.

Despite it being summer for Christmas, the marketing is still wintery- so I’m familiar with the concept of a white Christmas.

A traditional Scottish Christmas revolves around eating, drinking, spending time with the family- and keeping warm!

Scots still take part in pagan customs at Christmas, including lighting fires and decorating their homes with holly and mistletoe.

One thing I’ve noticed is the giving of Christmas cards [or any cards in general whenever there is an event] is a big thing over here. I’m a minimalist so I avoid creating waste where possible, but it’s considered slightly rude if you don’t gift your family, friends and neighbours a Christmas card!

Another strange thing about Christmas in Scotland is that Scots tend to have their Christmas dinner at around 3pm.

Haggis, neeps and tatties: anything goes on Christmas in Scotland!

Christmas markets are also popular throughout Scotland. The Christmas markets in Edinburgh and Glasgow are two popular events that begin in November and carry on into the first week of January.

When I asked Craig what is a traditional Scottish Christmas meal he replied ”there is none.”

I still feel as though Christmas not being a big deal has transpired over the years- but here are some of my observations about food I see being served up around Christmas time:

Main meal:

  • Pigs in blankets
  • Cock-a-leekie soup
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Parsnips
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Roast Turkey with cranberry sauce
  • Haggis Bon Bons
  • Yorkshire puddings

Dessert:

  • Christmas pudding
  • Sticky Toffee Pudding
  • Profiteroles

Drinks

  • Wine, whisky, beer (whatever your poison) is consumed in large volumes throughout the day!
  • Mulled wine

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the history of Christmas in Scotland, what what Christmas in Scotland is like today. Do you celebrate Christmas in a similar way? What are your Christmas traditions where you’re from? Leave me a comment below!

>> Read more: How to have a traditional Scottish Christmas