The Traditional Scottish Christmas
Scotland has history, a lot of it. And when you have history, you have traditions, and Scotland has traditions stretching back thousands of years.
And what us proud Scots love more than tradition, is food. And more than food? Drink. And when you expertly blend tradition, food and drink together you have the perfect recipe to create a custom that will inevitably last for hundreds of years. And with the nights closing in, the sun with its annual pale light making way for the early dusk, we know that the days of ocher autumn are coming to an end and soon winter, with its spiky frost and chilled air, will be upon us. And then, bringing warm glow of celebration after the winter solstice, it’s Christmas. And the joy of Christmas is universal, although celebrated in many different ways all over the world. Countries have their own rituals and customs which have marked the time of year over centuries. So, as the festive season is well on its way, let’s look at some old Scottish traditions and see which have stood the test of time.
What many people don’t know is that Christmas in Scotland was banned for nearly 400 years. However, let’s go back to the days of Yore when our bonny land was inhabited with druids and pagans.
The pagans celebrated the winter solstice, taking greenery into the house as a symbol of life in the dark nights. Mistletoe, revered for its fertility properties, was cut and hung – and as it compels us today to kiss underneath I suppose its fertility prowess works! They also bought light in to the dwellings, burning a Yule log with the charred remains being used to protect the house throughout the year. Laterly, placing candles in the window to welcome a stranger is a long-upheld Scottish Christmas tradition. By honoring the visit of a stranger in the night, you honor the Holy Family, who searched for shelter the night of Christ’s birth. Many Scots today still burn a twig of the rowen tree at Christmas as a way to clear away bad feelings of jealousy or mistrust between family members, friends, or neighbours.
Similarly, the Celts knew Christmas as Nollaig Beag or Little Christmas, and they burned the Cailleach – a log carved with the face of an old woman, also known as the Hag of Winter who brought the long nights and the cold. Burning the log was supposed banish the cold and darkness and to take away any lingering bad luck. As it stands perhaps more luck was needed, as in the mid 16th century, Cromwell’s Reformation saw Christmas branded a catholic celebration and it was made illegal to celebrate. When Cromwell fell, The Scottish Presbyterian Church guided by its very own grinch John Knox, cancelled the festive season, forbidding any Christmas holiday festivities.
And that’s how things were, until the Victorian era which saw a revival in festive celebration when Prince Albert bought many rituals from Germany which form the Christmas we recognise today. And in the late 1950s, Christmas and Boxing Day became recognised holidays for the Scottish people, a now hodgepodge of celtic, pagan and european traditions.
But despite the ban, we still had to eat and thus a way to celebrate but masquerading as a necessity we turned to our food. One of the Scottish Christmas traditions that was banned for many years was the baking of Yule bread. A loaf of unleavened bread was baked for each individual in the family, made with caraway seeds and looks a bit like a rope arranged into a circle. The person who finds a trinket in their loaf will have good luck all year. It is now more common to include charms in the Christmas pudding. Or a Clootie Dumpling, a spiced pudding studded with dried fruits that is wrapped in a cloth (or the Scots word cloot) and simmered in water for a lengthy period.
Some parts of Scotland refer to Christmas eve as Sowans Nicht, presumably inspired by the dish Sowans, which consists of oat husks and fine meal that was steeped in water for several days until sour – yum. And mince pies, but not as we know them – anyone anticipating today’s fruit and spice pastry would be in for a shock, as then the mince pie contained meat, fruit, spices, indeed anything that came to hand. The signature miniature size of the mince pie came about during the ban, as tiny pies were easier to hide from prying Presbyterian eyes. Topped off with black buns (cakes made from fruits, almonds, spices and a little Whisky), bannock cakes (made of oatmeal) and sun cakes (sun-baked cakes) these were the traditional picks for Christmas meal. And whisky, added to anything, is a must.
But whilst we can lament the missing 400 years of tradition, we should rest assured that the canny Scots, unwilling to forego a good party, simply moved the traditions a week along. In short, the ban paved the way for the Scottish emphasis on Hogmanay. As Christmas festivities wind down all over the United Kingdom, the spectacular Hogmanay parties in Scotland are just getting underway.
One still-popular custom is first-footing – after the stroke of midnight, neighbors visit each other, bearing traditional symbolic gifts such as shortbread or black bun. The visitor, in turn, is offered a small whisky, a wee dram.The first person to enter a house in the New Year, the first foot, could bring luck for the coming year. The luckiest was a tall, dark and handsome man. The unluckiest a red head and the unluckiest of all a red-haired woman….you’ve been warned! And at the stroke of midnight, the quaich filled with whisky is passed around, and everyone enjoys a celebratory sip, sharing love and good luck for the New Year to come. Another traditional day for Scots is the first Monday after new Year, where small gifts, or Handsels were given out. Traditionally coins and items of food such as cakes or pastries, it soon became synonymous with Lairds, or Ladies, of a household giving them to their staff. This tradition was eventually overtaken by the English custom of giving boxed gifts to your employees on ‘Boxing Day’ in Victorian times.
So there you have it. When you kiss under the mistletoe or find a charm in your pudding, or when you bite in to your mince pie take a moment to remember the canny folk that kept the traditions alive, even when celebrating was illegal. And perhaps you could introduce some new traditions, such as carving your own Cailleach to banish the dark and cold midwinter nights, or try purifying your house with a burning rowan branch. Whatever you do, remember that Christmas, or whatever it is called wherever you are, is about and has always been about family, friends and giving thanks for what you have. And it’s also about hope, for hope is what keeps us moving forward. Hope for lighter days and for the sun to burst forth once more to fresh new life at the start of another year. And if you have burned your rowan and hung your mistletoe, it should be a lucky and fertile one!