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Scotland has history: a lot of it. When you have history, you have traditions, and Scotland has traditions stretching back thousands of years. 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.
With the nights closing in, the sun with its annual pale light making way for the early dusk, we know that the days of ochre autumn are coming to an end and soon winter, with its spiky frost and chilled air, will be upon us. And then, bringing a 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 this special time of year over many centuries. Come and stay in one of our cosy Christmas cottages in Scotland and experience the local festivities in this beautiful country for yourself.
Let’s look at some old Scottish traditions and see which have stood the test of time to start you off:
Druids, pagans and a 400-year ban
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 during the dark nights. Mistletoe, revered for its fertility properties, was cut and hung – and as it compels us today to kiss underneath it, we suppose its fertility prowess works! The pagans also bought light into the dwellings, burning a Yule log with the charred remains being used to protect the house throughout the year. Since then, placing candles in the window to welcome a stranger is a long-upheld Scottish Christmas tradition. By honouring the visit of a stranger in the night, you honour the Holy Family, who searched for shelter the night of Christ’s birth. Many Scots today still burn a twig of the rowan 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 to 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 celebrations, when Prince Albert bought many rituals from Germany which form the Christmas we recognise today. In the late 1950s, Christmas and Boxing Day became recognised holidays for the Scottish people, a now hodgepodge of Celtic, pagan and European traditions.
Mouthwatering Christmas food
Despite the ban, we still had to eat and this became a way to celebrate by masquerading it as a necessity - so 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, it 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 of course, to include charms in the Christmas pudding or the 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 had been 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 a Christmas meal. And whisky - added to absolutely 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.
Traditional Christmas customs
One still-popular custom is first-footing – after the stroke of midnight, neighbours visit each other, bearing traditional symbolic gifts such as shortbread or black buns. 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 redhead and the unluckiest of all a red-haired woman…you’ve been warned!
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, find a charm in your pudding, or bite into your mince pie, take a moment to remember the canny folk that kept the traditions alive, even when celebrating was illegal. 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.
The message of Christmas
Whatever you do, remember that Christmas, or whatever it is called wherever you are, is - and has always been - about family, friends and giving thanks for what you have. 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!
If you are still looking for a Christmas getaway, keep us in mind for your winter accommodation. View our full list of Christmas Cottages for your special celebration.
*Christmas tree cover image credit: Adam Tarwacki at Unsplash.