OF OLD SCOTLAND
hristmas & New Year were equally welcomed by Scots before the Reformation of the 16th-17th centuries. All the customs of both festivals stem from that time.
The name comes from the Scandinavians, for whom 'Yultid' was the festival
celebrated at the twelfth month, being the twelfth name of Odin, who was
supposed to come to earth in December, disguised in a hooded cloak. He would sit
awhile at the firesides listening to the people, and where there was want he
left a gift of bread or coins. (Strains of Father Christmas here!)
Christmas was often known as Nollaig Beag, Little Christmas. The custom was to
celebrate the Birth of Christ with all solemnity, the festivities began a few
days later, and spilled into New Year and Twelfth Night, which was known as
'Little Christmas'. However, the French often called Christmas colloquially, 'Homme
est né' (Man is Born) which is thought by some scholars to be the origin of the
word, 'Hogmanay', steaming from the time of the 'Auld Alliance'.
The Reformation hit Scotland as hard as everywhere else. By 1583, Bakers who
made the Yulebreads were fined, their punishment could be lessened if they gave
the names of their customers!
In 1638 the General Assembly in Edinburgh tried to abolish Yuletide.
While the same things were going on south of the border, with the Restoration of
the Monarchy came the restoration of Christmas. In Scotland, the rigid laws of
the new Kirk still frowned upon Christmas celebration, so it stayed underground.
Only the High church and the Catholics kept the old traditions going.
In England many of the symbolisms and earlier religious elements were lost, and
it took the intrepid Victorian historians to gather together the remnants and
re-establish Christmas, an effort which was helped by the strongly Christmas
orientated Royal family with its German Prince Consort. The Reformation in
Germany had hardly touched Christmas at all, and Prince Albert brought it all to
the public eye.
English custom was not particularly accepted by Scotland. The inherent need to
celebrate came out in Scotland as a great revival of the New Year celebrations.
In fact, hardly changed at all because Old Christmas comprised three days of
solemn Tribune, church services, fasting and hard work. Church on Christmas Eve
and Christmas Day. Followed by a day of Charity on the Feast of Stephen and
which we now call Boxing Day. No-one would have thought much about parties and
frolics until after these days were over. Then the solemnity gave way to joyous
and often rowdy celebration and holiday under the name of 'Homme est né' or
Being intended by the reformed church, as a day of prayer, the puritanical
elements gradually closed in on all those who defied the new laws and continued
their festivities. In England soldiers were chosen especially for their noses a
long nose was thought to be able to sniff out the spices in the Christmas Baking
better! In Scotland the Bakers were encouraged to bake inform on their
customers. In their attempts to stamp out frivolity, they prescribed that
Christmas would be a working day. So it became the custom to work over
This prevailed throughout the whole of Britain, especially in the working
classes. Until 40 years ago postmen, bakers, transport workers, and medical
staff were commonly expected to work, but because of the Victorian revival of
Christmas in England, many other establishments closed, while in Scotland shops
and many offices stayed open.
However, this did not mean that people did not celebrate Christmas. Often they
would go to Church before work, or at Lunchtime, or in the evening. They would
have a Christmas Tree and a Christmas Dinner and children went to bed expecting
that kindly old gentleman to call with a gift or two.
Customs and beliefs associated with Scottish Christmas:
Originally Twelfth Night Cake. It is a very rich fruit cake, almost solid with
fruit, almonds, spices and the ingredients are bound together with plenty of
Whisky. The stiff mixture is put into a cake tin lined with a rich short pastry
This takes the place of the even more ancient Sun Cakes. A legacy from
Scotland's close associations with Scandinavia. Sun cakes were baked with a hole
in the centre and symmetrical lines around, representing the rays of the Sun.
This pattern is now found on the modern Scottish Shortbread, and has been
misidentified as convenient slices marked onto the shortbread!
Bees leave hives Xmas Morn
There is an old belief that early on Christmas Morning all bees will leave their
hives, swarm, and then return. Many old Scots tell tales of having witnessed
this happening, though no-one can explain why. One explanation is that bees get
curious about their surroundings, and if there is unexpected activity they will
want to check it out to see if there is any danger. As people were often up and
about on Christmas night observing various traditions, or just returning from
the night services, the bees would sense the disturbance and come out to see
what was going on.
Divination customs - Ashes, Bull, Cailleach
There are a number of ancient divination customs associated with Scottish
Christmas tradition. One involves checking the cold ashes the morning after the
Christmas fire. A foot shape facing the door was said to be foretelling a death
in the family, while a foot facing into the room meant a new arrival.
Another was the ceremonial burning of Old Winter, the Cailleach. A piece of wood
was carved roughly to represent the face of an old woman, then named as the
Spirit of Winter, the Cailleach. This was placed onto a good fire to burn away,
and all the family gathered had to watch to the end. The burning symbolized the
ending of all the bad luck and enmities etc of the old year, with a fresh start.
The Candlemas Bull was in reality a Cloud
It was believed that a bull would cross the sky in the form of a cloud, early on
the morning on Candlemas, February 2nd. From its appearance people would divine.
An East travelling cloud foretold a good year, south meant a poor grain year,
but if it faced to the west the year would be poor. This custom was a remnant of
the ancient Mithraiac religion, when the Bull-god would come at the start of
Spring to warn of the year the farmers could expect.
All of the Celtic countries have a similar custom of lighting a candle at
Christmastime to light the way of a stranger. Many homes in Ireland still today
will show a lighted candle, or perhaps today's equivalent, and much safer,
electric lights, in the window of their home on Christmas Eve. This stems from
the custom that to show a light in the window lighted the way of a stranger out
after dark. It goes back to most ancient times, when the laws of hospitality
were stronger and not abused. To have a light in your window on Christmas Eve to
welcome the stranger meant that you were welcoming the Holy Family too. To have
no light meant that you shared the guilt of the Innkeeper at Bethlehem who said,
In Scotland was the Oidche Choinnle, or Night of Candles
Candles were placed in every window to light the way for the Holy Family on
Christmas Eve and First Footers on New Years Eve. Shopkeepers gave their
customers Yule Candles as a symbol of goodwill wishing them a 'Fire to warm you
by, and a light to guide you'.
It was and still is the custom for a stranger to enter the house after midnight
on New Years Eve/Day. There were taboos about the luck such a stranger would
bring, especially in the days of hospitality to travelling strangers. A fair
haired visitor was considered bad luck in most areas, partly due to the
in-fighting between the dark Scots and the fair Norse invaders. However, in
Christian times, a fair haired man was considered very lucky providing his name
was Andrew! Because St Andrew is the Patron Saint of Scotland. A woman is
considered taboo still in many areas!
The Firstfooter must make an offering, a Handsel.
This can be food, drink or fuel for the fire. The ritual which have grown up
around this custom are many. An offering of food or drink must be accepted by
sharing it with everyone present, including the visitor. Fuel, must be placed
onto the fire by the visitor with the words 'A Good New Year to one and all and
many may you see'. In today's often fireless society the fuel is usually
presented as a polished piece of coal, or wood which can be preserved for the
year as an ornament.
Sayings e.g. : Is blianach Nollaid gun sneachd - Christmas without snow
is poor fare.