DREAMING OF A SCOTTISH CHRISTMAS
by Thomas A Cameron
How might a Scot celebrate Christmas today?
Many individuals believe that there are few remaining traditions for such a celebration; they are greatly mistaken. Many customs, both old and new, survived the antipathy of the post-reformation period in Scotland. Looking back away, Christmas itself was banned in Great Britain by an act of Parliament in 1652, citing it as pagan and "pope-ish." When the holiday was reinstated, a decade or so later, it never truly regained what it had been in Scotland, a very special time of the year. How can these traditions, mostly dating back well over 350 years, be incorporated into your Christmas plans?
Let's begin with the tree. German in origin, the Christmas tree is obviously significant to the holiday itself, but in ancient days it was juniper and mistletoe that decorated the homes of the Highlands. Their presence was a sign of the much sought after greenery that the Scots hoped for during the long winter months and a symbol of love.
Today, the Christmas tree of Scotland, if there were such an official distinction, would have to be the Scots Pine, the only pine native to Scotland. A trip to your local tree farm, as a family, might serve tradition well, of course artificial Scots Pines are also very pleasant these days, and well worth a look.
Taking place long before the holiday season, a Yule log is selected from a supplier of firewood. This "burning heart of the season, the living symbol of all the warm emotions and bright thoughts," in Scotland at least, must be Birch wood. If one is taking the traditional route the log must be cut at least by the summer time and allowed to dry properly. It should be size consistent with the capacity of modern fireplaces; the larger the better, of course discretion is advised, since it must not be split. Stripped of its bark, the yule log may be displayed at the beginning of the holiday season next to the fireplace, decorated with greenery and plaid ribbons.
On Christmas Eve, the tradition is that the log must be brought (if previously displayed, then brought outside first) into the home in ceremonial fashion, with the men of the family walking in line, oldest first (carrying the log), followed by the next oldest and so on. This peculiar group of Scots must tour the kitchen three times, then place the birch near the fireplace, where the head of the household makes a traditional Christmas toast: "Joy, Joy. May God shower joy upon us, my dear (wife, children, family...). Christmas brings us all good things. God give us grace to see the New Year; and if we do not increase in numbers may we at all events not decrease."
Some clansmen choose this time to toast the Chief, others just observe a moment of silence. The log is then placed into the fire, which has been kindled with the remaining wood from the previous year's Yule log. This in itself is an interesting practice, unusual, but nevertheless interesting.
Each year the remaining wood from the Yule log is placed under the bed of the lady of the house as a "charm" against fire, the idea being that the wood is saving it's own fire to kindle next Christmas' hearth. It is considered the worst of luck (after all, superstitions were prevalent in the Highlands) to let the fire go out on Christmas Eve, since that was the time when the elves are abroad and only a good, roaring fire will keep them from slipping down the chimney to help themselves of one's Christmas Eve meal, among other things. Whether these are the same elves that "Santa" uses is doubtful and the parents are responsible with the task of allowing the fire to burn down to a safe level in the early morning hours as to let Santa, or as his kilted counterpart is called, MacNicholas or Father Christmas, safely enter with presents for all.
Christmas Eve fare traditionally consists of Scottish versions of mince meat pies, wassail and fresh oatmeal bread. The mince meat pies are an age old favorite in Scotland, commonly being replaced by bridies, meat pies or pasties. In times gone by, the pie was shaped rectangular, to represent the manger in which Jesus was born. The traditional mince meat pie used to actually contain minced meat, but over the years has been taken over by dried fruit and spices, leaving only a few ounces of suet in the original recipe. All considered, the bridies and their kin are far more suitable replacements for the Scottish family.
Wassail, another British favorite, is unique in Scotland. The drink usually consists of ale, roast apples, eggs, sugar and spices, but Scotch has found its way into the ingredients north of the River Esk. This drink is routinely made for the entire family, both young and old, by substitutions that render it a mulled and spice apple cider with personality. It is customary to leave a meat pie and some wassail out for Father Christmas to partake of during his long night of delivering presents.
Rounding out this evening's light menu is hot, fresh, homemade bread, traditionally oatmeal based. On a cold winter's night, with the family gathered together, nothing compares to the mingled aroma of fresh bread, mulled wassail, meat pies, fresh-cut pine and kindled, fired wood.
As for the entertainment, one practice of olden-times is worth attention.
A month or so before the holidays, a member of the family is appointed to be in charge of Christmas festivities. In the past this individual was called "The Abbot of Unreason" and was responsible for entertainment, merrymaking, mayhem and laughter. Before they too were banned by an act of Parliament, they oversaw activities in large families, courts and towns. Dressed in mock clerical robes, they planned everything from games to skits to song and dance. While the robes and title "Abbot" are long gone, this tradition is significant in that it brings laughter and activity to a holiday that is usually quite sedate.
Traditionally, the main skit involves a hero who is brought to the brink of death through his or her gallantry, only to be revived by what might be called a peculiar doctor figure toward the end. This type of skit or play is called mumming, and has been performed throughout Great Britain for countless generations. The characters will usually seek out makeshift costumes and masks during their mumming and are led by "The Abbot" in their merrymaking. Many families plan these skits and other acts at the last minute and the main share of the action goes to the children, much to the amusement of the adults. Of course, parents are regularly drawn into action, either at the request of the Abbot or simply to share in the fun.
First thing Christmas morning family members awaken to the smell of a piping-hot bowl of new sowens, which is brought to them in bed. Traditionally the husks and siftings of oats, boiled to the consistency of molasses, their modern day equivalent would be oat bran, which is available at natural health stores. If this sounds as generally unappetizing as it truly is, regular oatmeal will do just fine, served with generous additions of butter, cream and sugar. Once each family member finishes their sowens, they may proceed promptly to the Christmas tree, where they may longingly inspect their wrapped presents while awaiting the rest of the family.
Christmas day is usually a quiet, pleasant time which is spent visiting family, attending church services and just possibly seeing a return visit by everyone's favorite (or by this time not so favorite) the Abbot of Unreason. The yule log is restoked, since no one would want the elves to enter and abscond all the newly acquired presents and the Christmas feast is prepared.
Over the years many main dishes have become traditional in the Highlands, namely: Roast Angus Beef, Roast Goose, Venison, Salmon, Chicken, Pheasant and Boar, to name just a few. As for side dishes, vastly popular are: plum porridge/pudding, cock-a-leekie, lamb stew and "neeps and tatties." Bowls of fruit, numerous pies and sweets are also found in abundance during the feast.
Regardless of the effects that the reformation had upon Christmas, traditions do still exist in Scotland and with those of Scottish descent. Some might seem a bit peculiar, or out of place, but nevertheless they remain in the memories of Scots worldwide. Embracing just a few of them, or possible adapting them to one's own vision of Scottish tradition will ensure that they never truly disappear.