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Christmas in Old Scotland

Christmas and 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 came from the Scandinavians for whom ‘Yultid’ was the festival celebrated at the twelfth month. The word was taken from 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 need, he left a gift of bread or coins.

Christmas was often known as Nollaig Beag or 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. 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’, stemming 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.

The inherent need to celebrate came out in Scotland as a great revival of the New Year celebrations. In fact, the New Year changed very little because Old Christmas comprised three days of solemn Tribune consisting of church services, fasting and hard work. Church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were followed by a day of Charity on the Feast of Stephen, 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 Hogmanay.

A Christmas Carol

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 better sniff out the spices in the Christmas baking! In Scotland the bakers were encouraged to 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 Christmas.

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, people still celebrated Christmas. Often they would go to Church before work, 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.

*Taken from the Christmas Archives of Countess Maria Hubert von Staufer

Read about a Christmas celebration in A Highland Pearl. Click on the cover to purchase.

A sweet romance blossoms amidst feuding and war. With her reputation at stake after being accused of practicing witchcraft and hated as a member of a rival clan, Maidie considers leaving Clan Munro and returning to the home of her birth in Clan Cameron. Fierce battles, a tragic encounter, and a handsome clan chief compel her to make crucial decisions in this haunting romance set in the16th century Highlands of Scotland.