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Scottish Christmas Traditions: Past and Present


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Tartan and pine cones on the table, cappuccino on the table-a Scottish Christmas tradition

This year will be my 5th Christmas in Scotland! I have lived here longer, but only a few hours before Christmas, so I still know all the traditions of Scottish Christmas.

But to be fair, as we now know, Christmas is actually not that traditional in Scotland. In fact, there was no Christmas in Scotland for a while!

During the Reformation in the 16th century, all Christmas celebrations were banned. As the newly formed Scottish Church abandoned the Catholic faith and rituals, it was completely removed from the calendar.

After this time, Christmas returned to England, but in Scotland, people did not start celebrating until much later. It was not until Christmas 1958 became a national holiday in Scotland that Boxing Day was added in 1974!

Scottish Christmas Traditions-Christmas Tree and Tree Decoration

Nevertheless, there are still some Christmas traditions in Scotland that date back many years, while some are passed on as New Year (or Hogmanay here) traditions.

Before 1560, Christmas in Scotland was called Yule, also known as Yhoill or Yuil. There are gifts, parties and banquets. When all of this is banned, Scots certainly can’t live without parties, so they postponed the celebration until a week later to the New Year, and Hogmanay became the biggest celebration of the year.

Scottish Christmas traditions

Bringing greenery into the home

The tradition of Christmas can be traced back to druids and pagans. As we all know, they bring green plants such as mistletoe into the house to hang and encourage fertility (you can see the traditional source of kissing!).

It also symbolizes the idea that life can continue in the dark, because around Christmas is the longest night of the year.

Divination tradition

It may not be so popular now, but before the Reformation, the tradition of divination was common around Christmas. Some involve reading the ashes in the hearth, or even the egg whites!

Use fire in celebrations

On the shortest day of the year (usually close to Christmas), pagans would burn a Christmas log. Of course not the kind of chocolate you might see now! The logs will be lit with logs from the previous year, and it is said that people sitting by the stove will have good luck in the coming year.

The Celtics brought the tradition of burning Cailleach or “Old Woman Winter”, a log carved with an old woman’s face, which would be thrown on the fire on Christmas Eve to resist bad luck.

Burning rowan branches is also very popular to eliminate any bad emotions between friends and family.

Although I couldn’t find when it started, candles were lit in the front window to show welcome to strangers. This is called Oidche Choinnle and symbolizes the path leading the Holy Family.

North Berwick Christmas decorations on the tree

Say Merry Christmas/Merry Christmas

I did some digging to see if there is a special way for people to say “Merry Christmas” or “Merry Christmas” in Scotland. I can’t say that I have heard it myself, but some cards are spoken in Scots or Scottish Gaelic.

For Scots, it may be “A Blithe Yule”, which means Merry Christmas, or “A Cantie Yule”, which means Merry or Happy Christmas.

In Scottish Gaelic, it would be “Nollaig Chirdheil”.

Scottish Christmas Traditions-Gift Wrapping

Christmas Eve as Sowan’s Night

In some parts of Scotland, Christmas Eve is called Sowans Night, derived from the Sowans dish, oat husks and meals soaked in water for several days.

The name of the boss

“Santa Claus” is the main name for Christmas gift givers in the UK, but in Scotland, he is usually just called “Santa Claus”. Not Santa, just ordinary Santa!

Santa Ornaments-Christmas in Scotland

Traditional Scottish Christmas food

Like the rest of the UK, Turkey is usually the main Christmas event, but there are also a range of Scottish flavors on the table. It can be eaten with Angus beef or Scottish lamb.

First, soups like Scotch Broth or Cock-a-Leekie (chicken and leeks) are delicious and warm.

As a rich producer of salmon, there is usually something about smoking, grilling or pies.

Scottish cheese is rich and delicious. Try Lanark or Strathdon Blue or Caboc, which is a double cream cheese, shaped like a log, rolled in oatmeal.

Clootie Dumpling is similar to Christmas pudding. It is boiled in cloth, hence the name “clootie”. Other desserts include Cranachan and Tipsy Laird, which is a snack made with whiskey.

Of course the shortbread is also very popular!

The mince pies are initially made large enough to be fed to friends and family, and include actual minced meat. They were banned by the church in Scotland in 1583, which is why they are said to have become smaller and therefore easier to hide.

You can read all about Scottish Christmas food is here And ideas to make your Christmas dinner more Scottish!

Cruti Dumplings on Christmas Cake with Custard

First foothold

The first footer tradition now associated with Hogmanay was actually originally a Christmas tradition to commemorate Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter at the birth of Christ.

The first footer is the first person to cross the threshold that day (now on New Year’s Day). He will bring money, bread or black steamed buns, coal or peat, which is said to bring wealth, deprivation and warmth to the family.

Baking Christmas Bread

A loaf of unleavened bread called Christmas bread is baked for each member of the family, one of which includes a small ornament that can bring good luck to those who find it.

When Christmas is banned, bakers must provide the authorities with the names of anyone requesting Christmas bread. The bread is made with coriander seeds and made into a rope-shaped round shape.

Scotland’s modern Christmas traditions

Celebrating Christmas these days is just like in other places. Lighting is all over the town, and Christmas trees are erected and decorated.

Exchanging gifts in the morning, everyone sits down and eats a hearty main meal, usually at noon in the afternoon.

It is very popular to watch Christmas movies and TV with the family, and many people also go for walks.

Some historical traditions still exist for some people, such as burning a rowan branch and eating a lot of food, such as mince pies and shortbread.

Christmas markets are very popular, usually with stalls selling food and custom gifts, as well as rides or ice skating.

Edinburgh Christmas Market Sign

Hogmanay tradition

As mentioned earlier, when Christmas is not allowed in Scotland, the celebration shifted to the New Year or Hogmanay. The event usually lasts a few days! This is the time to party and celebrate with friends and family.

There is a grand street party in Edinburgh, culminating in a firework display near Edinburgh Castle. Fire celebrations are common, the Viking Torch Parade in Edinburgh and the Fireball Parade in Stonehaven.

The first foothold shifted to New Year’s Day, which is also when many people swim in the Bay of Forth in “Loony Dook”.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, people crossed their arms and hand in hand, singing in unison the Scottish poem Auld Lang Syne by Rabbie Burns.

Stage and fireworks at Hogmanay, Edinburgh

As you can see, there are many long-standing Scottish Christmas traditions, and we can see these traditions in some of our modern Christmas celebrations, as well as in Hogmanay!

So what will you do this year to make your Christmas a little bit Scottish?



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