In Scotland, Christmas is known as Nollaig Bheag, which means “Little Christmas.” The date for Christmas was one of the many holidays chosen to take the place of a pagan holiday. Instead of pagan winter solstice festivals, Christmas was celebrated. Christmas was celebrated as a primarily religious festival during ancient times and continues to remain a primarily religious celebration today. Christmas was celebrated in Scotland until the Reformation. The celebration of Christmas was banned in Scotland in the 1600s. Protestantism had spread throughout Scotland, and Christmas was considered a Catholic holiday. Prior to the Reformation, Scots did celebrate New Years’ Day, called “Hogmanay,” which included many characteristics of Christmas. Hogmanay is still a more important holiday in Scotland today than Christmas.
Scottish Christmas Traditions, Decorations, and Foods
The Scots have always had a belief in the supernatural through the ages. These beliefs probably come from ancient pagan beliefs and traditions. One Scottish tradition is to keep their Christmas fires going all night long on Christmas Eve. If you didn’t keep your fire burning continually, unwanted spirits would supposedly come down the fireplace and into your home, bringing bad luck. The tradition of the Yule log is also practiced in Scotland at Christmas time. During the summer a log is cut and dried. Usually, Yule logs are cut from birch or rowan trees. On Christmas Eve, the dried log is brought into the house. The Yule log is circled around the kitchen three times. The Yule log celebrants make a toast to the log and place it in the fire to burn Christmas Eve night. On Christmas morning, people looked at the ashes in their fireplace. If there was a foot shaped ash, it was used to tell the future. If the foot shaped ash faced the door, someone was predicted to die within the coming year. If the foot shaped ash faced toward the inside of the house, a new arrival was expected within the coming year.
Lighting a candle at Christmas and placing it in a window was intended to guide a stranger to warmth and safety. Furthermore, the lit candle in the window at Christmas time symbolized lighting the way for the traveling Holy Family. Bonfires are also a part of the Christmas celebration in Scotland. People dance around these bonfires. Of course, bagpipers play their haunting melodies, as well.
Christmas decorations include hanging evergreen branches. Colors used in decorating for Scottish Christmas include the colors and patterns of tartans. Traditional Christmas carols, like “The First Nowell” are sung, as well as such Scottish carols as “Taladh Chriosta” and “Bottom of the Punch Bowl.”
Some Scottish traditional festive foods that are appropriate for both the Christmas and Hogmany seasons are Selkirk Bannock, Venison Stew, Scottish Shortbread, Scottish Blackbun, and Dundee Cake. The Selkirk Bannock is a traditional Scottish fruit cake made for the Christmas season. The Selkirk Bannock was originally made by a bakery in Selkirk. It is a festive cake made of flour, sugar, raisins and fruit peels. Selkirk Bannocks are a specialty cake made for other special occasions and festivals as well as being a special Christmas treat. Blackbun is a very rich cake made of fruit, almonds, spices and flavored with whisky.
A wee dram of Scotch whisky, of course, is frequently served to family and friends at Christmas time as well as during other celebrations throughout the year.
Modern Scottish Christmas
The ban on Christmas was lifted in the 1950s. Because Christmas was not openly celebrated for about 400 years, it is not celebrated by the same elaborate means that is can be celebrated in other countries. Modern celebrations of Christmas have been influenced by the media and traditions from other countries, such as the United States. Scots can be found eating a turkey dinner similar to that eaten by people in America on Thanksgiving. The Scots have been tree lovers since the Druids of ancient times, so pine trees are decorated at Christmas time, as well. And everyone loves a present, so gifts are now exchanged at Christmas time in Scotland. Santa has made an appearance and become a part of Scottish Christmas tradition in recent times. According to one source, Christmas lists to Santa are put in the fireplace fire. When they turn to smoke, they go up the chimney to Santa.