The Christmas Archives

YULETIDE CUSTOMS OF OLD SCOTLAND

Christmas & 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 Hogmanay.

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 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, 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 & BELIEFS ASSOCIATED WITH SCOTTISH CHRISTMAS:


Black Bun. 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 and baked.

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 symbolised 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.

CANDLELIGHT


All of the Celtic countries have a similar custom of lighting a candle at Christmastime to light the way of a stranger. (See LIGHT IN THE WINDOW IRISH CUSTOMS)

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'.

FIRST FOOTERS


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 todays 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 eg : Is blianach Nollaid gun sneachd - Christmas without snow is poor fare.