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Scottish Christmas traditions

Close up on Christmas tree with different decoration
’Tis the season to be jolly! If you’re celebrating Christmas or Hogmanay in Scotland this year, there are lots of seasonal Scottish traditions that you can take part in – some of them old, some of them new.

History of Christmas in Scotland

Neolithic solstice

Celtic Pagans held celebrations around the time of winter solstice (usually around the 21 or 22 of December) in acknowledgement of the shortest day of the year. The festivities were in part to brighten the dark winter days, and to appease the gods to allow the sun to return.

Viking Yule

Vikings began raiding Scotland in the late 700s AD, and settled here from the 8th–15th century. The Vikings brought their own way of celebrating the winter solstice, which they referred to as Jól. This old Norse term has its roots in the time of ‘Yule’, the pagan festivities which took place across what we now know as Christmastime, as well as being translated from Norse poetry as a word for ‘feast’ – highly appropriate since a mid-winter feast was a key part of Viking celebrations.

Why Christmas was banned in Scotland

There’s plenty to do in Scotland in the winter, and many Scots love getting in the festive spirit. But did you know that Christmas was banned here for almost four centuries?

Before the Reformation in 1560, Christmas in Scotland had been a religious feasting day. Then, with the powerful Kirk frowning upon anything related to Roman Catholicism, the Scottish Parliament passed a law in 1640 that made celebrating ‘Yule vacations’ illegal. The baking of Yule bread was a criminal act! Even after Charles II was restored to the throne, celebrating Christmas was frowned upon in Scotland for a long time – it wasn’t until 1958 that 25 December became a Scottish public holiday. Which is why Hogmanay and New Year celebrations in Scotland became so important.

Christmas in Scotland today

As well as Christmas Day becoming a public holiday in 1958 in Scotland, both Boxing Day and New Year’s Day achieved public holiday status over a decade later in 1974.

Many of the families who lived at our properties also loved to celebrate Christmas, ranging from the Hebrides to New Town in Edinburgh. If you are curious about Christmases of the more recent past, take a peek into what a Scottish merry Christmas has looked like for some:

A Canna Christmas

An Edwardian Christmas at the Hill House

A Georgian House Christmas

Scottish Christmas traditions

Working on Christmas Day is now a distant memory for lots of Scots, but there are other old traditions that people still hold onto. For example, some folk like to bake unleavened Yule bread for each person in their family. Whoever finds a trinket in their loaf will be blessed with good luck for the year!

Other traditions include burning a rowan twig as a way to get rid of any bad feelings between friends or family, and the ‘first-footer’, a special name given to the first person to arrive on Christmas Day (this tradition is now more commonly associated with New Year’s Day). To bless their guests, first-footers come with gifts such as coal, whisky, salt and bread. Black buns are also a popular first-footing gift – they’re made with raisins, currants, almonds, citrus peel, allspice, ginger and cinnamon, and topped with pastry.

Christmas Family Dinner Table

Modern Scottish Christmas traditions are similar to those of other western countries. People sing carols (wassailing) and decorate their houses with lights, putting a Christmas tree in the window and a wreath on the door. Children write letters to Santa Claus, and on Christmas Eve leave something for him to eat (like a mince pie) and drink (like sherry or whisky) when he visits in the night.

On Christmas Eve some families like to attend midnight mass, and on Christmas Day people give and receive presents before gathering around the table for a hearty lunch. People pull crackers, tell (bad) jokes, make toasts and then relax for the rest of the day, often in front of the television to watch the annual Queen’s speech or a festive film.

Tasty Christmas recipe - Perkins

Tasty Christmas recipe - Haggis sausage rolls

Hogmanay in Scotland

Torchlight procession flames

New Year’s Eve in Scotland is called Hogmanay. This joyful gathering was especially celebrated in the years when Christmas was ‘banned’, and celebrations could last for days! Edinburgh now hosts one of the world’s biggest and most famous Hogmanay street parties, with an amazing fireworks display. All over the country, Scottish people brighten up the dark winter with music, poetry and bonfires.

There are plenty of Scottish Hogmanay traditions, some dating back centuries and some only a few decades old. Certainly the most famous is the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which was written by the iconic Scottish poet Robert Burns and sees people gathering together and linking arms to sing in unison. This became a popular convention by the mid-20th century. There are other poems and songs by writers like Robert Louis Stevenson that celebrate Hogmanay and the passing of the year, but nothing holds a haggis to Burns’s classic song.

Auld lang syne

Two hands hold out a page of Burns’s handwritten manuscript for ‘Auld lang syne’.

Scotland also has some weird and wonderful Hogmanay events. The Stonehaven Fireballs Festival has its roots in pagan traditions – for nearly a century, residents of this Aberdeenshire town have paraded along the streets on Hogmanay, swinging giant fireballs to drive evil spirits away and purge the old year.

In Orkney you’ll need to fight for a view of the Kirkwall Ba’ on New Year’s Day, which sees almost the entire town turned into a football pitch for a chaotic and competitive kickabout! In Burghead in Moray, the ‘burning of the clavie’ involves carrying a flaming tar-filled barrel through the streets on 11 January (the Gaelic New Year’s Eve, dating back to the time before the Gregorian calendar was adopted).

Some Scots like to encourage good luck in the new year by doing a spot of ‘redding’ and cleaning their house from top to bottom (a good one for getting the children involved) on Hogmanay. It’s also meant to be bad luck to clean or do laundry on New Year’s Day – in case you sweep or wash away the good luck! So instead of cleaning, the more thick-skinned of us may take part in the Loony Dook – a modern tradition where people take a dip in the Firth of Forth on New Year’s Day.

And finally...

How do you say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Scottish Gaelic?

Nollaig Chridheil!