Scotland – A European Christmas Story

In Scotland, Christmas is known as Nollaig Bheag, which means “Little Christmas” and, unusually, has a substantial gap of several hundred years in its celebration. Prior to the mid-16th century Scotland had  a rich tradition of marking Christmas, with a legacy of celebrations and traditions that dated back into its pre-Christian Celtic past. These included bringing evergreen boughs into the house during Winter and burning a “yule log”; The ashes from his yule log would be scattered around the house after Christmas in order to provide it with magical protection throughout the year. Even in Christian times many of these celebrations were carried over. As in modern times the preparation of mince pies was an important feature. They were very different from the modern fruit and spice pies. The traditional Scottish ones contained meat, fruit, spices, and anything else that came to hand. This would be baked up in a huge wheel shape and shared with neighbours and visitors.

All this changed in 1580 though when the Presbyterian church, under its puritanical leader John Know, banned the celebration of Christmas. The law and was strictly enforced; On 27 December 1583, five people in Glasgow were brought before the kirk session and sternly ordered to make public repentance for ‘keeping Yule’. In the same year the Scottish Church banned bakers from preparing the aforementioned mincemeat pies. Anyone found baking them would be punished or, in order to escape prosecution, bakers were asked to inform on the customers who ordered them. In order to escape the watchful and eye of the Church, mincemeat pies became smaller and easier to hide.

This state of affairs persisted until 1958 when Christmas was again recognised as public holiday. Up until this date Scots had continued to work on Christmas and Boxing Day as if it was any other day.

The reason for this persecution of this seemingly (to us) harmless celebration of joy and life in the depths of Winter, lay in Knox’s and the church’s view of Christmas. They saw the holiday (including St. Nicholas, Santa, himself!) as too close to Catholic doctrine, and instead favoured the celebration of Hogmanay (New Year) as a more fitting celebration, hence the importance given to this in Scotland until present times.

A personal story:

By Sally

Q1. What do you have for Christmas dinner?

Christmas dinner is usually the same as in England. We did have plum pudding which we set fire to, and haggis can be used as a stuffing for the turkey. We always had a traditional dinner at home with sprouts, cabbage, mash, roast potatoes, carrots, peas, broccoli, pigs in blankets etc. My mum always bread sauce and Yorkshire puddings. (My parents were English so we preferred more on the English side!) We always sat down to eat at 2:00pm promptly at the table in the living room, as opposed to sitting in the kitchen!

One thing I remember is being told that Scots prefer roast potatoes to mashed potatoes.

Q2. What is your fondest memories of Christmas?

Fondest memories of Christmas include: The Broons and Oor Wullie annuals, which we always received. Having unlimited sweets. I loved the film The Great Escape so was really excited to get the video of it from my brother! One year I received a bottle of French Almond perfume from my mum, and to this day I can still conjure the smell. If I ever smell it out and about- I am instantly transported back to Christmas. Also having my big sister home- as she went to university and then got married, so spending time with her was wonderful. I loved the run up to Christmas. Also, as my mum was very, very creative we spent a lot of time making Christmas decorations from junk, and in particular egg boxes. They all ended up on the tree.

Also particulary fond memories of putting out a carrot, whiskey and a mince pie for Santa and Rudolf.

First footing usually associated with Hogmanay- involved visiting someone’s house with a gift of coal, whiskey, bread or salt.

Q3. What types of presents do you get from friends and family?

Some presents I received included: a bike, a dolls pram, dressing gown and slippers and a pyjama case in the shape of a teddy bear I called it BOO! Also, LPs and a record player which was the best thing ever!

Growing up on the island meant I didn’t have access to the big shops so we had to make do with buying gifts from the chemist or Woolworths. So my gifts to others would be perfume, books or book tokens, chocolate, biscuits or other food items and things we had made at school!

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