This time of year is special to so many people, with so many traditions and festivities to look forward to. We hope you are all organised, and anticipating a fun festive period with all your friends and family, wherever in the world you are!
Here we are all certainly looking forward to a traditional Scottish Christmas…or as traditional as one can get anyway! Since, for much of Scotland’s history, the celebration of Christ’s birth was banned, Scotland is unusual in the Christian world in that we still have many old pagan superstitions and traditions surviving, and that we celebrate New Year much more exuberantly – in fact we are world famous for our Hogmany parties! Today we will look at some Christmas and New Year celebrations from Scotland, I hope you find it interesting, and perhaps it will give you some ideas of traditions you can incorporate into your own festive period!
Mid-winter celebrations were first introduced to Scotland by Vikings in the 8th century, and Scottish traditions remain firmly rooted in this pagan past, having much in common with traditions from Scandinavian countries. The tradition of the Yule Log stems from this association, when a special hardwood log would be burned, often on the shortest day of the year (normally December 21st or 22nd), although alternative dates included Christmas itself or even at the New Year. The fire from this log would be started with a re-lit piece of the last years log, and ensure prosperity and protection for all gathered round the hearth for the coming year. Related to this is the burning of Old Winter, the Cailleach. In this superstition, a crude likeness of an old woman would be carved into a piece of wood, and this thrown into an already burning fire. This tradition represented the destruction of the cold winter goddess, and the welcoming back in of longer days and the promise of the summer to come.
Many of Scotland’s Christmas traditions centre around fire and light, as a northern country we get as little as five hours of daylight as this time of year, and some things never change, so cosy fires and flickering candlelight are still a comfort against the harsh winter! Perhaps as a side effect of the previous superstitions, certainly as an excuse to stay toasty warm all night, another tradition dictates that a fire should be kept burning all through the night on Christmas Eve, lest any mischievous or evil spirits find entry into your home down the chimney!
Even more traditions surround the welcoming of the New Year however, in Scotland this time is known as Hogmany (the exact origin of this name is not known), and if you visit during this time you will witness some of the biggest parties and celebrations around! One very old tradition is that of first-footing. This tradition holds that, to bring good fortune for the coming year, the first person to cross your threshold should be a tall, dark man, with coal for your fire, food for your bellies and a wee dram of whiskey, a very important component to Scottish life – sometimes called “the water of life”! The food he would traditionally bring are; shortbread, salt and black bun, a very dense sticky type of fruit cake. More fire festival activities take place around New Year, such as dressing in animal skins, lighting bonfires and carrying out processions through Highland villages and towns where links to the Norse past are still very strong. Even in the Lowlands however New Year is a great time to party, perhaps in part due to the banning of Christmas celebrations for so long. In fact, the Scottish custom was to exchange gifts on the first Monday of the New Year, in a practice known as haundselling, money was a popular gift but if you gave a physical object it could not have sharp edges, as superstitions said this would cause you to cut the relations between you and the recipient of the gift. Over time this tradition has faded and Scots now exchange gifts at Christmas instead, like the rest of the UK, however if it lovely to hear about all these old traditions and try to keep a little bit of them alive today!
How do you plan to incorporate your Scottish roots into your celebrations this festive season? Perhaps by holding a little gift back and surprising a loved one on “Haunsel Monday”? Or, in the absence of old fashioned fireplace, maybe just keeping a candle burning the night through on Christmas Eve? Or maybe you have different traditions we haven’t yet heard of! Whatever your plans we’d love to hear from you, and hope to see you again the New Year!