Tuesday, December 20, 2005
A stockingful of Scottish Christmas traditions
The Grinch hated Christmas!
The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
- "How the Grinch stole Christmas" by Dr Seuss
SCOTTISH Christmas traditions are – to say the least – a little on the patchy side. There are some great pagan ideas, first-rate medieval treats, but then there is a huge yawning chasm, a Christmas-free zone until the middle of the 20th century until it all came back into fashion.
The reason for this dearth of Christmas cheer is that Scotland in the mid-16th century had its very own Grinch. Yes, just like the character in Dr Seuss's book who stole Christmas, John Knox and the newly reformed Church of Scotland cancelled the festive season. They forbade anyone to celebrate this erstwhile season of goodwill, hounded those who broke the embargo and cast a gloomy December shadow that stretched down through the centuries.
But we canny Scots, unwilling to forego a good party, simply moved the traditions a week along. From this came the Scottish emphasis on Hogmanay. Christmas was not recognised as a public holiday in Scotland until 1958 and up until then people continued to work, saving their fun until New Year's Eve. So simply put, if you want a traditional Scottish Christmas then get up as usual, go into work as normal, return home to a bowl of soup and an early night!
But that wouldn't be much fun. So we've trawled the distant past to find out what Scots would have been doing long, long ago, to give you some tips on how to celebrate a guid Scottish Christmas.
Pagans believed that so long as the mistletoe held its berries it symbolised fertility.
A Pagan Christmas
Back in the days of yore, when druids and pagans inhabited this bonny land the festival they celebrated at this time of year marked the winter solstice. This is the longest night of the year and signifies the depth of winter. We don't know exactly what our ancestors believed, but it is reasonable to think that this festival was held to propitiate the Gods and ask for a return of the sun.
To help in this they took greenery into the house, as a symbol of life in the deep dark nights. Mistletoe, revered by the druids for its fertility properties, was cut from the sacred oak tree. It isn't hard to extrapolate from this our own habit of kissing under the branches.
To banish the dark, the pagans brought fire into the house. At some point this time of year became known as Yule and during the festival a Yule log was gathered. Unlike our chocolate confection, this log was specially chosen and lit using tinder from the old fire. Charred remains of this fire would be used to protect the house throughout the year. Popular woods for this log included holly, oak, willow or birch.
It is the pagans too who have been credited with the early tradition of decorating a tree. It is thought that they hung shapes from an evergreen brought into the house to symbolise life.
The Celts knew Christmas as Nollaig Beag – Little Christmas. By now, the celebrations were firmly embedded in the birth of Christ, yet the pagan traditions can clearly be seen incorporated into the season. They burned the Cailleach – a log with the face of an old woman carved into it that was supposed to take away any lingering bad luck.
The Celts also lit candles at Christmastime to light the way for any strangers. In Scotland the custom was known as Oidche Choinnle, or Night of Candles, and these were placed in windows to guide the Holy Family on their way.
If you want to learn more about Edinburgh's medieval celebrations you could take a trip down The Real Mary King's Close on the High Street.
By now Christmas represented a real hodgepodge of ancient and Christian practices. Chief amongst the traditions was the preparation of mincemeat pies. Anyone anticipating today's fruit and spice pastry would be in for a shock, as then the mince pie contained meat, fruit, spices, indeed anything that came to hand. This would be baked up in a huge wheel to feed neighbours and visitors.
By 1583 the Scot's Church forbade bakers from preparing these pies. Anyone found baking them would be punished, or as more often happened, encouraged to inform on the customers who ordered them. In order to fox the Church, mincemeat pies became smaller and easier to hide.
It was not just Scotland that banned Christmas. England too suffered endless Decembers bereft of celebration. But whilst Scotland rigorously maintained its bah-humbug attitude, England allowed the celebrations to creep back in sooner.
Christmas as we begin to recognise it today really came from the Victorians when Prince Albert, the German consort, imported many rituals from Germany into the celebrations.
But it would be no hardship to replace some of these latter-day European customs with some more ancient ones from our own country. Remember as you prepare your shortbread round, that this signifies the old Sun Cakes that represented the sun's rays shining out. As you bite into your mincemeat pies imagine the twitching noses of the church workers as they attempted to sniff out bakers cooking up this treat.
Gather mistletoe and marvel at its midwinter beauty; whittle your granny's face onto a Yuletide log. And remember that from as far back as anyone can remember Yuletide, Christmas or whatever you choose to call it, has been about family, friends and giving thanks together.