While you’ll find lots of trees, tinsel and turkey north of the border at Christmas, the festive period in Scotland isn’t quite the same as the rest of the UK. It’s a much younger celebration for a start, Father Christmas goes under a different name and there’s a real penchant for all things fiery. Then there is New Year that the Scottish have their own name for and celebrate like no one else. Read on to discover some truly Scottish Christmas traditions.
Not so traditional
The English have been celebrating the mid-winter solstice and Christmas for centuries. Apart from a brief period under the Reformation between 1647 and 1686 when Christmas was banned, England has done Christmas almost forever.
In Scotland, however, it’s a different story. The Scottish Presbyterian Church embraced the Reformation’s ban on Christmas so much that it discouraged festivities around the 25 December well into the 20th century. Christmas was always a very low-key event and celebrated behind closed doors until 1958 when Christmas Day became a national holiday in Scotland. But even then, the Scots had to wait until 1974 to have an official day off on Boxing Day too.
Yule to you
When in Scotland, you can wish people a Happy Christmas. Or a Blithe Yule if you want to use Scots, the national dialect, or Nollaig Chirdheil if you want to greet in Gaelic.
Just plain Santa
Although just over half the British population call him Father Christmas, the bearer of children’s presents in Scotland goes under another alias. He isn’t known as Saint Nicholas as he is throughout much of Northern Europe or as the more American Santa Claus. In Scotland, he’s just plain Santa.
Scottish Santa has plenty of help on hand too since the only reindeer in the UK live in Scotland. The 150-strong herd roam the Cairngorn Mountains and can be visited all year around.
More chance of a white Christmas
When it comes to dreaming of a white Christmas, the Scots are in with a much better chance of seeing their dream come true. Weather statistics show that Scotland has more than 50% probability of snow on Christmas Day. Plus, the top three cities in the UK most likely to see snow this year are in Scotland. But even in the UK’s northern climes there’s no guarantee of the white stuff on Christmas Day.
Serve a Scottish Christmas dinner
As in the rest of the UK, turkey makes an appearance at most Scottish Christmas Day meals. But along with the stuffing and trimmings, you can also expect the following on your plates:
Scotch broth – a hearty and warming concoction of vegetables including turnips, leeks, carrots and dried peas with pearl barley in lamb or mutton stock.
Cock-a-leekie – if it’s not broth in your bowl, it’ll be this soup, made with chicken and leek with pearl barley or rice.
Salmon – as home to some of the world’s best salmon (and the UK’s biggest food export) Scotland eats plenty of this fish at Christmas. Smoked salmon reigns supreme but you’ll also find whole roast salmon, salmon pie…
Clootie dumpling – the Scottish answer to Christmas pudding and very similar. Clootie packs in the raisins, cinnamon, spices and apples, but is boiled in a cloot (cloth).
Black bun – more of a New Year tradition and a must-bring for the first footer, black bun sometimes appears on a Christmas dinner table too. The rich, dark fruit cake comes wrapped in pastry and served in slices, perhaps the ultimate winter comfort food.
Scottish cheeseboard – to tip you right over the edge, a board packed with some of the best cheeses in the UK. They might include creamy Caboc, the oldest cheese in Scotland and covered in toasted oatmeal; Lanark Blue, made with sheep’s milk; Isle of Mull Cheddar; or the soft Bonchester cheese. All served with Bannock (oat) cakes.
Keep the home fires burning
Although Scotland may not always be blanketed in white at Christmas, a real nip in the air is a given. So it’s no surprise to discover that many Scottish Christmas traditions involve fire.
The Yule log tradition dates back to Viking times in the 8th century. Families would save a hardwood log to burn on the shortest day of the year and light it with a piece of the previous year’s log. Those sitting round the fire while the Yule log burnt would enjoy prosperity and protection for the coming year.
To keep evil spirits away, the Scottish used the Cailleach, the ‘Old Woman Winter’ totem. A piece of wood carved to represent the Cailleach would be tossed on the fire on Christmas Eve as a symbol of the destruction of winter. Another way of keeping unwelcome visitors at bay is to keep the fire burning all night on Christmas Eve.
To help clear the air among real people, a common tradition involves burning a branch of rowan tree to chase away bad feelings among friends and family, and to start the New Year with a clean slate. Fire is used to welcome people too. Scottish homes traditionally keep a candle burning in their window during Christmas to welcome strangers.
Keep all the fires burning
As well as in the home hearth, Scottish Christmas fires burn brightly outdoors too. Several big fiery celebrations take place throughout the year during Christmas and January. They include:
The traditional torchlit parade in Edinburgh on 30 December. Thousands of torch bearers led by descendants of the Up Helly Aa Vikings parade along the Royal Mile and through the historic city.
Stonehaven in Aberdeen takes burning torches to a higher level with its Fireballs Ceremony, held every New Year’s Eve for over a century. With a piped band at the head of the parade, participants swing giant fireballs over their heads.
Europe’s largest fire festival marks the end of Yuletide in Scotland. Taking place in Lerwick on the Shetland Islands, the torchlight procession ends with the symbolic burning of a replica Viking longship.
Bring in the New Year with a bang
Christmas might not have been around for long in Scotland, but New Year has. Known as Hogmanay, this is the country’s biggest party. Celebrated throughout Scotland with a bang – fireworks, bonfires and plenty of whisky – Hogmanay starts towards the end of December and lasts officially until 2 January, giving the Scots two full days to recover.
The best-known Hogmanay tradition is probably the singing of Auld Lang Syne, a poem written by Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns in 1788. At midnight, revellers link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne to bring in the New Year.
The minute the clock has finished striking midnight a first footer arrives on your doorstep in Scotland. Traditionally a tall and dark (and preferably handsome too) man, he should come bearing coal or peat, food such as shortbread or black bun, salt and a wee dram of whisky. His arrival and gifts ensure warmth, comfort and good luck over the next 12 months.
If you’re hosting Christmas in one of our Scottish castles this year, now it’s over to you. If you’d like to have a Scotland Christmas next year, stay in touch. To one and all: Blithe Yule!