Christmas traditions in Scotland

Everybody knows the Scots love a party, especially when there’s a glass or two of whisky involved, so it might come as something of a surprise to find that one of the biggest celebrations of the year was actually missing from the Scottish party calendar – for almost four centuries!

Christmas is cancelled!

Prior to the Reformation of 1560, Christmas in Scotland was called Yule, and also Yhoill or Yuil. It was celebrated in much the same way as it was across Catholic Europe, with games, gifts and feasts. Following the Reformation, however, these traditional celebrations became frowned upon. As the church and state were then closely linked, Christian Christmas holidays and feast days were soon abolished altogether, in bans that were strictly enforced by law.

Even up until the 20th century excessive feasting and celebrating at Christmas time was kept to a minimum, as the Church of Scotland – a Presbyterian church – never placed much emphasis on the festival.

We’ll take Hogmanay, thanks

Believe it or not, Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958, and Boxing Day in 1974. People were accustomed to working on Christmas Day, and until as recently as 2001 there were threats of strikes when Scottish banks tried to offer their workers English bank holidays – giving workers more time off over Christmas, but less time off at New Year. So if you want to have a truly traditional Scottish Christmas – go to work!

The gift-giving, public holidays and feasting associated with mid-winter were therefore traditionally left for Hogmanay and New Year. It explains why Hogmanay was, and still is, by far the biggest celebration in the Scottish calendar – from fireball swingin’ in Stonehaven to the explosive displays above the huge crowds at Edinburgh Castle.

Modern traditions

However, with the church’s influence significantly on the wane since the mid-20th century, Christmas celebrations in Scotland are now on a par with New Year, and the Yuletide celebrations of the rest of the UK and Europe. The capital city now hosts its a traditional German Christmas Market each year, Christmas lights are strung up in the high streets of all of the main towns and cities – if they can survive the glorious Scottish weather, and carol singing is rife too.

Christmas Day

Grub’s up!
Somewhat surprisingly, Christmas dinner is the one meal of the year that isn’t traditionally coated in batter and deep fried in Scotland. Usually the Scots deep fry everything, and we mean everything. Turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings is traditional, but as Scotland is home to great game hunting and fabulous fishing you’ll often find some Scottish variants on the Christmas table – like wild salmon, pheasant, venison or even wild boar.

cranachanPudding time
The Scots certainly have a sweet tooth, and the wide array of Christmas puddings on offer goes to prove it. Besides the traditional British Christmas pudding, there’s rich Christmas Cake, usually iced with marzipan, as well as the equally heavy Clootie Dumpling. If you fancy something creamy go for Cranachan (see image) or that boozy sherry trifle (more of that later), and for a sweet treat with your cup of tea or coffee make it some tooth-rottingly delicious tablet.

Take a dram
Anybody of a certain vintage that grew up in a Scottish sitting room will have fond memories of the Christmas booze display. Tins of McEwans Export and the Tennents Lovelies that never got drunk, bottles of Babycham and Advocaat Snowballs for the aunties and grandmas, sherry for your mum, and Bells for your dad. If that’s not enough, be sure to try and cram as much alcohol as possible into the meal itself – especially puddings – brandy butter, lashings of brandy in the Christmas pudding, and oodles of sherry in the trifle – slainte!

Time for a wee snooze
Now you’ve polished off all of that food and warming liquor, it’s time to take pride in your patriotism and fall asleep in front of the Queen’s speech at 3pm sharp. If you’re lucky, you’ll wake up just in time to catch the foul weather forecast followed by an evening of terrible telly – or you could just hibernate until Hogmanay when the real party starts!