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Christmas Customs

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Christmas itself was until recent times a purely Religious festival and New Year was and still is the main holiday for Scots. Christmas was not traditionally celebrated in Scotland because it was banned for nearly 400 years until the 1950's. Hogmanay was the real traditional celebration. The reason Christmas was not celebrated until recently go back to the time of John Knox in the 1580's as it was seen to be papist in origin - the ban was strictly enforced in law.

Until recently, Christmas was fairly low key. It wasn't even a public holiday until 1958. Up till then, people worked normally on Christmas day, although the children did get presents. Therefore the Christmas 'traditions' in Scotland are pretty much the same modern US version. Traditions like sending Christmas cards, decorating trees, buying gifts and singing carols can be seen in Scotland. If you wanted to have a real traditional Scottish Christmas, you should go into work on Christmas day! In 1997/98 and 2001/2002 there were strikes at Scottish banks because the bank staff were getting English holidays rather than the Scottish ones which have more time off at New Year.

As a result, most if not all Christmas celebrations nowadays have been brought in from other cultures (notable England and the US) and thus I'd be interested in finding out about Christmas customs unique to Scotland prior to the 20th century.

Presumably both Christmas and New Year are both linked to the ancient midwinter festival; with Christmas being created as a means to make the early Christian church more acceptable to the pagans who already had a festival about that time. The same was done for Easter. Thus there a few similarities between the Hallowe'en traditions and the New Year. In many parts of the Highlands there are traditional New Year celebrations which follow the Julian calendar and fall on Jan 12th. On this night, girls would celebrate "Hallowe'en" whilst boys would celebrate New Year.

There are some Christmas Scottish tunes at

South Uist customs

Article by Bill Innes

Christmas (as a non-religious celebration) is a fairly recent importation into Scotland.

When I was a little lad, Santa Claus didn't visit us on Christmas Day. He would be coming after Hogmanay Night on the first day of the New Year, although we had a Christmas tree and although we had Christmas parties in the church hall.

The celebration of Christmas was complicated by varying church attitudes. The day itself was chosen by the early church to replace the pagan midwinter solstice celebrations - which is why some Christmas customs have a pagan connection. Although my own island of South Uist was remarkable for the high level of peaceful co-existence between different faiths, the Presbyterian churches tended to regard Christmas as a Catholic feast and ignored it almost completely -which is why Scotland's celebrations were transferred to New Year's Eve. Even in South Uist some Protestants would go out to work on Christmas day - unless of course it fell on the Sabbath. In Carmichael's "Carmina Gadelica" you will find that some of the rituals now associated with New Year were originally part of the Christmas celebration. Even in Catholic households in the old days it was very much a religious feast centred round Midnight Mass - with none of the commercialism and ritual gift-giving of to-day for the simple reason that people were too poor. Those of you familiar with South Uist will understand why there were no Christmas trees. :-)

See also [12.16]

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