Where there is history there are traditions and Scotland has many colourful traditions given its thousands of years worth of rich history - this includes Christmas which, although widely celebrated today, was once banned in Scotland for almost 400 years.
During the Reformation (around the 1600s), the UK was ruled by Oliver Cromwell who banned “Christ’s Mass”. Eventually, Cromwell fell from power which saw the ban lifted everywhere but in Scotland which was, in a word, due to Presbyterianism.
Scots celebrating Christmas did so discreetly as the event, once known as Yule, was stripped from the Calendar and harsh punishments awaited anyone taking part. For Scots, this time was reduced to little more than another work day until 1958 when Christmas Day was finally recognised as a public holiday.
Despite this gap in Scottish festivity the country still boasts a myriad of traditions as even prior to the Reformation, the Winter Solstice (i.e., Yule or “Yogh” in Older Scots) was celebrated by druids, pagans and vikings - ancestors who roamed Scotland long before us.
From why we hang mistletoe to the origins of Yule Bread, here are 12 old Christmas traditions and customs of Scotland.
1. Scotland was not so ‘Christmassy’ until 1958
Before the Reformation of the mid 1550s, Scotland held Christmas every year as a religious feasting day. However, the crisis of the Catholic Church and ensuing Protestant Reformation in Europe left the Kirk in Scotland suspicious of all things connected to Roman Catholicism which led to the 1640 law which illegalised Yule celebrations. Even after the “Merry Monarch” himself, Charles II, took the throne in 1660 it is understood that Christmas was still frowned upon in Scotland for centuries until it became a public holiday in 1958, but Yule was a pagan holiday celebrated by Celts and Vikings even thousands of years prior to this.
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2. Mistletoe - adding greenery to the home
When Scotland was inhabited by ancient Celtic druids and pagans they celebrated Yule (or the Winter Solstice) by bringing greenery into their homes as it symbolised life amid the dark nights associated with death. Mistletoe was used as it was thought to have fertility properties and even to this day the plant compels people to kiss beneath it. Holly wreaths are another custom that ancient Celts hung outside their homes as the icy cold winds of Winter were thought to be dangerous spirits and the wreaths offered protections from these ‘wraiths’.
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3. Yule Logs and their symbolism
The tradition of Yule logs dates back to the Druids, they believed that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of Winter and so they lit a log at this time to combat the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring good fortune for the year ahead. When baking Yule bread, a tradition often associated with Shetland and Orkney, the loaf is turned into a circle which represents the Sun and the caraway seeds used are said to represent the “Sìdhe” or Winter spirits.
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4. The Cailleach
In a bid to ward off evil spirits, Scots used the Cailleach or ‘the Hag of Winter’ totem. This was a log carved with the face of an old woman, a mythological creature that brought in long nights and cold weather. By burning the totem, our ancestors believed that it could banish the cold darkness and dispel any lingering bad luck in the home.
Photo: via WikiCommons / Jesse Meyer-Crosby via Pinterest