New exhibition shows Christmas spirit in Scotland

A Christmas card from 1915, part of the National Records of Scotland exhibition
A Christmas card from 1915, part of the National Records of Scotland exhibition
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IT IS a likely contender for one of the busiest corners of Scotland’s capital in the great festive countdown.

But at the east end of Princes Street - tucked behind the Duke of Wellington and yards away from the bustling St James Shopping Centre - an unlikely Christmas treat lies in store. A far cry from the market traders, carousel rides and ice rink in Princes Street, the National Archives of Scotland may seem an unlikely location for an insight into how Scotland has marked Christmas. But a trawl through the vast collections has thrown up a clutch of curiosities and quirky tales dating back more than 500 years.

They vary from centuries-old festive greetings and some of the earliest Christmas cards to reminders of darker times in post-Reformation Scotland when the Kirk had all but banned any form of celebrations.

Marriage registers show how popular ceremonies were on Christmas Day while other records reveal how many people chose festive names like “Angel”, “Noel, “Gabriel” and even “Christmas.”

There are records of kirk sessions, festive greetings sent by troops after the end of the First World War and even an insight into the Christmas celebrations enjoyed by King James IV. The new exhibition, dubbed Christmases Past, has been created in the wake of the success of previous displays about the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, Armistice Day and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Laura Mitchell, deputy keeper of the Records of Scotland, says: “We have vast collections of material, but not a lot of exhibition space here, so we are trying to put together exhibitions to tie in with certain themes to try to open them up a bit more and let people see some of the jewels from the collections.

“I think people will be quite surprised at how much Christmas was frowned on in Scotland in the past, bearing in mind it was a religious celebration and how much it is celebrated these days, although for many Scots Hogmanay was always a bigger celebration.”

Highlights of the exhibition, which runs until 18 January at General Register House, on Princes Street, include a record of when Jean Christmas Cairns McCormack married Gilbert Reid in Falkirk on Christmas Day in 1936.

The fact a number of other weddings were held in the town that day is a reminder that for many Scots it was one of the few days that they were guaranteed not to be 

Details unveiled yesterday show that 17 people with the first or second name Christmas have been born, married or died in Scotland since 1855. There have also been 45 babies born with the surname Christmas since then.

But even though a Christmas Day enjoyed by King James in 1503 featured dancers and guisers, according to records in the exhibition, celebrations were outlawed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1575.

Records on display show how 14 churchgoers in 16th century Aberdeenshire had been reprimanded for singing “filthy” festive carols. Other activities that the Kirk attempted to clamp down on were “masked dancing with bells, selling yule loaves, extraordinary drinking and cross-dressing.”

Christmas greetings have been uncovered in letters dating back to 1640, while the Christmas cards on display include one sent by members of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders after the end of the war in 1918.

Audrey Robertson, acting keeper of the records, says: “The display gives a timely and fascinating insight into how the way Scots celebrate Christmas has changed through the ages and the restrictions that have prevented people from enjoying festivities in the past.

“This display provides an opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of the run-up to Christmas and discover what Christmas meant to our ancestors. The display also showcases some of the wealth of information we hold about Scotland in days gone by.”

Culture secretary Fiona Hyslop adds: “Christmas is a very special time of year that has deep religious significance for many Scots and is an important part of the celebrations of the winter season. This collection provides some fascinating detail about the history of how Christmas has been celebrated, or not, by Scots through the ages.

“This is the latest in a series of displays the National Records of Scotland has hosted to coincide with current and topical events. The display demonstrates the rich value of Scotland’s national archive, which holds many national treasures.”