We already know that this Christmas is likely to be radically different from those which have gone before. Yet many of the traditions we associate with the festive season date back only as far as the Victorians, while others can trace their roots back to pagan times.
Restrictions on how many people can meet may seem like a new idea, but the Scottish Parliament went even further back in 1640, passing a law that made celebrating ‘Yule vacation and all observation thereof in time coming,’ illegal. For many years, Christmas was less of a celebration in Scotland than New Year and lots of people worked on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until 1958 that 25th December became a Scottish public holiday, while Boxing Day took till 1974.
The tradition of putting silver sixpences in our Christmas puddings is thought to be a remnant of an old winter custom from many European countries. A bean would be baked into a cake and the man who found the bean in his slice became King of the Bean. Naturally, as king, he could order his subjects about and could expect the best of the festive fare during what were known as the Daft Days. These may have their roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which took place from December 17th to 23rd and featured silly gifts, pranks, carnivals and parties and the overturn of the social hierarchy, with festivities presided over by the Lord of Misrule.
In the North East, we have two main fire festivals associated with the passing of the old year and the start of the new. Stonehaven’s Fireball Ceremony may evoke notions of an ancient pagan tradition to drive off evil spirits, but it’s a Victorian reimagining. Although COVID restrictions mean this year’s event is cancelled, the ceremony has taken place for more than a hundred years. Initially, Stonehaven’s men would swinging their fireball a few yards to the house of friends and neighbours to bring in the New Year before developing into a full blown procession that ends with the fireballs being hurled into the harbour.
The Moray coastal village of Burghead has their own unique fire ceremony on 11 January each year. The Burning of the Clavie is thought to date from the 1700s, originating from the protests over the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. The residents of Burghead decided that two parties were better than one, so they embraced the shift to the new calendar and marked the start of both the Gregorian and Julian calendar dates for the New Year.
During the Burning of the Clavie, a large crowd carries a drum full of burning wooden staves and tar around the town to the Doorie Hill, where the barrel is firmly wedged and allowed to burn out, to bring good fortune for the coming year. It’s not get clear whether the event will be able to take place in 2021.
Hogmanay was celebrated all over Scotland, with tall, dark and handsome men were preferred as first footers – the first visitors of the New Year – as they brought good fortune and good luck with then. Gifts of coal, salt and bread which symbolised warmth, plentiful food and wealth were often brought in, as was whisky. Rowan twigs might be burnt to get rid of ill-feeling or resentment amongst family and friends. Some people liked to clean their homes on Hogmanay, this custom was known as redding and ensured good luck and prosperity the following year. It was, however, bad luck to clean the house or do laundry on New Year’s Day as this could clear good fortune away. That’s our excuse anyway!