It is not easy to pinpoint what exactly makes the holidays feel so special – for some, it may be the twinkling lights of Christmas, or the promise of a kiss at the stroke of midnight on Hogmanay.
For me, it is our open embrace of the traditions that started with our ancestors and shape the holidays as we know them today. In a world of increasing commercialisation and decreasing attention span, it must surely be our duty to keep these festive traditions alive.
Most of Scotland’s long-standing traditions relate to the heralding of the new year rather than Christmas, which is not surprising considering that celebrating Christmas was banned for nearly 400 years in Scotland, with Christmas Day only becoming a public holiday as recently as 1958. If you want to be a part of some truly spectacular historical holiday festivities, you will need to focus on the turn of the year. And fire.One of the best-known traditional celebrations commences in Stonehaven at the first bell of midnight on Hogmanay. The written history of the Stonehaven Fireballs Ceremony dates back over a hundred years, though many believe its origins to be considerably older than that. The ceremony features a procession of around 40 participants who traverse the town swinging large balls of fire from long chains over their heads before eventually hurling them in to the sea. It is believed that the ritual was originally performed to fend off evil spirits and bring luck to the fishing fleets of this coastal town.
A bit further north in Burghead, a fishing village in the Moray firth, another fiery celebration takes place on 11 January, the new year according to the Julian calendar. The Burning of the Clavie sees the ‘Clavie King’ and his assistants carry a burning cask throughout the village before mounting it at the bottom of nearby Doorie Hill. As the clavie burns out, locals take a piece of the burning embers to place on their home hearth to bring them good luck for the coming year.
If you really want to be transported back in time, make your way to Lerwick in Shetland on the last Tuesday of January and watch the locals celebrate their Viking heritage in the Up Helly Aa festival. Here, the night is set alight by a squad of nearly 1,000 guizers, led by the Guizer Jarl, marching with fire-lit torches ahead of a replica Viking longship. The march terminates at a designated burning site, where the torches are used to set the boat ablaze and send it on its way to the paradise of Valhalla.
Traditions are the threads that bind the fabric of generations past, present and future. This holiday season, create some new traditions of your own and, if you can, take some time to support those who are preserving the rituals of old for generations new.