One of the most interesting facts about Scottish Christmas traditions is they haven’t been around very long. For nearly 400 years, the Scottish Presbyterian Church banned celebration of Christmas as we know it, so Christmas traditions faded away. But the lifting of the ban and declaration of Christmas as a public holiday in the 1950s reignited old Scottish Christmas traditions and created new ones.
Scottish Christmas Traditions Past and Present
Following the lifting of the ban, the Scottish people adopted many of the Christmas traditions used in England and the U.S. Today, the Scots celebrate with festive Christmas trees and presents for all, but many of the traditional customs still have a place in Scottish homes.
One of the Scottish Christmas traditions that was banned for so many years included the baking of yule bread. During the ban, bakers were required to give the authorities the name of anyone requesting this holiday staple. A loaf of unleavened bread, often loaded with dried fruit and spices, was baked for each person in the family. Whoever found a trinket in their loaf would have good luck all year.
Divination was once a popular custom, too. On Christmas Eve, anyone who was single cracked an egg into a cup. The shape of the egg white was believed to predict the profession of their possible mate! The egg was mixed into a cake, and if the cake cracked during baking, the person would have bad luck in the next year.
Sweeping fireplace ashes and reading them as a fortune teller would read tea leaves was also common.
Burning of Rowan Twigs
While burning a Yule log is a well-known Christmas tradition, a slightly different Scottish custom involves the rowan tree. Many Scots still burn a twig of the rowan tree at Christmas as a way to clear away bad feelings of jealousy or mistrust between family members, friends, or neighbors.
The first visitor to a home on Christmas Day was called the "First Footer," and this person would come with gifts of peat, money, whisky, and bread to symbolize warmth and wealth. However, this later became a New Year's Day tradition in Scotland.
Placing candles in the window to welcome a stranger is a long-upheld Scottish Christmas tradition. By honoring the visit of a stranger in the night, you honor the Holy Family, who searched for shelter the night of Christ's birth.
Scottish Christmas Meal
Delicious food is a part of nearly every Christmas custom, and it's no different in Scotland. The traditional Scottish Christmas meal usually begins with cock-a-leekie soup. Roasted turkey has become the traditional main course, but glazed ham and leg of lamb, among others, are also common. Side dishes may include black pudding, Yule bread, and soda bread, and then Christmas pudding and shortbread are often served for dessert.
Christmas became an official public holiday in Scotland in 1958.
Hogmanay: Four Days of Reverie
The Reformation ban may have halted the advancement of Scottish Christmas traditions, but Scottish New Year's celebrations always brighten the cold and dark winter. For nearly a week, revelers celebrate the dawn of the new year with street festivals, concerts, parties, and large bonfires. Other traditions include:
- "Redding" the House: This annual cleaning rids the home of bad luck from the previous year and encourages good luck in the new. Part of this custom may include burning juniper branches within the house until it fills with smoke, then opening all the windows to cast out spirits.
- First Footing: This longtime Scottish Christmas tradition evolved into a symbolic start of the new year.
- Fire Festivals: Throughout Scotland, communities continue the ancient Viking custom of using fire to drive away evil spirits as a way to purge the old year.
- Group Performances of "Auld Lang Syne": Scottish poet Robert Burns crafted the lyrics to this classic tune, but there are few accounts as to why it is customary around the world for people to sing it on New Year's Eve. In Scotland, thousands of people gather outside and cross arms while singing this classic song in unison.
The Evolution of Scottish Christmas Customs
Scottish Christmas celebrations have evolved a lot over the last several centuries. Today, the holiday combines both traditional elements and more modern practices, like decorating a Christmas tree and sending Christmas cards.