The Scots word "Yule" comes from the Old Norse "jól, which was the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Traditionally 'Yultid' referred to the twelve days between December 25th and January 6th. It is thought the Vikings brought the celebration of Yuletide to Scotland. In any event the mid-winter festival blended with the Celtic Festival of Samhain. In Pagan tradition emphasis was placed on light and heat. The Yule log was a Norse custom and burning of the Yule was a celebration of the sun during the winter months. Most ancient superstitions surrounding Yuletide were concerned with the darkness and the evil it was thought to harbor. Many superstitious people keep a piece on the log from the previous year, as a lucky talisman. According to tradition it was extremely unlucky for a barefooted woman or a squint eyed man to see the yule log; and a flat footed visitor to the house whilst the log was burning was a very bad omen. Keeping Christmas cake or the remains of the Yule Log under the bed was also thought to help get rid of chilblains. The log has subsequently influenced other Christmas traditions including desserts such as log shaped cakes.
Sprigs of mistletoe were hung from ceilings and in doorways to bring luck and ward off evil spirits. Druids believed mistletoe had both medicinal and magical properties and kissing under the mistletoe was a common fertility right. In the pre Christian era pagans decorated their homes with holly and other evergreens as a symbol of the renewal of life.
Festival of the Dead (Samahain)
According to Celtic myth Lugh, the Sun God was defeated by his dark side and become the Lord of Misrule. Good folk needed the comfort of their own kind and protection from the evil forces of the dark. Samhain was the great gathering of the clans and if you watched The Highlander film or TV series you will of heard of the Great Gathering. Well there was such an event and it took place in the mid winter. Samhain was celebrated on three levels. It was a time of plenty as the live stock were returned from the hills before the severe winter ahead; it was a time of great kinship, as the hill dwellers came to the gathering; and was the time of year when the darkness of night prevailed over the lightness of the day.
In pre-Christian times, Samhain was an unreal time, when one year turned into another. A twilight zone where the spirits of the dead and those not yet born, walked freely among the living. Halloween or the beginning of the Festival of the Dead and Hogmanay , the end as beginning of the New Year. Many rituals and superstitions from that time still prevail and are incorporated into modern Christmas customs. Christmas was called the Festival of Light in the Western or Latin Church. Lighting candles and lamps helped return the light and warmth as well as chasing away the spirits of darkness.
Christians have celebrated Christmas Day since 336AD and the earliest known Christmas Day celebrations were in York, England in AD 521 by King Arthur. The establishment of Roman Catholicism in Scotland was in the 5th and 6th centuries, and gradually Pagan winter solstice traditions were incorporated although merriment and religious devotion were not associated in the early church, ultimately they became incorporated due to political pressures.
By the 11th century, after the Norman Conquest, Princess Margaret fled north and was shipwrecked on the Scottish coast in 1068. She married King Malcolm III and was a devout Catholic who worked to bring the Scottish Church practice in line with that of the continental church of Hungary, where she grew up. Queen Margaret of Scotland (c. 1045 – 1093), was sometimes called “The Pearl of Scotland” and many believe her strong Christian beliefs helped turn the previously pagan Yuletide season into a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. By the twelfth century Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe. The obsolete feasts of pagan antiquity were gradually adapted to the main events of the life of Christ. In retrospect it is very difficult to separate occult beliefs and the sacred doctrine since they have become complexly intertwined. By the 16th century the Christmas days were associated with games and feasting.
To promote universal celebration of the birth of Christ the main churches eventually agreed to accept Twelve Days of Christmas. In the Western Church this ran from Christmas Day until Epiphany, (January 6th). Some believers consider the first day of the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on the eve of December 25th with the following day considered the First Day of Christmas (December 26th). Eastern Orthodox Christians use a different religious calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 7th. They observe Epiphany or Theophany on January 19th. In the Western church, Epiphany (Three Kings Day) is usually celebrated as the day the Wise Men (or Magi) arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Traditionally at the end of the Twelve Days a feast was held and gifts were given.
People ate cake (King Cake) and drank alcohol on Twelfth Night. Once December 25th became acknowledged as the main festival day, then exchanging gifts became part of the celebration. As the Twelfth Day marked the end of the Christmas celebrations then all Christmas decorations required to be removed from the house otherwise misfortune would follow.
In the Scottish Highlands, Nollaig Bheag (little Christmas) refers to New Year's Day, also known as Là Challuinn, or Là na Bliadhna Ùire, while Epiphany is known as Là Féill nan Rìgh, the feast-day of the Kings. In Ireland Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas and is celebrated on January 6. Domestic roles are reversed and men cook and care for their woman folks. Women hold parties or go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Bars and restaurants serve mostly women and girls on this night. Children often buy presents for their mothers and grandmothers.
The Scottish Reformation
The Scottish Reformation arose when Scotland formally broke away from the Papacy in 1560. This was part of the wider European Protestant Reformation, and in Scotland, culminated ecclesiastically in the re-establishment of the church along Reformed lines and politically in the triumph of English influence over the Kingdom of France. The Scottish Kirk and the state were closely linked and once the pope’s authority was repudiated, celebration of the Mass was forbidden. Attitudes to traditional Christian feasting days, including Christmas, were reviewed and all festival days and other church holidays were abolished. The celebration of Christmas was regarded as a "Popish festival" and charges were brought against people for keeping "Yule". John Knox, the leader of the Presbyterian movement, banned the celebration of Christmas in Scotland in 1580. He saw the holiday (including St. Nicholas) as one created by the Catholic Church and instead favored the continuation of Hogmanay as a time to celebrate new life.
By 1583, Bakers who made the Yule breads (mincemeat pies) were fined but their punishment could be lessened if they gave the names of their customers. Instead many bakers mincemeat pies became smaller and easier to hide. On 27 December 1583, five people in Glasgow were brought before the kirk session and sternly ordered to make public repentance for ‘keeping Yule’. During the Christmas of 1605, five Aberdonians were prosecuted for going through the town ‘maskit and dancing with bellis’
The Act of 1640
In 1640 the Parliament of Scotland abolished Christmas (the "Yule vacance and all observation thereof in time coming). This Act was partly repealed in 1686, when Episcopalianism was briefly in ascendancy within the Kirk.
"... the kirk within this kingdom is now purged of all superstitious observation of days... therefore the said estates have discharged and simply discharge the foresaid Yule vacation and all observation thereof in time coming, and rescind and annul all acts, statutes and warrants and ordinances whatsoever granted at any time heretofore for keeping of the said Yule vacation, with all custom of observation thereof, and find and declare the same to be extinct, void and of no force nor effect in time coming."
The reformed church intended Christmas as a day of prayer and to stamp out frivolity, prescribed Christmas as a working day. Anyone who defied the new laws and continued their festivities were fined and in some cases imprisoned. Bakers were encouraged to inform on their customers. Catholics continued to celebrate Christmas and went to Church before work, or at Lunchtime, or in the evening. They would have a Christmas Tree and a Christmas Dinner.
Oliver Cromwell imposed a ban on Christmas in 1644 on the grounds any celebration was a heathen practice, and ordered Christmas to be kept as a fasting day. According to a letter entitled The Scots Demonstration of Their Abhorrence of Popery, with all its Adherents (1680), Edinburgh University students held a Christmas burning of an effigy of the Pope. “Our Chriftmafs, this morning very pleasantly began” begins the letter, describing how the students burnt the effigy in public, despite a plea by authorities against “tumultuous affemblies.”
The Restoration of the English monarchy began in 1660 when the English, Scottish and Irish monarchies were all restored under Charles II (1660–1685) after the Interregnum that followed the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The return of Charles II marked a reversal of the stringent Puritan morality. In Scotland, Episcopacy was reinstated. With the Restoration of the Monarchy came the restoration of Christmas. In Scotland, the rigid laws of the new Kirk still frowned upon Christmas celebration, so it stayed underground. Only the High church and the Catholics kept the old traditions going. In England many of the symbolisms and earlier religious elements were lost, and it took the intrepid Victorian historians to gather together the remnants and re-establish Christmas. English custom was not particularly accepted by Scotland with many of the opinion the English celebration was an attempt to emulate Hogmanay. Others viewed it, as a time for Victorian ‘do good’ers’ to exercise charity to the less privileged. The inherent need to celebrate came out in Scotland as a great revival of the New Year celebrations. Christmas in Scotland continued to be a working day and December 25 only become a public holiday in 1958. Boxing Day was not recognised as a festive holiday until 1974. Fading influence of the Kirk and influence from the rest of the UK and elsewhere, eventually meant Christmas time in Scotland began to celebrate the Festive Season with all the trimmings.