Christmas in Scotland

THIS year the Herald has, after a period of some years, resumed publication on Boxing Day and January 2. The decision arose not from officiousness but from movements in the market-place which could not be ignored. As we made our preparations, it became clear that New Year is not what it was. Most people would rather have Christmas Day off than January 1.

Christmas is often regarded as the English festival and New Year the Scots. The reality is more complicated but their modern mingling is not surprising because essentially they are the same midwinter festivals that somehow became separated from each other. The English Christmas, Christian but always with its pagan undertones, has merged with Scotland's Auld Yuill, more frankly irreligious.

Not long ago official Christmas in parts of Scotland was a mere preparatory flicker. Indeed it was barely celebrated at all. The Christian Church had hijacked, or assimilated, the old pagan feast but the reformed faiths regarded the Christmas ritual as idolatrous.

Changes to Scotland’s official calendar in the eighteenth century were resisted for reasons of religion and also, one supposes, patriotism. Until the calendar was reformed in 1752, Christmas in Scotland had officially fallen on January 5. It was then switched to December 25. (Christ’s actual date of birth remains unknown even to modern scholarship.)

In Rosehearty, the fishing village in Aberdeenshire where my mother grew up, they stuck to the old ways. The fun began on Auld Yuill, the name they gave to what we now call Hogmanay. On that night the children hung up their stockings for Santa Claus. Rosehearty’s Yule ran until about January 7. In Banff, not so far away, the Yule holidays from school ran from December 21 to January 11, according to the Scottish National Dictionary. It was a time not just for drams and hospitality but for pranks and high jinks.

This was common throughout Scotland. According to another writer in 1894, cited by the dictionary, the term Yule was synonymous with Hogmanay in Central Scotland too. As a commentator noted in 1901, Yule was not just one festival but a series of them. Indeed Shetlanders referred to ”the Yules”.

Scotland avoided the full embrace of the modern Christmas for a remarkably long time. The secular is dominant at Christmas everywhere now. Social change, reinforced by the conformist power of the media, has now broken the resistance down pretty completely but even in my youth, in Edinburgh in the forties and fifties, it was not entirely dead. It is true that not many offices opened; perhaps some crusty old lawyer kept up the old ways. But papers appeared on Christmas Day though not at New Year.

At midnight on Hogmanay the town was alive. From Leith Docks the foghorns of the many ships filled the air with noise as we threw open the windows to let the New Year in. It was reckoned, according to custom, that whoever ”first opens the door on Yule-Day, expects to prosper more than any other member of the family during the future year”.

The ships have mostly gone, both from Leith and the Broomielaw, but some of the ancient customs survive. The chief of them is the need for a dark and handsome stranger as first foot bearing a lump of coal and something green. In some houses you may still get black bun, ”that tuck-shop king, joy of our gourmand youth” or, as Robert Louis Stevenson remarked, ”a black substance inimical to life”.

The compulsion, the sense of obligation, to clean the house before the festival begins remains strong with women of an older generation. The Scottish National Dictionary records (from Banff in 1866) the term Yule jade, a disapproving description of a woman who leaves work unfinished before Christmas or who has no new piece of clothing with which to celebrate the season.

The modern Christmas, which owes much to Prince Albert and more to the advertising industry, is something of an endurance test. As Jack McLean once wrote memorably, the pubs are full of amateurs. There are too many lunches and dinners. No wonder that by New Year our stamina is going.

But all is not yet lost. Thanks to the efforts of the late Wendy Wood, people again turn out for the bells. So let’s pick ourselves up from Christmas. Bring on the black bun. Perhaps a dram. Open the windows at the midnight hour. Here’s a toast to Auld Yuill, in memory of my mother. And here’s a happy new year to you all.