ON Saturday, the vast majority of Scots will celebrate Christmas Day, probably to various degrees of excess and with perhaps even a little goodwill. This will happen despite the facts that Jesus Christ was highly unlikely to have been born on December 25 – the date was only settled in the fourth century – and that most Scots do not actually practice the Christian religion, though a majority describe themselves as Christians in the national census.

History tells us that Christmas was not celebrated to any great degree in Scotland for centuries and it was only as late as 1958 that Christmas Day became a public holiday in Scotland. Boxing Day didn’t get public holiday status until 1974, so the whole Christmas Festival extravaganza is quite a recent development in historical terms.

So how did Scots “do” Christmas in bygone days? The answer is that for a very long time they didn’t.


IN a word, Presbyterianism. Up to the mid-16th century, Christmas was celebrated as a feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church but had no greater significance than many other feast days and somewhat less than Easter.

Prior to the supremacy of the Church in the latter part of the first millennium, there had been a Celtic pagan festival to mark the winter solstice, but we do not know its name or exactly what took place, not least because the Picts in particular left no records of it.

After the Vikings invaded and stayed, they brought with them their pagan festive tradition called “yule” and that name spread across Scotland as the marking of the solstice. In time, the Christian church made Christmas a more important feast, their Yuletide, and we know that Scots took to celebrating it with gusto.

Yule was kept as a festival lasting for days, with traditions dating back to the Vikings such as burning the Yule log and kissing under the mistletoe. The “first foot”, for example, was traditionally dark haired because it meant the man wasn’t a Viking.

It was very much seen as a Catholic church-led celebration so after the Reformation in 1560, Christmas was promptly downgraded and led by John Knox, Christmas celebrations were gradually banned.


VERY much so. An act of the Scottish Parliament in 1640 made celebrating Christmas illegal. Here’s what it says: “The kirke within this kingdome is now purged of all superstitious observatione of dayes… thairfor the saidis estatis have dischairged and simply dischairges the foirsaid Yule vacance and all observation thairof in tymecomeing, and rescindis and annullis all acts, statutis and warrandis and ordinances whatsoevir granted at any tyme heirtofoir for keiping of the said Yule vacance, with all custome of observatione thairof, and findis and declaires the samene to be extinct, voyd and of no force nor effect in tymecomeing.”

The law was strictly enforced. People were hauled before the courts and kirk sessions for celebrating Christmas Day, and bakers were even banned from making mincemeat pies. In short there was a total clampdown on Christmas.

Monarchs such as James VI and I and Charles II (below) all tried to get celebrating Christmas back on the agenda, but the Church of Scotland was unmoved.

The National: John Michael Wright’s imposing portrait of King Charles II, an image symbolising the monarch regaining his throne (PA)


SCOTS being Scots, the festivities were transferred to January 1, Ne-erday, and the preceding evening, Hogmanay. Traditions such as first footing were translated to Hogmanay and since it was an entirely secular feast, the Church of Scotland could do nothing about it. Indeed there is evidence that the Kirk tolerated Hogmanay – as long as it didn’t lead to dancing, of course.

Christmas remained a working day for the vast majority of Scots well into the 20th century. It was very much a class thing – the middle classes adopted the English Dickensian Christmas, while the workers kept their powder dry for Hogmanay.

There’s no doubt what changed attitudes in Scotland: capitalism and the sheer crass commercialisation of Christmas. The advent of brilliant pantomimes in theatres across the nation certainly helped make Yuletide special, and from the 1960s onwards, television played a huge role in “normalising” Christmas for Scots.