Christmas day became an official public holiday relatively recently in Scotland. It was only in 1958 that it was recognised as such. Despite this, there are many Scottish festive traditions that stretch back historically as far as the 8th century Vikings and even the iron-age Celts. A lot of the Christmas rituals revolve around fire, light and natural materials such as wood and coal. This could be as much to do with the lack of daylight and extreme cold during the Winter months in the area, as it is to do with Scottish pagan history.
There a few variations on the first footing tradition, and it is often repeated at New Year. It concerns the identity and offerings of the first person to walk through the door on Christmas day. The “first footer” should ideally be a stranger bearing food in the form of yule bread or a black bun. Yule bread is an unleavened oat bread with a trinket baked inside. It’s considered lucky to receive the slice of bread with the trinket contained in it. A black bun is an extremely rich fruit cake soaked in plenty of whisky with a pastry outer shell. As well as edibles, the stranger should bring something that symbolises wealth and warmth. For that reason first footers often arrive armed with a polished piece of coal and money.
Christmas in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
The Cailleach is the symbolic burning of Winter to make way for the Summer. Traditionally on the 21st December a fire is lit using one of the (yule) logs from the previous Christmas. Then on Christmas Eve, a piece of wood, which is carved to resemble an old woman’s face (the cailleach), is burned on the fire. In the morning the ashes from the fire are inspected. If a shape resembling a footprint points into the room it is said to foretell a new arrival in the family. However, if a footprint shape points towards the door, it is regarded as a possible prediction of somebody’s demise.
Christmas Day in Scotland
As well as the aforementioned Scottish Christmas traditions, the festivities in Scotland also include plenty of food, gifts, candles and of course, whisky. A Christmas dinner, similar to that served in England, is eaten on the 25th December. It usually consists of a roast turkey with all the trimmings and a cock-a-leekie soup starter. The Scottish Christmas dessert may be a Christmas pudding, although often it’s a trifle made with whisky Presents are exchanged on Christmas day, along with the rest of the UK, but this hasn’t always been the case. Traditionally presents in Scotland were given out on the first Monday after the New Year Celebrations in a ritual known as haundselling!
Christmas candles are lit in the windows to guide strangers. In the run up to Christmas day, yule candles are handed out by shops to their customers. The guiding and entertaining of strangers during the Christmas period is a tradition that is also observed by other Celtic communities. It represents the provision of a guiding light and a warming fire. Scotland is renowned for it’s festive hospitality!