06 Dec A Scottish festive season
The trees are decorated, the lights are switched on and The Fairytale of New York is on 24 hour rotation on the radio. The festive season is well and truly here.
Like many other nationalities, Scots will be celebrating Christmas by gathering with friends and family, exchanging gifts and enjoying a turkey dinner. However, Scotland has very few traditions and customs of its own when it comes to Christmas.
Much like our neighbours down south, most of our festive traditions owe much to Victorians such as Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria’s German consort Albert. Christmas cards, trees and Santa Claus all became popular in Great Britain during Victorian times; even if the idea of Christmas trees and Santa have much older roots.
In fact, until relatively recently, Scotland didn’t really do Christmas. Banned in the 17th century for religious reasons, many Scots celebrated it quietly and privately until the twentieth century.
Depending on which source you believe, Christmas Day in Scotland was not counted as a public holiday until either 1958 or 1971. We have caught up since then and Christmas Day in Glasgow or Inverness will be celebrated in much the same way as it is in London or Liverpool.
Where Scotland and England differ is that the Scots celebrate Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve with much more gusto than our English cousins. (The main pic above shows Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations. Pic: VisitScotland / Kenny Lam)
The passing of the old year and the arrival of the new kick starts a celebration which lasts for a couple of days and considerably longer in some parts of the country.
A Scottish Hogmanay and New Year have a unique set of customs which, while not as universally observed as previously, continue to resonate in 21st century Scotland.
The main tradition is that of first footing – visiting friends and family after the bells, which is what we call the countdown to midnight on Hogmanay.
Traditionally, the most desirable person to visit your house after the bells would be a tall, dark, handsome man.
Originally, guests would bring coal or peat and edible gifts.
Bringing coal is supposed to symbolise the hope that the home visited will always have a fuel for the coming year. Bringing food such as black bun – a rich, fruit cake – helps ensure that the household will have enough to eat over the coming year.
Have a party
Of course, it is all a wonderful pretext to see your nearest and dearest and have a party.
In the cities, people might party for a couple of days. In the highlands and islands, Hogmanay celebrations can stretch into a fortnight.
Almost twenty years ago, your correspondent – then working as a journalist – was on Skye for the inaugural Skye and Lochalsh Food Festival.
A local restaurateur was going to introduce us hacks to the fisherman who supplied her restaurant with langoustines hauled from the Minch. If memory serves, he was known as Donny the Prawn
Unfortunately, as it was only the 10th of January, Donny the Prawn was still making the most of Hogmanay.
Given the choice of being at sea in the depths of winter or being holed up in a cosy cottage with good friends and, I assume, plenty of whisky, one can’t help but feel that Donny knew what he was doing.