The Time They Banned Christmas

John Knox founder of the Church of Scotland

"... 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." 

Act discharging the Yule vacance (2 June 1640)

The Scots traditionally have not celebrated Christmas.  Prior to 1560 Christmas was  a time for feasting.  The year 1560 is important as it is the start of the Protestant Reformation.  The Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) - or Covenanters - frowned on anything to do with Roman Catholicism and in 1640 the Scottish Parliament made the Yule vacations illegal.  One has to put this in perspective as 1640 was right at the start of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. In England, part of this war is known as the English Civil War.  Even when Charles II was restored to the throne, Christmas celebrations were frowned upon.  It took until 1958 for 25 December to become a public holiday.  This is one of the reasons why New Year's or the Hogmanay is a more important celebration for the Scots.

The National Trust for Scotland suggests that Christmas in Scotland is celebrated much as in other western countries.  People sing carols, decorate their households, have a Christmas tree and wreath (these are Victorian customs imported to the United Kingdom by Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert), eat mince pies and have a hearty lunch.  As in much of the United Kingdom, Scots sit down and watch the Queen's annual address, watch the Coronation Street or Doctor Who Christmas special and then watch a festive film (like Star Wars or a recent Bond film...).  The National Trust for Scotland recommends Perkins and Haggis sausage rolls.

Other unique Scottish traditions include

  • bringing in a burning twig from a rowan tree to clear away bad feelings between family members, friends and neighbours;
  • having the first footer come into a home bearing gifts of peat, coal, money or bread (also a New Year's tradition);
  • placing candles in a window to welcome strangers (there is a connection to honouring the Holy Family searching for shelter);
  • having a traditional meal with cock-a-leekie soup, roast turkey, glazed ham or leg of lamb, black pudding, Yule bread, bannock and shortbread.