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Scotland’s Ancient Winter Celebrations

The main narrative of Christmas is a Christian one. The celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ; a first century Jewish religious leader. Hence, Christ-mas. Christianity is the world’s largest religion and underpins the social and familial values that many of us have grown up with.  We may or may not be religious in ourselves, but we still celebrate Christmas.

However, the roots of Christmas are an amalgamation of pre-Christian, pagan traditions. In Scotland there is a strong Celtic-pagan heritage and a deep history of marking the winter solstice—which has been absorbed into a modern version of Christmas.

Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice in Neolithic Scotland

The ancient peoples of Scotland were hunter gatherers, ruled by the seasons and elements. Their life was one entwined with nature. The winter solstice was a powerful spiritual turning point, where the darkness stopped creeping and the sun returned, little by little. A symbol of rebirth and hope.

It also happened to be the time of year when fermenting drinks were ready. In other words, party time. Bonfires would be lit to ward off evil spirits, animal sacrifices made for the health of crops, and ale drunk. 

Customs in Scotland

Yule Customs in Scotland

The word “yule” is derived from the Old Norse, “jól”—and was the name given to midwinter celebrations in ancient Scotland.

We owe the foundations of our festive traditions to yule customs. Perhaps the most iconic of which, is the decorating of a pine tree. Now, our trees are decorated with all sorts of random items. This was not the case in pagan Scotland. A tree would be decorated with celestial objects, the moon, sun, stars, and gifts for the deities. It’s thought that the concept of Christmas presents also grew from this practice. Another custom we would recognise is the use of mistletoe. Celtic and druid priests would gift it as a blessing, and it was considered a good omen for fertility rates. 

What was the Yule Log? Of course, we know it in its chocolate form. The pagan Yule Log…was a log. Inedible, wooden. It was a substantial hunk of oak, burnt as a tribute to the gods and as a celebration of life. Its ashes, or charred remnants, were sometimes kept for good luck.

Scottish Yule

What happened to Scottish Yule?

With the coming of Christianity to Northern Europe, ancient Celtic belief systems were replaced. Though this didn’t mean they disappeared. As with any shift from one cultural paradigm to another, yule and its brightening of winter rubbed off on Christian leaders and missionaries. So much so, it formed the basis of a new holiday. Christmas.

Another pre-Christian influence for Christmas is the Roman winter solstice festival, Saturnalia. This was in homage to Saturn, a god representing hedonism and plentiful resources. Much like the pagan end of year celebrations, Saturnalia was about having a good time, indulging, and bringing excitement to an otherwise cold and dark time of year. Although, in true Roman fashion the festival could get out of hand and had an anarchistic, purge-like quality to it. The Roman version of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.

Anarchy and debauchery were not on the menu for Christians, but the idea of a winter festival, with socialisation and tasty food wasn’t overlooked.

Scottish Christmas Cancelled

The cancelling of Scottish Christmas (Yule)

The celebration of Yule, once disconnected from its wild pagan roots, became something associated with Catholicism.

In 1560 Scotland formally declared its split with the Catholic church, in a time known as reformation. There was a simmering anti-Catholic sentiment within Scotland, and “superstitious” holidays such as Yule were considered backwards and unnecessary. In fact, over the following century, resentment of Yule became such, that in 1640 the Scottish Parliament made celebrating it illegal. So, in essence, celebrating Christmas became an imprisonable offense.

Imagine being dragged off to a cold, wet cell for eating a slither of Christmas cake…Orwellian.

Whilst the ban on Yule (or Christmas) officially lasted until the early 18th Century in Scotland, its unofficial absence lasted much longer. Essentially, over time, Scotland became used to Christmas being a low-key or non-existent affair, and it wasn’t until 1958 it was made a public holiday. Before this, Christmas was another working day.

Though in the 21st Century, Scotland celebrates Christmas, its historic lack might explain why Scotland injects so much fervour and passion into its end of year Hogmanay parties. Perhaps if Christmas had been a consistent part of Scottish culture, New Year’s Eve in Scotland wouldn’t have grown to be the world-famous event it is now. It’s a theory anyway. 

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