With all of us in the middle of our own holiday preparations, I thought it would be fun to take a look at how our ancient Scottish ancestors celebrated the season.
Christmas and New Year were equally welcomed by the Scots before the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of the customs of both festivals come from that time. From the Scandinavians came the celebration of “Yultid” now known as Yuletide. Odin (the name of the twelfth month) was to come to earth during that month disguised in a hooded Cloak. He would visit people at the fireside and leave a gift of bread or coins for the needy.
The Christmas holiday was celebrated very solemnly with three days of tribune, church services and fasting. The festivities began after that and spilled into New Year and Twelfth Night. The
French often called Christmas “Homme est ne” (Man is born). It is thought by some scholars to be the origin of the word, “Hogmanay”.
Old Scottish Christmas Customs and Beliefs
The “Black Bun” or fruit cake was traditionally a Twelfth Night Cake which took the place of the earlier “Sun Cakes”. The Sun Cakes were baked with a hole in the center and symmetrical lines around, representing the rays of the Sun. The Sun Cake is believed to be the precursor of the shortbread of today and the pattern is often found on today’s Scottish shortbread.
The “Cailleach” was a ceremonial burning of Old Winter. A piece of wood carved roughly to represent the face of an old woman or crone, named Spirit of Winter was placed on a good fire to burn away. The whole family was to watch to the end. It symbolized the ending of all the bad luck and enmities etc. of the old year and began the New Year with a fresh start.
Welcoming The First Footers refers to a custom centering around a stranger entering the house after midnight on New Year’s Eve/Day. The question was about the luck this stranger would bring, especially in the days of hospitality to traveling strangers. A fair hared visitor was considered bad luck (probably due to the in-fighting between the dark scots and the fair Norse invaders). However, in Christian times, a fair haired man was considered lucky, particularly if his name was Andrew. The first footer must make an offering of food or drink which must be accepted by sharing it with everyone present, including the visitor. Fuel must be placed on the fire by the visitor; he was then wished “A Good New Year”.
Candlelight was displayed in the windows to light the way for the Holy Family. Shopkeepers gave their customers Yule Candles as a symbol of good will wishing them a “Fire to Warm you by, and a Light to Guide you”.