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A Merry Scottish Christmas & Happy Hogmanay

Searching for the meaning of Christmas in Scotland I unearth pagan rituals, a real life Grinch and something called "Hogmanay"

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas...or not.

I have to say this winter Christmas deal almost alluded me.

For Australians, Christmas is summer. It's all about endless summer nights, cricket on the beach and all the joy, hope and excitement that comes with the idea of 6 weeks of summer vacation.

And because its all about summer, we're not familiar with the pagan traditions that intertwined with Christianity, over 1000 years ago, to give us the version of Christmas Europeans have today.

I thought Christmas would be all snowy and glowy like a Hallmark card with Bing Crosby crooning in the street with carollers. Okay, so that last one was never going to happen in Glasgow. Instead, what I got was short, dark days, strange foods, unknown customs, and German Christmas markets.

Gluhwein and German Sausage - Is it Octoberfest?

In Australia, the only Christmas Market we have is the fish market on its marathon 36hr Christmas Eve spender bender with everyone frantic to get their kilo of prawns for Chrissy lunch. That's right, prawns. It's more a chaotic chore with chronic parking problems and shouty fishmongers that you really would rather avoid like the plague, and luckily, as someone who doesn't eat seafood, I can.

So, you know, with that experience in mind, I wasn't thrilled about the idea of going to a 'Christmas Market'.

Turns out, in Europe, it's actually a magical little winter wonderland popup. There's kiddies rides, an ice rink and wood cabin stalls adorned with greenery, fairy lights and fake snow. There's a giant round-about BBQ of German sausage. There's bars of bier and gluhwein, gingerbread, strudel, pretzel a clueless Aussie, I stood looking around and wondered: what is with the German theme?

The German Christmas markets (Christkindlmarkt) are an Advent tradition going back to medieval times in Saxon neighbourhoods but are much more a 21st Century thing in the U.K. They aren't just a place to collect your last minute Christmas stocking filler, they are an event in themselves. They provide a sense of community and celebration in what otherwise could be a bleak season.

While importing the continental Christmas fair began as a bit of a novelty, more Brits are making Christmas markets a part of their Christmas ritual and "stollen" (a mazipan iced fruit bread) and gingerbread part of their Christmas dinner table.

Not to be outdone by those across the North Sea, Scotland has at least two separately themed Christmas Markets. The 'European Market' with its gingerbread hearts and bier halls, and the Scottish one with haggis, whiskey and wool tartans.

By four in the afternoon night has fallen in Scotland. The overhanging Christmas lights are all a-twinkle, folk are out in their beanies and parkas being cosy and cheery and the Salvation Army is in full swing.

But it wasn't always like this. In fact, for around 400 years Scotland didn't have Christmas at all.

The Man Who Stole Christmas

In 1647, Christmas was outlawed. This has often been put down to Oliver Cromwell, the military leader and English Parliamentarian during the English Civil War.

Christmas Ban Public Notice (creditGodey's Lady's Book:Wikimedia Commons)

To be fair, Cromwell likely didn't unilaterally ban Christmas. He wasn't Lord Protector for another few years, but he was part of the parliamentary gang who did. And it wasn't because he was stingy. This was the age of the Puritan and, to secure Scottish military support against the King, Parliament were expected to curtail anything celebratory.

The Scots had effectively banned Christmas since the 1580s, when the Protestant Reformation decided to rid the country of papist pomp. With the majority of Scots following the Presbyterian faith, there were no services to attend until the new year, so, ironically, the essentially pagan ceremony of Hogmanay continued unaffected.

Queen Victoria Christmas Tree (credit:Wikimedia Commons)

Further south, the English weren't so embracing of the "No Christmas" policy. They defied the ban. Even on pain of imprisonment they were going to have their holiday and the militant Apprentice Boys attacked business owners who dared open on the 25th.

But, as with many protest movements, after a few years, and with other things on their minds (like a civil war) the fight for Christmas fell to one side. Christmas Markets stopped opening, stockings weren't hung and it became just another work day.

It wasn't until 1660 that the ban was lifted and, in that time, things had changed. Christmas in a decidedly protestant England was not the lavish mid-winter knees up it used to be.

In fact, it wasn't until Queen Victoria, with her mass media messaging and German husband, that modern Christmas, with the Christmas tree, fruit cake and Advent, took off in the U.K. There's nothing like copying a celebrity to form a tradition.

This didn't reach Scotland though. Well after Cromwell was dead Christmas stayed dead as well. It wouldn't be until 1958 that Christmas Day was declared a Public Holiday. In 1974, they added Boxing Day.

After a few hundred years without Christmas, and the thousands before it, Hogmanay is still the Scots real holiday.

So What is Hogmanay Anyway?

The roots of Hogmanay reach back into the Norse "Jol" (yule) and Celtic "samhain" (new day), though the origin of the word itself is uncertain, with several possible meanings - Gaelic, Scandinavian and Norman-French. The meanings and timing may differ in specifics but the general idea is of a mid-winter festival celebrating the winter solstice and the 'new year' that came with it.

Coming from a country that pretty much gets 12 hours of sunlight the whole year through and has no native deciduous trees, solstice has never been something I attached meaning to. So I decided to look into it a bit more.

Midmorning on the 21st of December, when my astronomical app told me it was the solstice hour, I found myself standing on an ancient iron age hill-fort in Scotland. The sun shone weakly through the mist and the birch trees were eerily quiet. The air was still, damp and cold.

This is winter. All the leaves have fallen from the trees and the sun doesn’t rise far above the horizon. The days are short and even under clear blue skies there is something meek about the day.

Standing in this ancient fort, I wondered what winter must have been like for those that had made their lives here. It's hard to imagine just how difficult life would have been. For heating and light I can flick a switch. In the middle of December I can still pop into Tesco and buy my avocados and bananas. And, if the dark days get me down, I can take off to Tenerife for a beach holiday. But here, in this circle of ancient life long past, these would have been long, long, dark days indeed.

As humans, our relationship with sunlight and weather has always been of absolute dependence. The failure of crops leads to insufficient food, resulting in illness, starvation and death. Cold, floods and storms kill people and animals quickly. Weather is also thought to affect our mood and behaviour.

Our ancient ancestors indulged in rituals, sacrifice and prayers they believed would appease the gods and protect crops and people from all sorts of calamity, including winter. They celebrated the 'return of the sun', the winter solstice marking the point where the days begin to get longer and the light and warmth returns.

Early settlers to Scotland were Vikings from the Scandinavian Arctic lands where winter days are truly short and solstice even more significant. By combining forces with the existing Celts who had a love of fire festivals, they gave Scotland it's unique Hogmanay fire rituals that are still celebrated today.

Edinburgh's Torchlight Procession is one of the largest, best known and most accessible of these processions. It kicks off the city's 3 day Hogmanay celebration. Thousands of citizens and visitors join the procession holding a blazing torch as they march behind pipers and vikings, through the city streets to Calton Hill where they set a longboat ablaze.

The procession is new to Edinburgh, a bit like the German Christmas Market on Princess Street and laser light fireworks at the Castle. But smaller towns in the north and the west - in the Shetlands, Outer Hebrides, Stomaway, Biggar and Stonehaven all have their own variations of Hogmanay fire ceremonies that go well back in their local history.

Hogmanay is a mix of solstice, Christmas and mid-winter craziness. Not content with a few midnight fireworks, Hogmanay celebrations go on for several days. It's probably a reflection of the ways the Scots celebrated the multi-day celebration of "yule" as the "daft days". Over 3 days there are fireworks, street parties, concerts, christmas markets, ice skating, dog sled races and "Loony Dook" a mass dip in the waters under the famous Forth Bridge.

Most people around the world are aware that the singing of Auld Lang Syne is a Scottish New Year tradition. In Edinburgh that involves a mass linking of arms in a feel good we're-all-in-this-together moment. But in Scottish homes there are some quieter traditions going on.

On New Years Eve, Scots do a 'redding the house', a sort of new year spring clean ready for the 'first footing' when friends and relatives visit each other bearing gifts. In old days they'd bring a lump of coal and a black bun. Today it's more likely a bottle of whiskey.

To ensure good luck, the first person to cross the threshold should be a dark haired male. Blondes resemble the marauding viking invaders who brought them all this Hogmanay madness to begin with!

How to experience HOGMANAY the Scottish way.

WHERE: Edinburgh has the largest Hogmanay festivities in Scotland and is probably the most accessible but TOWN and TOWN have also got well known events.

WHEN: Hogmanay actually starts before NYE.

HOW: The fire parade goes from the old town up to X where the viking boat is torched. You can watch the Hogmanay parade from anywhere along the side of the road, but you can also participate if you buy a ticket. To control crowding the official street party on NYE is ticketed. For this you get access to several band stages as well as the Christmas Festival area which is otherwise closed to the public.

TRAVEL TRANSPORT TIPS: Hogmanay is a multi-day holiday in Scotland and some public holidays result in no public transport running. Check timetables for transport closures over the break to make sure you aren't left stranded.


FLICKR 00 | Scotland Winter



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