Christmas is now well established in Scotland as a time for giving, enjoying the company of loved ones, decorating the Christmas tree and of course, indulging in some Christmas feasting! But until relatively recently, Scotland did not celebrate Christmas, at least, not openly.
For over 400 years, Christmas was frowned upon in Scotland and its celebration was largely a private pleasure enjoyed by people not restricted by religious disapproval. Although Yuletide had been marked for centuries, the changes that followed the Scottish Reformation removed Christmas from the calendar.
After 1560 the reformed Church of Scotland abandoned Catholic beliefs and ritual in favour of a simpler, ‘purer’ form of worship and a stricter way of life. There was no room in Presbyterian worship for ‘popish’ ceremonies and festivals such as Yule, now commonly known as Christmas.
In 1575 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland abolished ‘all days that hereto have been kept holy except the Sabbath day, such as Yule day, saints’ days and such others’. Nevertheless Scots continued to celebrate Hogmanay. Changes in church government meant that in 1640 and again in 1690 Parliament abolished the ‘Yule Vacance’ observed by the courts. The 1640 Act stated:
“….the Kirk within this kingdom is now purged of all superstitious observations of dates…thairfor the Saudis estates have discharged and simply dischairges the foirsaid Yule vacance and all observation thairof in tymecoming”
“…the Kirk within this kingdom is now purged of all superstitious observation of days…therefore the said estates have discharged and simply discharge the foresaid Yule vacation and all observation thereof in time coming”
While part of each act was repealed in 1686 and 1712 respectively, the Church of Scotland continued to discourage ‘Yule’ celebrations.
Christmas and New Year
Despite the Church of Scotland’s dim view and active discouragement, evidence held in National Records of Scotland (NRS) archives suggest that Scottish people still sought to enjoy the season. The St. Nicholas, Aberdeen, kirk session minutes show that in December 1574 fourteen women were admonished for:
‘plaing, dansink & singin off filthe karrellis on youll day’
‘playing, dancing & singing of filthy carols on Yule day’
The minutes of Glasgow kirk session note that on 26 December 1583 five persons were ordered to make public repentance for keeping Yule.
Hogmanay remained the focus of Scottish celebration for centuries, and was recognised as a public holiday before other parts of Britain. Christmas was only recognised as a public holiday in Scotland in 1971.
Records in NRS chart these changes. Scottish Home and Health Department files reveal that in 1939 the Government was discussing the possibility of relaxing the ‘black-out’ regulations in Scotland before Christmas to encourage public spending. In response to this ‘Angus Scotsman’ wrote:
“It has to be admitted that almost continuous contact with Englishmen, in an English city, is bound to have a changing influence on even a Scotsman, that being so it is well that he should be reminded that even yet, barbarous though it may seem to be to English people, the New Year is the national festival in Scotland.”
As the popularity of Christmas increased, industries throughout Scotland found that employees often took holidays or were absent from work. Given the loss of staff and business, industry leaders attempted to persuade the Secretary of State for Scotland to have Christmas designated as a public holiday.
In 1968 the newsagents and booksellers stated their position:
“For some time [we] have been giving thought and study to the changing out-look of Scots towards Christmas Day and it is felt that the time is rapidly approaching when this day will require to be recognised as a public holiday, in addition to New Year’s Day.” (11 June 1968. National Federation of Retail Newsagents, Booksellers & Stationers, NRS, HH41/1928)
In 1970 Tam Dalyell M.P promoted the Christmas cause:
This conversation continued for years until finally Christmas was added as a public holiday in 1971.
This year, to celebrate Christmas, we have dipped into our archives to find some of the recipes used and shared by families to celebrate special occasions, and to create treats for their loved ones. Today’s recipe is for Orange Jelly. Why not try this at home?
Rind of 3 Oranges
2 Ounces of ‘Isinglass’
1 Quart of Water (approx. 2 pints)
Half a Pound of Fine Sugar (aprox. 226g)
“Take twelve oranges squeeze the juice into a pan; grate the rinds of three of the oranges, Boil two ounces of *isinglass in a quart of water, and when all dissolved strain it into the juice with half a pound of fine sugar stir it often and when almost cold fill your moulds.”
*Isinglass – Before gelatin became widely used, Isinglass, a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish, was used in confectionary and desserts.
For more information about our records visit www.nrscotland.gov.uk.
Jocelyn Grant, Archivist
National Records of Scotland
Legislation.gov.uk, Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971