How Scot­land dis­cov­ered Christ­mas

Chil­dren in Scot­land used to wait till Hog­manay for their presents, and their fa­thers worked on Christ­mas Day. Shop­ping and TV have changed all that, says AL­LAN MASSIE

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

Al­lan Massie

‘NA,’ MY FRIEND Pat said. ‘I dinna hang up a stock­ing the nicht. I dae that on Hog­manay, an’ I get my presents on Ne’er Day.’

We would have been six or seven then, 1944 or 1945. Pat was the grand­son of the grieve on my mother’s farm. This may have been one of my first mo­ments of aware­ness of so­cial dif­fer­ences; for of course, like other mid­dle-class Scot­tish chil­dren, I ex­pected Santa Claus to come down the chim­ney on Christ­mas Eve, and next day we would have Christ­mas din­ner with a roast fowl – no tur­key then – and a plum pud­ding with three­penny bits wrapped in cloth hid­den in it.

Pat’s po­si­tion was more usual, how­ever. Christ­mas Day wasn’t a pub­lic hol­i­day in Scot­land then. Shops were open as usual. So, I think, were most of­fices. Peo­ple went to work in fac­to­ries and ship­yards. Banks, as I re­call, ob­served Satur­day hours; open till mid­day. Scot­land wasn’t like Eng­land; we did things dif­fer­ently.

It goes back to the Re­for­ma­tion. In Eng­land Henry VIII broke with Rome, made him­self the English Pope (Supreme Head of the Church in Eng­land) and re­mained, in his own eyes any­way, a good Catholic boy, per­se­cut­ing Luther­ans and Ro­man loy­al­ists alike. His daugh­ter El­iz­a­beth’s re­li­gious set­tle­ment took the form of a com­fort­able com­pro­mise be­tween old and new. This was very English, a fudge here and there, so that al­most ev­ery­one could ad­here to the new na­tional Church of Eng­land.

Things were done dif­fer­ently in Scot­land. Our Re­for­ma­tion came to us from Geneva, and we drank the pure wa­ter of Calvin­ism. Any­thing that smacked of Papist idol­a­try was banned. Any­thing for which there was no scrip­tural author­ity was out of or­der. No cel­e­bra­tion of Christ­mas, af­ter the Na­tiv­ity it­self, is recorded in the Bible. There­fore there should be none in Scot­land. Ac­cord­ingly it was for­bid­den, along with the other feasts of the Ro­man Church.

Apart from any­thing, Christ­mas en­cour­aged jol­lity, and jol­lity was sus­pect, feast­ing an in­vi­ta­tion to sin. In any case the Pres­by­te­rian Kirk then, and for a long time af­ter, paid lit­tle heed to ‘gen­tle Je­sus, meek and mild’. Ad­mit­tedly a Pres­by­te­rian divine called An­drew Melville sternly in­formed James VI that there were two king­doms, and in the King­dom of Christ James was ‘nocht but God’s sil­lie vas­sal’; nev­er­the­less the Kirk much pre­ferred the fierce and de­mand­ing Je­ho­vah of the Old Tes­ta­ment. He was the Lord with whom the God-fear­ing Scot­tish Peo­ple had made a Covenant. As for the Vir­gin Mary, what was she but a hea­then god­dess dressed up in Ro­man garb? So she was dropped, along with all the other saints to whom be­nighted Pa­pists ad­dressed their prayers.

By the mid-17th cen­tury zeal­ous Calvin­ists were as hos­tile to im­ages of the Vir­gin and the saints as any Icon­o­clast in 8th-cen­tury Byzan­tium had been, or in­deed as any de­vout Mus­lim – let alone any Is­lamist – to­day. Even Easter, which is at the heart of the Faith or the Chris­tian mes­sage, took a back seat in Scot­land. This wasn’t en­tirely il­log­i­cal. Calvin­ism with its doc­trine of Pre­des­ti­na­tion might even seem to make Easter su­per­flu­ous. God had al­ready di­vided men at birth into the Elect and the Damned. So what was there for Christ the Re­deemer to re­deem?

Grad­u­ally over the cen­turies the Kirk, in­flu­enced by the spirit and ideas of the En­light­en­ment, be­came more lib­eral. Fundamentalists might break away to form the var­i­ous Free Churches, but the Es­tab­lished Church of Scot­land soft­ened its line. Christ­mas, it re­alised, might not be such a bad idea af­ter all. No doubt the de­vel­op­ment of the Dick­en­sian English Christ­mas had some­thing to do with this. More to the point, per­haps, lib­eral­minded min­is­ters came to re­alise that the Na­tiv­ity, with the child in the manger, and the shep­herds and Wise Men who came to wor­ship him, was one of the most at­trac­tive el­e­ments of the Chris­tian re­li­gion, ap­peal­ing even to peo­ple who had no in­ter­est in the­ol­ogy and who, if they at­tended church at all, might do so prin­ci­pally, or at least in part, be­cause this was a mark of so­cial re­spectabil­ity.

So, even when I was a child, it was al­ready usual for a Christ­mas tree to be erected in the kirk­yard, and many min­is­ters were al­ready im­i­tat­ing the clergy of the Church of Eng­land, the Epis­co­pal Church of Scot­land and even the Church of Rome by hold­ing ser­vices on Christ­mas Eve. Nev­er­the­less, even in mid-20th-cen­tury Scot­land there were a great many peo­ple who never en­tered a church, ex­cept for fu­ner­als or per­haps wed­dings, and it re­mained the case that the great win­ter fes­ti­val was Hog­manay and the New Year, not Christ­mas. So there were many chil­dren whose fa­thers went to work on Christ­mas Day, and who, like Pat, had to wait till the New Year for their presents.

En­e­mies of Christ­mas were fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle, how­ever. It wasn’t re­li­gion that beat them. It was commerce. Al­ready, when I was still a child, depart­ment stores through­out the land had cot­toned on to the fact that Christ­mas was good for sales and busi­ness. A Santa Claus was in­stalled in ev­ery large store, and only the most flinty-hearted of par-

ents would deny their off­spring a visit to Santa’s grotto where they would re­ceive some trumpery present.

Then there was en­ter­tain­ment. The high­light of our Christ­mas hol­i­days was a visit to the pan­tomime in His Majesty’s The­atre in Aberdeen. There was no place for Calvin­ist anti-christ­mas dogma there as we de­lighted in – or were puz­zled by – cross-dress­ing with an im­prob­a­bly long-legged girl in tights play­ing the prin­ci­pal boy and a Scots comic like the great Harry Gor­don or Dave Wil­lis as the Dame. The mes­sage was clear. Christ­mas was a time for fun and de­light, and though one may have per­ceived this only dimly, for the up­set­ting of the nat­u­ral or­der.

And then came tele­vi­sion. In the days – in­deed the weeks – run­ning up to Christ­mas nei­ther the BBC nor ITV paid any heed to the old An­glo-scot­tish border or to his­toric cul­tural dif­fer­ences. Tele­vi­sion and com­mer­cial­ism made Christ­mas the Great Bri­tish Fes­ti­val; only x num­ber of shop­ping days to Christ­mas. Scots obe­di­ently, in­deed en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, fell into line. Christ­mas be­came in Scot­land what it had long been in Eng­land: the great win­ter fes­ti­val. Grad­u­ally even Hog­manay and the New Year took sec­ond place. I doubt if there are chil­dren now who have to wait till then for their presents, as Pat used to.

It’s part of a pat­tern. Over the past 100 years the so­cial, re­li­gious and cul­tural dif­fer­ences be­tween Scot­land and Eng­land first blurred, and then grad­u­ally dis­ap­peared. In the 1880s Robert Louis Steven­son had out­lined them in an es­say en­ti­tled ‘The For­eigner at Home’. The dif­fer­ence was dis­tinct when Steven­son wrote that es­say; it was still fairly dis­tinct when Pat had to wait till Hog­manay to hang up his stock­ing.

Not so now. Al­most all so­cial sur­veys in­di­cate that Scots and English think alike about most things.

Para­dox­i­cal as it may seem, this blur­ring and ero­sion of dif­fer­ences ac­count for the rise of Scot­tish Na­tion­al­ism as a po­lit­i­cal force. For peo­ple who want to as­sert our dif­fer­ence from Eng­land, there is now only pol­i­tics left. So Eng­land votes in a Tory gov­ern­ment, Scot­land an SNP one. It’s a way of in­sist­ing – or pre­tend­ing? –that we are still very dif­fer­ent. But Christ­mas gives the lie to this. Christ­mas is Bri­tish and is now cel­e­brated as en­thu­si­as­ti­cally on ei­ther side of the old – and in so many re­spects su­per­flu­ous – border.

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