The Sunday Post (Inverness)

Oh, Come, All Ye Fearful: How Scotland reinvented Christmas down centuries

Book tracks change from demons to cosy US cinema

- By Ross Crae

Whether it’s a hand-me-down ornament for the tree, an item on the menu or an outing to see the lights, we all have something special that really makes Christmas.

Across history, Christmas and preceding winter festivals in Scotland have been celebrated in a variety of ways. There were also around 400 years where celebratin­g it was illegal thanks to the Reformatio­n.

Now Dr Tom Christie, a researcher in popular culture, and archaeolog­ist Dr Murray Cook explore how Christmas and other winter festivals have been celebrated, banned and reborn throughout our history and their cultural impact in a new book.

“Christmas is a winter feast,” Murray explained. “The whole thing is really about driving away the cold, giving elements to the gods. Our native traditions get mixed up with Roman traditions which become Catholic traditions which become Christmas traditions.

“The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, and there were midwinter festivals all over the place. Scotland has monumental tombs like Maeshowe in Orkney, orientated on the mid-winter solstice, and we’ve got the world’s oldest lunar clock up in a field in Crathes, which is 6-8,000 years old.

“All of these are about tracking what’s happening to the sun. They could only keep so many animals over the winter, so you had to kill the rest and have a big feast.”

Traditions all melded together across the centuries from Celtic pagan festivals to the Vikings’ Yule then Catholic-led celebratio­ns towards the 16th Century.

All of that ground to a halt in Scotland during the Protestant Reformatio­n of 1560, led by John Knox. In 1640, the Scottish Parliament made Christmas celebratio­ns illegal. “You had this tussle between people that want to party and the Kirk that wanted religious purity,” Murray said.

“Ministers were going door-todoor checking whether people were celebratin­g. They were interrogat­ing bakers who made Yule loaves. There’s a fine if you’re caught singing a carol. It’s astonishin­g.”

Yuletide celebratio­ns behind closed doors began to ease back in from the 18th Century, but they remained rare in public until December 25 finally became a public holiday in Scotland in 1958 as the commercial­isation of Christmas across the world set in.

“In the early 20th Century, we’ve got people working that day, strikes taking place, there were fatal accidents on Christmas Day in mines,” Murray said. “Ultimately, the whole thing is about cold and dark. What keeps you warm? It’s family. It’s friends. It’s eating. Those things are constant across the northern hemisphere. We’re not unique in celebratin­g them, but we are unique in having tried to ban them and taking over 400 years to actually get it back.” The book also covers a number of larger-than-life characters including Santa Claus. Before his modern image first appeared in cartoons in the US, he was namechecke­d in an edition of The John O’groat Journal in 1852. “Scotland was the first place in the UK to mention Santa Claus,” Tom said. “The journalist had gone out to see the kids in Wick and had been speaking to them about this character giving presents in their stocking.”

Tales of a more sinister character have also been passed down the generation­s, particular­ly in the Western Isles. There, it’s said the Chimney Demon terrorises children by whispering ominously down into fireplaces. “Anywhere else, if you want to frighten the kids it’s a warning to be good, otherwise Santa won’t come and you’ll get a lump of coal,” Tom said.

“We discovered an oral history project in the ‘60s with elderly women who’d been kids in the 19th Century. They were still terrified of the Chimney Demon. It left such an indelible mark on their psyche.”

Also of particular interest to Tom was how a Scottish Christmas is portrayed abroad on the big screen.

Netflix’s 2021 film, A Castle For Christmas, saw Brooke Shields play an American author who journeyed to Scotland and fell in love with a castle and, eventually, Cary Elwes’ grumpy laird. Scotland has also recently been the setting for numerous festive romance movies.

“For a long while, if you thought about Christmas cinema in Scotland, you think about Comfort And Joy, the Bill Forsyth film,” Tom explains. “It’s a really fascinatin­g time capsule of the early ‘80s. But since about 2018, there’s been this vast explosion of American made Hallmark TV movies set in Scotland. It fascinates me to see the American take on our traditions. It sometimes works better than others. I saw one in which we’re eating ‘Smokey Arbroathie­s’, so their research was not 100%!”

Scotland’s Christmas: Festive Celebratio­ns, Traditions And Customs In Scotland From Samhain To Still Game is available now from Extremis Publishing

 ?? ?? Carey Elwes and Brooke Shields in Netflix’s 2021 film, A Castle For Christmas.
Carey Elwes and Brooke Shields in Netflix’s 2021 film, A Castle For Christmas.
 ?? ?? Scots in the 19th Century were terrified of a festive Chimney Demon.
Scots in the 19th Century were terrified of a festive Chimney Demon.

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