Although Christmas and its customs were in disfavor for only a short time in England (during the reign of Cromwell), Scotland ignored the holiday far longer. Bear in mind that "Christmas" is "Christ's Mass" and mass was banned in Scotland. There are records of charges being brought against people for keeping "Yule" as it was called in Scotland. Amazingly, this dour, joy-crushing attitude lasted for 400 years. It has only been in recent years that the Scots observed December 25 as a special day at all. Until the 1960s, Christmas Day was a normal working day for most people in Scotland. So if there is a specifically "Scottish" aspect to Christmas it is that it was not celebrated!

Christmas Eve in some parts of Scotland is called Sowans Nicht from "sowans" - a dish made from oat husks and fine meal steeped in water. And branches of a rowan tree were burnt on Christmas Eve to signify that any bad feeling between friends or relatives had been put aside for Yuletide.

According to legend, it's bad luck to let the fire go out on Christmas Eve, since that is the time when the elves are abroad and only a good, roaring fire will keep them from slipping down the chimney to perform all types of mischief. On Christmas Day, it is not unusual to have a bonfire and dance to the sound of bagpipes before settling down to a hearty dinner of turkey with all the trimmings. The presents under the Christmas tree were placed there by Father Christmas just as he does in neighboring England.

Many seasonal traditions in Scotland involve fire. In Burghead, a tar-barrel is set on fire and volunteers take turns carrying it on their head before it is smashed to bits. In the Shetland Islands, a 30-ft. replica of a Viking longboat is carried in a parade before being torched and in Comrie, large torches are paraded through the streets before being tossed into the river.

The Scots celebrate Christmas rather somberly and reserve their merriment for New Year's Eve which is called Hogmanay. This word may derive from a kind of oat cake that was traditionally given to children on New Year's Eve. In Edinburgh, millions fill the streets as fireworks explode in the skies over the city.

The first person to set foot in a residence in a New Year is thought to profoundly affect the fortunes of the inhabitants. Generally strangers are thought to bring good luck. Depending on the area, it may be better to have a dark-haired or fair-haired stranger set foot in the house. This tradition is widely known as "first footing."

2000-2001 by W. C. Egan

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