Despite Edinburgh having several year-round Christmas shops, you could be forgiven for thinking that Scotland wasn't all that bothered about Christmas - after all, Hogmanay (the Scots celebration of the turning of the new year) is the biggest celebration in the Scottish calendar, with hundreds of thousands of people journeying to Scotland to celebrate in cities and towns across the country.
There are historical reasons for this shift of festive focus. Christmas was banned in Britain under the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth-century, believing the celebration was a decadent indulge unbefitting of a puritan people. From 1643 Christmas celebrations were outlawed due to their popular excesses - drinking, dancing, over-eating, gift giving, singing - which were direct in contradiction of the ideals of the Puritan strand of Protestant faith.
In Scotland, celebrations were subtly adjusted to make the focus of festivities fall the following week, when the calendar marked a change of year. Thus the new year celebration - unrelated to the Christian calendar, and so outwith the purview of the puritan church - became the winter festival instead!
Despite the restoration of the monarchy, with an associated restoration of Christmas celebrations in 1660, Scots continued to mark the new year more fervently than the Christmas holidays. In fact, Christmas day was never a formal public holiday in Scotland until 1958, as many of the present older generation of Scots will attest. Working on Christmas Day was a common enough experience for centuries - and partly influenced Dickens' classic Christmas character, Ebenezer Scrooge - but Hogmanay was a festival that would be marked and celebrated fervently.
A record from 1863 notes that the traditional rite of celebration at the new year was marked in the following way:
"On the approach of twelve o’clock, a hot pint was prepared – that is, a kettle or flagon full of warm, spiced and sweetened ale, with an infusion of spirits. When the clock had struck the knell of the departing year, each member of the family drank of this mixture with a general handshaking, and perhaps a dance round the table, with the addition of a song."
Traditionally, the celebration in Edinburgh took place outside the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile, where crowds would gather to hear the bells chime at midnight on Hogmanay, and where they would formally welcome in the new year. Today the new year is marked rather less sedately, especially in Edinburgh where a three-day festival period of street performances, markets and live music culminates in the annual street party on Princes Street, and a fireworks display over the city centre.
Some traditional rites are still marked, with the practice of 'first footing', whereby the first person to enter a house was deemed a harbinger of luck and fortune, and would carry with them a gift of silver (for good financial fortune) or a lump of coal, a bottle of whisky or some such token.
So whether you are celebrating Christmas or Hogmanay - or both! - in Scotland this winter, wrap up warm, and be sure to eat, drink and merry in the company of some of the most welcoming people in the world.
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