Despite Edinburgh having a year-round Christmas shop, 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 may be historical reasons for this shift of festive focus. Especially since Christmas was essentially 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. The year 1642 marked the start of a period of time where Christmases were celebrated covertly, with Scottish celebrants subtly changing the focus of their festivities to the following week, when the calendar marked a change of year.
Following the restoration of the monarchy, with an associated restoration of Christmas in 1660, Scots continued to mark the new year more fervently than the Christmas holidays. In fact, Christmas day was never a formal holiday in Scotland until 1958, as many of the present older generation of Scots will attest. Working Christmas was a common enough experience for centuries, 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."
How civilised! 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.
Explore the city year-round with my private walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth Davies, an adopted native of Edinburgh since 1998...