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December 26th 1546

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Yuletide celebrations

Scotland is normally thought to have been a late convert to Christmas. New Year was said to be the main festival and it was only the influence of England and mammon that brought forward the festive season a week earlier.

As late as 1960 shops in the country districts were still open on Christmas Day, farms worked normally and the Scottish newspapers continued to be published. But for all that Christmas in Scotland has a long pedigree. Before the Reformation Yule Tide was an important festival. Cardinal Beaton is recorded as having “passed over the Christmas days with games and feasting.”  On a more modest scale similar celebrations took place in the towns and villages throughout Scotland.

It was the advent of the Reformation that changed things. As an English opponent of the new system wrote “The ministers of Scotland in contempt of the other holidays observed by England, cause their wives and servants to spin in open sight of the people upon Yule day and ……constrain their tenants to yoke their ploughs in contempt of Christ’s nativity, which our Lord has not left unpunished; for their oxen ran mad and broke their necks and lamed some ploughmen as is notoriously known in sundry parts of Scotland.”  One may take leave to doubt the accuracy of the last part of this quotation but the picture painted of post-reformation Scotland is accurate enough. It was not popular with the people.

The Kirk Session in Perth found it necessary to order “that a proclamation be made a month before next Yule Day, from the authority of the Bailies and Council, for the suppression of the same in time coming with an strict punishment, that none of this burgh allege ignorance.”  For all that there was a case a year later against William Williamson, baker, accused of baking and selling “great loaves at Yule, which was slanderous and cherishing a superstition in the hearts of the ignorant.” 

However no sooner had the authorities succeeded in impressing upon the public the correct attitude towards Yule than the rules of the game changed. Under intense pressure from James 6th the General Assembly accepted in 1618 the Five Articles of Perth. One of the Articles “enjoined the ministers to celebrate the festivals of Christmas and Easter.”  On Christmas Day in Perth it was stated “Zule approvit and command given to hold it holie, quilk day Mr John Guthrie at Perth preachit thair, being fryday.” 

But doctrine and attitudes changed again during the Commonwealth interregnum when Puritan beliefs held sway. “More truly be it stiled Devils-Masse or Saturnes-Mass (for such too many make it) than Christ-Masse.”  The constant stream of abuse, exhortations and prohibitions regarding the festival of Yule or Christmas suggests that the common people did not give up their festivities readily. Indeed for some 28 years under the reign of Charles 2nd Christmas was again ‘in’ until the final triumph of Presbyterianism in 1688.

In 1690, the Scottish Parliament officially abolished the “Yule vacance”  though not the custom of celebrating it at that time of the year, for the festival was transferred to a large extent to the New Year. But even this was gradual and in places like the north-east where Episcopalianism remained strong, Christmas continued to be the main festival.

In many other areas there was something of an undeclared war between the minister and his members. One minister was in the habit of visiting his parishioners on Christmas Day to see if any special preparations had been made or whether people were at their ordinary work. An old lady whose special Christmas dinner was cooking over the fire, saw the minister coming down the path. She took the pot off the fire but only had time to hide it under her bed cover and sit at her spinning wheel before the minister entered. He was delighted with the sight before him and contrasted her conduct with that of some of the other members of the village. Unfortunately as they were both censuring those less righteous members of the community the old lady’s pot set fire to the bed clothes. She, in her hurry to remove the clothes, upset the contents of the pot and succeeded in scalding the minister’s legs. She was later required to do penance for both heresy and hypocrisy.

All through the 18th Century the festival of Christmas lost ground without being entirely removed. The revival of Evangelical Christianity in the early 19th Century and the founding of the Free Church of Scotland gave a new impetus to the stricter forms of Presbyterianism and though Christmas was remembered it was no longer a time for celebration. As the early reformers look down from above at the vast commercial festival that is today’s Christmas they may well feel that they were right after all.

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