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Adding a Clan Baird and Scottish Holiday Touch: Christmas Pt. 1 (Background)

Your Ultimate Guide at bringing a touch of Scottish and Baird Traditions, both old and new, to your holidays throughout the year. We will look at both Highland and lowland traditions and how incorporating elements of Scottish Traditions, even old lost traditions, into your life can help you protect and pass culture and heritage.


When the snow falls, and stories of Santa abound, the time begins to celebrate one of the best times of the year. During this time, my daughter and I start the holiday season by running to a local grocer that sells that uniquely orange Scottish soft drink, Irn Bru, and watch the classic Irn Bru Christmas advert (as well as its sequel) that showcases the many beautiful places and landmarks of Scotland.

With festive Tartan, knit sweaters, and family gatherings, Christmas would seem to be the most Scottish holiday ever. It seems the two were made for each. However, it often surprises people to learn that for hundreds of years, Christmas hasn’t always been a public holiday in Scotland!

Christmas seems to be made for Scotland.
Scottish Nutcrackers at the Edinburgh Christmas Market. Christmas seems to be made for Scotland. CC Magnus Hagdorn CC BY-SA 2.0. See here.

Despite this occurring, the history of Christmas in Scotland both preserved traditions lost in the rest of the world and created new holiday traditions. Those "new" traditions are now recognized some of the finest in the world. (Hogmanay). Understanding the history of Christmas in Scotland can help inform how to bring a touch of these traditions to your holidays.


The History of a Scottish Christmas Ban


Yule, Nollaig and Natalis: Christmas before the Ban

Let the Ban Begin: Society Changes Slowly

Christmas in the Modern Age and Open Questions


 

Yule, Nollaig,and Natalis: Christmas before the Ban


The earliest records in reference to Christmas is in Latin referring to the Natalis Domini (“Lord’s Birth”). In legal documents, this was a common term used to define the season in the late medieval age. [i] The Gaelic term, Nollaig, is a transliteration of this Latin term natalicia. In Scots however, we see a non-latin based term. In 1390, Scribes used the term Yule in the Registrum Honoris de Morton, a series of the Earls of Morton’s charters, to describe the Christmas season. In this document we see the term:

On Thurisday neist before Yhole last passit…” [ii]

Yhole was an older spelling of the word Yule. The world Yule is believed to be descended from the Old Norse Jól or Old English Geola and was one of the names of Odin or Woden, the pagan Germanic God and father of Thor. This may seem an odd name for a Christian holiday however the English and Scots languages have preserved other pre-christian names. Once a week, wōdnesdæg or Woden's Day (Wednesday) rolls around tantalizing us and depressing us as to the many days left be for frīġedæġ or Frigg's day (Friday).

Yule was believed to have been an early pagan winter festival and was attested to by the historian Bede when commenting on the Anglo-Saxon calendar with the terms . He used the term To be fair, Old Norse and Old English were most mutually intelligible as moderÆrra Geola (before yul) for December and Æftera Geola to describe January. The difference betwen Jul and Geola is not that far apart especially as a spoken language. Old Norse and Old English are fairly mutually intelligible as modern linguists have shown. Scots, descended from Old English and heavily influenced by Old Norse, carried the naming of the season of Yule. (Fun Fact, some linguists belive the term Jolly descends from the Norman term Jolif which may also originate from old Norse tem Jol. However, there is a lot of debate there. )

Regardless, throughout the literary record in Scotland, the term used prior to the 17th century was the term Yule. We read in 1552, in response to a that Parliament passed a law as a resolution regulating the number of meat dishes served due to:

Middle Scots: “…the greit and exhorbitant derth ryssin in this realme of victuallis and uther stuffe for the sustentatioun of mankynd...”
Modern English: …to the great and exorbitant dearth rising in this realm of victuals and other stuff for the sustentation of mankind..."[iii]

Apparently, a famine required Scots to ease off on lavish dinners. This law regulated the number of meat dishes allowed on the table except on Yule and Easter (Pashe) by station in life. We will see this theme of learning how to make food stretch or eat "hoof to tail" and waste nothing in Scottish cuisine. We will also see how natural flora and fauna have influenced Scottish holiday cuisine.


Fun Fact - the Act of 1552 limited how many meat dishes you could have per meal!

Individual Role

Limit of Meat Dishes

Fine

(for breaking the Law)

​Modern Value (est.)

​Archbishop,

Bishop

Earl

8

​100 Pounds Scots

​~8000 GBP

Abbot

Lord

Prior

Dean

6

​66 Pounds Scots (100 Merks)

~5000 GBP

​Baron

Freeholder


4

​40 Pounds Scots

​~3700 GBP

Burgess

“Substantial Man”

1 meat dish (2 total dishes)

13 pounds (20 Merks)

​~1,000 GBP

​All Others

NA

“...punished in his person and goods at my lord governor's will...”

​Let your mind wander.......


What’s important is not the law, fines, meat dishes or the even punishment but that Yule, or Christmas, was not included in the restriction of dishes:

Middle Scots: “Provyding alwayis that this present act and ordinance stryke not upone Yule and Pasche, patroun dayis, mariageis…”[iv]
Modern English: “Providing always that this present act and ordinance applies not to Yule and Easter, patron days, marriages…”[iv]

Yule feasts were still "game on". But that was about to change as the reformation changed the face of Scottish culture.


Let the Ban Begin: Society Changes slowly


By 1592, the Scottish Parliament began its ban on Christmas. That year, Parliament ruled that the Kirk had the power over their congregations:


Middle Scots: “And becaus thair ar divers actis of parliament maid in favouris of the papisticall kirk tending to the prejudice of the libertie of the trew kirk of God presentlie professit within this realme, jurisdictioun and discipline thairof, quhilk standis yit in the buikis of the actis of parliament, not abrogat nor annullit, thairfoir his hienes and estaittis foirsaidis hes abrogat, cassit and annullit and, be the tennour heirof, abrogatis, casis and annullis all actis of parliament maid be ony of his hienes predecessouris for mantenance of superstitioun and idolatrie with all and quhatsumevir actis, lawes and statutes maid at ony tyme befoir the day and dait heirof aganis the libertie of the trew kirk”[v]
Modern English: “And because there are diverse acts of parliament made in favour of the papistical kirk tending to the prejudice of the liberty of the true kirk of God presently professed within this realm, jurisdiction and discipline thereof, which stand yet in the books of the acts of parliament, not abrogated nor annulled, therefore his highness and estates foresaid have abrogated, made void and annulled and, by the tenor hereof, abrogate, makes void and annul all acts of parliament made by any of his highness's predecessors for maintenance of superstition and idolatry with all and whatsoever acts, laws and statutes made at any time before the day and date hereof against the liberty of the true kirk.”[vi]

The Kirk was given the power to annul any laws within its congregation. This specifically called several acts including the Act of 1552 giving special license to meals at Yule and Pashe (Easter). Changes within the religious spectrum in Scotland had started the ban on Christmas.

Half a century later, Yule had fallen from its coveted position. By 1640, the Ban was in effect. That year, parliament eliminated the “Yule Vacance” (Vacation or Holiday) for the Court of Session.

Middle Scots: “…the kirke within this kingdome is now purged of all superstitious observatione of dayes, and heirwith also considering that the keiping of the Yule vacance heath not onlie relatione to that superstitione and may serve to keepe the same in memorie…”[vi]
Modern English: “…the kirk within this kingdom is now purged of all superstitious observation of days, and herewith also considering that the keeping of the Yule vacation has not only relation to that superstition and may serve to keep the same in memory”[vii]

Over the next 50 years, this ban would expand in 1690 to all of the Yule season:


Middle Scots: “…simply discharges the forsaid Yule vacance and all observatione thereof in tyme comeing, and rescinds and annulls all acts, statuts, warrands and ordinances whatsomever granted any tyme heretofore for keeping of the said Yule vacance, with all custome of observation thereof, and finds and declares the same to be void and extinct and of noe force nor effect in tyme comeing.”[viii]
Modern English: “…simply prohibit the foresaid Yule vacation and all observation thereof in time coming, and rescind and annul all acts, statutes, warrants and ordinances whatsoever granted any time heretofore for keeping of the said Yule vacation, with all custom of observation thereof, and find and declare the same to be void and extinct and of no force nor effect in time coming.”[ix]

With that, Christmas was banned. For the next 200 years, Christmas was widely ignored in Scotland while in England, and the rest of the Anglosphere, Christmas was quickly maturing and evolving.


Christmas in the Modern Age, and open questions

After two centuries, Christmas became a Bank holiday in 1871.[x] However, it wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas became a public holiday. This means that there are individuals alive today that remember working on Christmas! Boxing day, considered a staple of the commonwealth, would not become a public holiday until 1974.

This doesn’t mean that Christmas has stood still in Scotland. Just like in Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, and the US, and throughout the world, Christmas has grown and evolved. Scots have taken to Christmas and incorporated the best of many cultures and traditions. The Christmas Markets of Glasgow and Edinburgh have exploded and lean heavily on German Christmas traditions.

By Thomas Nugent, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Christmas funfair at George Square, Glasgow


New traditions continued to emerge. For diasporic Scots, this includes new diasporic Scottish traditions such as the Alexandria Scottish Christmas Walk. For 51 years, the city of Alexandria has held this Christmas celebration. Bairds have taken part in these new traditions. Recently, Bruce Beard represented the Clan Baird in the annual tradition.


In addition to these, there are some traditions that are no longer extant in the rest of the world and are still preserved in Scotland. In these series of articles, we will look at Holiday traditions from this time of year and also look at the positive side of the Christmas ban which gave the world the greatest New Year’s celebration ever… Hogmanay.


But all of this leaves some unanswered questions. If the Kirk prevented Christmas, why did Christmas celebrations not thrive in South Uist, a Catholic majority island? Why weren't there secret Christmas celebrations and traditions? What did Scots incorporate and what are the traditions today? These are the questions we will explore.


Let me know if the comments, what did I get right? How do you keep a touch of Scottish heritage in your holidays?

 

[i] The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, K.M. Brown et al eds (St Andrews, 2007-2022), 1344/7. Date accessed: 19 December 2022. [ii] Morton, Earls of. Registrum Honoris de Morton: A Series of Ancient Charters of the Earldom of Morton, with Other Original Papers. United Kingdom: T. Constable, 1853. Pg. xiIn

[iii] RPS, A1552/2/22. Date accessed: 19 December 2022.

[iv] Id.

[v] RPS, 1592/4/26. Date accessed: 20 December 2022. [vi] Id.

[vii]RPS, 1640/6/22. Date accessed: 20 December 2022. [vii] Id.

[viii] RPS Id., 1690/4/113. Date accessed: 20 December 2022. [ix]Id.

[x] Walker, J. D. (1877, January 1). A treatise on banking law : Internet Archive.pg. 334 Retrieved December 19, 2022, from https://archive.org/details/treatiseonbanki00walk/page/334/mode/2up

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