#1 The Scots have their own word for Christmas
Just as the Scots refer to New Year’s Eve as Hogmanay, they have their own word for Christmas. Well, technically. The Scots word for Christmas, Yule, originates from the Old Norse midwinter pagan celebration of the winter solstice, known as jól. The Christian Church is believed to have taken over the celebration, calling it “Christ’s Mass” which eventually merged into Christmas. Some parts of Scotland refer to Christmas eve as Sowans Nicht, presumably inspired by the dish, Sowans, which consists of oat husks, fine meal and water.
#2 Christmas was banned in Scotland
The act of Yule celebrations was discouraged from 1583, and was officially prohibited in 1640. People were even arrested for illegally celebrating the banned holiday. Why, you ask? The Presbyterian Church of Scotland believed that Yule celebrations didn’t reflect what was written in the bible, and associated it with the Catholic church. The Presbyterian Church referred to it as a “Popeish festival”. Seriously. The Parliament of Scotland’s Christmas ban lasted 400 years, with Christmas only becoming a public holiday in 1958. Perhaps that’s why Hogmanay celebrations are taken so seriously – they’ve had a head start of about 400 years. As a result, most Scottish Christmas traditions are relatively new.
#3 The Scots have special festive bread
One of the formerly banned traditions was the baking of Yule bread. During the 400-year ban, bakers were legally obliged to report anyone requesting Yule bread to the authorities. Yule bread is made with caraway seeds and looks a bit like a rope arranged into a circle. Essentially, 3 threads of bread loaf are twisted into a circle to represent the Sacred Three and the Sun. The hole in the middle is usually used for candles, to light up the dark winter nights. An ancient Scots tradition is to bake a Yule bread for each member of the family, and whoever finds a trinket in their loaf receives good luck for the rest of the year.
#4 Christmas is full of superstitious practices
As a very superstitious folk, the Scots would often turn to divination to predict the future. Christmas was no exception (especially during the ban). During Yuletide, young boys would prick their thumbs with the sharp edges of holly leaves. Each drop of blood was believed to represent a year of their lives to predict how long they would live. Better prick your thumb hard, Angus. Another tradition involves cracking an egg into a cup, with the belief that the shape of the egg will tell you your future partner’s profession. The same egg is also used to bake a cake, and if the cake ‘skin’ splits open, you will have bad luck for the rest of the year. Not a good time to crack under pressure.
#5 Christmas rituals typically involve lots and lots of fire
Many of the superstitious and Yuletide-related practices revolve around fire. Lots of it. For example, burning branches of rowan tree is believed to rinse any negative feelings between friends or relatives for the festive period. The most famous practice is the burning of the Cailleach, also known as the Hag of Winter who brought the cold and darkness. By tradition, families would carve the face of Cailleach into logs of wood and set them on fire. The ritual was conducted in the hopes of banishing cold, darkness and hardships in the future.