Christmas in Scotland

Written by Chris Thornton | 16th of December 2021
Christmas in Scotland

Christmas is a special time of year in Scotland, on the lead up to the big day it is the darkest time of the year... our kids go to school in the dark, and come home in the dark! We need something to lift our spirits on the cold bleak December days and what better than the festive spirit of Christmas.

Christmas in Scotland probably isn't radically different to other places in the world that celebrate this holiday, but I thought it would be interesting to write an article about what Christmas is like in Scotland, maybe we are a little different to your own celebrations?

The Holiday Season

Schools are normally on holiday a couple of days before Christmas day, and will normally stay off until the beginning of January. Working adults are usually off from Christmas eve and will have Christmas day and boxing day off too. All shops close then too, usually causing mass shopping carnage with last-minute panic buyers looking for Christmas presents or food to last them the measly two days the shops are closed!

Depending on their job they may be off all the way through to January too, but key workers such as nurses/doctors/police etc, unfortunately, have to work over Christmas and the new year depending on their shift pattern.

The Christmas holiday also blends into the Hogmanay new year celebration which Scotland is famous for worldwide.

Christmas decorations

At the beginning of December, most homes will put up their Christmas tree in their living room, decorated with fairy lights, tinsel and baubles. A fairy/angel or star is placed on the top with one of the kids usually getting the honour. Some homes will have external Christmas lights on their eaves or on a tree in their garden outside.

Christmas at the Scottish Borders | Festive celebrations

Each of the local towns will normally have Christmas decorations put up in the town square with a big Christmas tree and lights sponsored by local businesses on each street light. Sometimes there is a Christmas light switch-on by a local celebrity or government official.

Christmas events such as Santa's Grotto is often held at local garden centres, my middle daughter received her much-beloved teddy at one of these events, 8 years ago!

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is less important in Scotland than in other countries (such as Norway) but it is still seen as a relaxing time to spend with family with some good food, a glass of mulled wine and maybe a fun Christmas film.

Santa Claus

Small children will leave out a carrot for Rudolph the reindeer, and a mince pie and a small glass for whisky or sherry for Santa Claus. When I was younger we also used to write to Santa and put the letter "up the lum" (chimney). It seemed quite magical as the updraft seemed to whisk the letter away to the north pole! Even if disaster struck and the letter fell in the fire, Santa was magic and he would still know its contents, phew! My kids still write Christmas letters but the tradition of sending the letter to the north pole seems to be dying out... newer homes are less likely to have fireplaces so this could be why.

Letter to Santa Claus

My wife likes to read "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore before they go to sleep, excited about the coming day to open their presents in the morning.

Stockings

A large sock or stocking is also left by Santa in the kid's rooms through the night. These are filled with sweeties or small toys. These are hung on the fireplaces in the living room but will go up to the kid's rooms while they are asleep.

Stockings | Festive celebrations

Christmas Day

In our household, the start of the day is normally dictated by the stomping of little feet running through to our bedroom "It's Christmas!!" with stocking held aloft - "Santa's been!". Hopefully, this isn't too early as it makes for a tiring day, but there's no telling them to go back to sleep once they are up.

They will empty the contents of their stockings and see what Santa brought them, and more often than not eat some chocolate.

Next, we will head downstairs and I will go in first just to make sure Santa has been, and to get in position with the video camera in hand to get some reactions. The kids will come in and open their gifts which have magically appeared below the Christmas tree. This is a really fun time to have with the kids and is the best part of the day hearing the joy in their voices at receiving what they wanted.

Family members will pop in to wish us a merry Christmas and to see the kids playing with their new toys... after that, I will then normally head straight to getting Christmas dinner ready!

Festive celebrations

Christmas Dinner

For adults, Christmas dinner is more the highlight of the day than the presents! The time for Christmas dinner is different for each household, many will have theirs around 12 noon-1 pm, while others around 5 pm-6 pm. Although called "dinner", that title is often the name for the early afternoon meal in Scotland.

We normally have our Christmas dinner at 1 pm at my parent's house, with my two brothers and nephew. Everyone will contribute to the meal in some way... it's normally my responsibility to make the mashed tatties, roasties and neeps... as well as the honey roast parsnips!

Turkey is the most popular meat on Christmas day normally but we prefer beef and ham.

Pulling crackers is also common, and the reading of the bad jokes contained within them. The paper party hat/crown is also a must.

Christmas dinner | Celebrating Christmas in Scotland

What's on the menu?

This is the yearly menu for us on Christmas day.

Starter - Melon or pear and parsnip soup.

Main course - Glazed ham or roast beef. Roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, carrots, Brussel sprouts, mashed neep, pigs in blankets, Yorkshire puddings and honey parsnips.

Desert - Black forest gateau, sherry trifle, Christmas pudding.

After such a large meal we are all pretty stappit and will drag ourselves to the living room/lounge, where a food coma will often occur.

In the evening, if any of us are hungry we will have a lighter supper, maybe some sandwiches and cheese and crackers.

Black forest gateau | Christmas  Markets

Boxing Day

Boxing day is a bit more relaxed, the kids get up and play with their new toys and the adults will just chill out. The best part of boxing day is the day two Christmas Dinner and gobbling up all the leftovers.

My mother will often make a fantastic pea and ham soup using the bone leftover from the enormous ham!

Christmas Markets

Most of the larger towns and cities will have a large Christmas market with many nice gifts, foods and hot drinks available for purchase. There always seems to be a German food stall at the Christmas market, selling really nice hot sausages and frikadellen, highly recommended!

Church Services

Even if you're not religious, it can be nice to attend a church service. Nativity plays and carol singing are undoubtedly very Christmassy things to do in Scotland and definitely magnifies that "Christmas feeling", especially on Christmas eve.

Christmas in Edinburgh

Edinburgh must surely be the hub of all things Christmas in Scotland with many events held between November 20th through to January the 2nd. The cobbled streets of the city centre come alive to celebrate Christmas with Princes Street Gardens playing host to a huge Christmas market that seems to increase in size exponentially every year.

There are many shops and kiosks selling fine handcrafted items, perfect for your Christmas shopping gifts. You are spoiled for choice with the many food outlets selling mince pies and mulled wine, hot cider and whisky-based drinks. There are also many fun rides, such as Ferris wheels and carousels.

An outdoor ice rink has been very popular in Edinburgh for the last 20 years and will appear on George Street this year.

Edinburgh has amazing Christmas lights and really goes for it during the holiday season, see the columns outside at The Dome restaurant and the epic Christmas tree inside in its Georgian Room.

See Edinburgh's Christmas website for more information on everything happening this year.

Edinburgh's Christmas in Scotland | Scott Monument

Scottish Christmas Traditions

In days gone by it was common for Yule bread to be baked for each person in a family, and a lucky trinket to be embedded in one of them, blessing them with good luck for the coming year.

Another tradition is the burning of a rowan twig as a way to make amends with friends and family.

A "first footer" is the first person to visit you on Christmas day and they would often arrive with a gift of coal, whisky or salt and bread. Black buns made with raisins, almonds, ginger and cinnamon were also a popular first footing gift.

Spend Christmas in Scotland

Scotland is a fine place to spend Christmas time and would have a certain magical appeal depending on your location. The highlands of Scotland would be amazing, imagine staying in a castle, opening your presents near the roaring fire then heading outside with the snow falling around you and perhaps glimpse the northern lights dancing over the snow-capped mountains.

Is it always a white Christmas in Scotland?

It depends where in Scotland you are, the higher areas it's likely you will have a white Christmas, but snowfall is rarer in the lowland and coastal areas. On the Moray Coast, it is rare for us to have a white Christmas, with maybe only 4 or 5 I can remember in total.

My granny told me of times when she was young, back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the winters were so bad compared to the winters we have today. She used to walk to school in the snow and her coat would need to be thawed before it could be taken off as it was frozen solid! Scotland's winters today are so much milder than they were 90 years ago.

Is Christmas very religious in Scotland?

There are many Christians in Scotland who celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, but I would say there are more now atheist or agnostic people that just celebrate Christmas as a holiday in its own right without any religious connotations. For us it's a time to be with family, give and receive gifts and eat good food!

Was Christmas banned in Scotland?

Yes! Christmas was banned in Scotland after the Reformation in 1560. Scotland broke ties with the Catholic Church and therefore banned Christmas celebrations as it was seen as a catholic ritual by the Church of Scotland. Hogmanay became the holiday of choice in Scotland and could be the reason Scotland is known as THE place to be at new year.

Prior to the reformation Scotland celebrated Christmas in a similar way to other European countries, the Church of Scotland gradually lost its grip on the people and its influence lessened. Inspired by countries such as the USA, Ireland, England and Germany, Scotland began to again openly celebrate Christmas.  Unbelievably it wasn't until 1958 that it became an official holiday.

Conclusion

I hope this was an interesting article about Christmas in Scotland and I wish you the happiest of Christmas's during this festive season. Let me know if you have any fun Christmas traditions wherever you are in the world in the comments below.

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