History of Christmas Traditions In Scotland (1833) by Andrew Halliday

This article Christmas In Scotland is from “The Working man’s friend, and family instructor” (1833).



It sometimes shakes our faith in the approved accounts of countries beyond seas, when we read the gross misrepresentations of English writers on the Christmas customs of Scotland —-a country only a few hours distant from their own. Whether the writers we are speaking of draw their descriptions from personal knowledge, we do not know ; but our own acquaintance with Scotland convinces us, that what they have at different times stated has no foundation in fact.

We remember it stated in a popular periodical, one Christmas season not long ago, that Christmas-day was not kept at all in Scotland. Such is not the case ; the Scots do keep Christmas-day, and in the same kindly Christian spirit that we do, though the Presbyterian austerity of their church does not acknowledge it as a religious festival. Nor is there any spirit of heterodoxy in the intention of the kirk.

Christmas-day, with every other species of fast and feast-day, was originally ignored, because Presbyterian zeal desired to be as far removed rom the doctrines of Rome as possible. In fact, such was their aversion to anything savouring of Romanism, even in appearance, that they rejected many harmless and even venerated customs, in order to avoid what they considered the appearance of evil.

The spirit of Christmas, or Yule as they call it, remains with them nevertheless. In the country districts, the duty of Christmas-day falls on the month of January. The country people, with a tenacious love for the O. S., or the old style of chronological computation, hold that Yule falls on the 6ih of January, our Twelfth-day. The 26th of December, regarded as Christmas-day, is considered new-fangled and worthy of the most supreme contempt : indeed so strong is this paitiality for the old style, that any attempt to introduce the new would be resisted as an aggression on their civil liberty.

With the Scots, New Year’s-day is the commencement of the festive season. On that day, as in England, the yearly custom of expressing good wishes for the happiness of friends and acquaintances, is religiously observed, and other demonstrations of friendliness and good feeling peculiar to the season are cordially exchanged. Feasting, dancing, and other amusements are freely indulged in, and the poor are made glad by the munificence of the rich.

On Yule morning, that is, the 6th of January, the country people rise at twelve or one o’clock,—that is if they have gone to bed—to drink sowens by the light of the lamp. Sowens is a kind of gruel, made from the glutenous particles of oats, boiled and sweetened with sugar or treacle. The rural population enjoy this ceremony amazingly. We remember being present in the large kitchen or hall of a farm-house, on one of these occasions, and we are bound to confess we never saw so much enjoyment over so harmless a beverage.

At daylight, the guests, who were principally farming men and mechanics, were treated in common with the female domestics to a ” tae breakfast,” or tea breakfast, as it is called, in contradistinction to the usual national meal of porridge and milk.

The festive scene was after a time broken in upon by the sound of a chorus, lustily bellowed forth by some voices without. All rose up and rushed to the doors with the cry of ” The beggars, ! the beggars !” And the beggars they proved to be, singing their Yule song. The words of the chorus have been the subject of much disputation among the curious in folk lore, especially the last line, which is repeated as a refrain, viz :—

” And awa’ by soothen town.”

The song is generally an extemporaneous ditty, setting forth the claims of some ” auld wife,” whose slender means constitute the plea for the begging expedition.

The “beggars,” as they are called, are handsome strapping fellows, the sons of respectable farmers, who are not too proud to carry a ” meal bag” over the country to assist their poor neighbours. When the song is finished, the lasses come in for the salute usual on such occasions, a ceremony in Scotland that dues not require to be excused by the mistletoe or any thing else.

The ” gude wife,” or lady of the house, then гсдн!ев the young fellows with a ” dram” of Scotch whiskey, find with her own hands, like the ancient lef-day or lady of the Saxons, contributes a quantity of oatmeal to their sacks, for the benefit of the ” auld wife” whose case they are pleading. Many poor persons, especially widows and ” lone women,” depending upon their own exertions, are enabled in this manner to pass the winter in comfort without being chargeable to the parish.

From New Year’s-day to Yule, the G6h of January, there is little or no work done in the rural districts of Scotland. The reason of this ¡я not altogether to be ascribed to the holiday claims of the season, but, partly to the weather, which generally about the beginning of January is so severe as entirely to put” a stop to all farm operations. These long holidays are principally spent in attending shooting matches, dances, and card parties. With the young people, a favourite amusement of the season is playing for pins with the teetotum on a teaboard.

Those persons who have endeavoured to depreciate the influence of Christmas upon the Scotch people, are entirely wrong when they state that “Christmas is not kept in Scotland.” True, the customs and ceremonies are different from those of England. There is no church service for the day, no Christmas chimes from the church bells, no characteristic fare, such as roast beef and plum pudding; the houses are not adorned with holly and mistletoe; the shops in the towns are not shut up,—but there is the »pint of Christmas abroad, of which these are but the physical sign.

There is good will and fellowship, charity and benevolence, mirth and festivity, as much as in England, where Christmas sits in all the pomp and circumstance of outward state.

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