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The Ghosts of Christmas past

Hugh Smith from the Ileach Newspaper takes a look at the history of the holiday season. In this first part Hugh writes about Christmas in Scotland, in the second part, which will be published next week, he will explain the ins and outs of Hogmanay.

Up until the late 1950s, Christmas in Scotland was a low key affair and the main celebration was confined to Hogmanay and New Year's Day. Till then, it was business as usual; shops and offices were open and people went to their work leaving the Christmas festivities to their English neighbours. The festival was especially ignored in the Highlands and Islands. This was largely as a result of the Presbyterian Church suppressing the event in Scotland in 1583 as there was no Biblical reference to the Christmas celebration and no commandment to mark the birth of Christ. This was a policy that the Church of Scotland later embraced and even today few, if any churches in the west of Scotland, apart from the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations, hold acts of worship on Christmas Day. Continue reading...

In the Western World, the birth of Christ has been celebrated on December 25 since 354AD, replacing an earlier date of January 6. The Christians had by then appropriated many pagan festivals and traditions as a means of stamping such practices out or by giving them a veneer of Christianity and, hopefully, respectability. In fact, the earliest English reference to December 25 as Christmas Day did not appear until 1043. There were mid-winter festivals in ancient Babylon and Egypt, and Germanic fertility festivals also took place at this time. Also celebrated on December 25 in both Phrygia and Persia was the birth of the sun gods. Even the Romans celebrated their Saturnalia at a festival which ran from 17th to the 24th December. In Scandinavia, the Festival of Yule was marked by the burning of the Yule log, a ritual involving the worship of vegetation and fire.

The Celtic culture revered all green plants and most especially the holly and the parasitic mistletoe. These were important symbols of fertility and were used to decorate homes, groves and altars. Saint Days were also taken on board and among those honoured was Saint Nicholas who eventually evolved into our Santa Claus. New Christmas customs appeared in the Middle Ages and among those added to the Christian celebrations was the singing of carols. Previously, carols had been sung as an accompaniment to ring dancing but the early Church was quick to get rid of sinful dancing!

The Christmas tree was introduced to this country by Prince Albert, the Germanic consort to Queen Victoria, although the credit for lighting trees as a form of Advent celebration goes to the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The Christmas card first appeared in 1843 and was the brainchild of Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was not an overnight success and it took another 20 years for the custom of exchanging cards to capture the public's imagination.

With the arrival on the political and religious scene of Oliver Cromwell, Christmas was dealt a serious blow and he was instrumental in getting Parliament to pass an act in 1644 which made the festival, along with many other pleasures and pleasing pastimes, illegal. And so it remained until 1661 with the restoration of the Monarchy. Celebrating Christmas has been controversial since its inception. Since it, and other numerous festivals, found their roots in ancient pagan traditions they were greatly frowned on by the conservatives with the Church and even today the Christmas festival and all its trappings are completely ignored by the Free Church of Scotland.

It must be said that in many people's mind the current over-feasting, expensive gift-giving and other excesses present a drastic contrast to a crude stable, a lowly maiden, a helpless babe and humble shepherds. And theologians and scholars are firmly convinced that whatever the rights and wrongs of the Biblical accounts of a virgin birth-Christ was not born on December 25!

Tag: christmas holidays

This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

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