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Scottish New Year Customs & History Of Christmas

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With the Christmas season approaching, here are some Scottish customs and history surrounding the holidays.

The origins of Christmas in Scotland came from Scandinavia; Yultid was the 12TH month and one of many names given to Odin the Norse god. It was believed Odin came to earth on an eight-legged winged horse named Seipnir. Odin would sit at firesides disguised in a hooded cloak listening to those in need and leave gifts of bread or coins as warranted. Much in the manor of Father Christmas.

Nollaig Beag – Little Christmas, quietly celebrated the birth of Christ in a very solemn and reverent way. After a few days had passed the festivities began, some times referred to in Scotland as the Daft Days. A period of misrule and revelry(probably something like Mardi Gras in comparison) leading up to the Twelfth Night or Epiphany Eve, the adoration of the Magi. Twelfth Night (January 6) also marked the ending of a winter festival that started on all hallows eve.

Before the reformation in the 16TH and 17TH centuries, Scotland freely celebrated Christmas. After the reformation, Christmas was outlawed to the extent that Bakers were forbidden from baking Yule goods. If caught punishment was eminent, Penalties were lessened or forgiven if a customer list was turned over. Constables were hired by the size of their noses; a large nose was thought better able to sniff out those who baked the illegal Yule cakes, breads and treats. By 1638 Christmas was abolished in Scotland. The celebration of mass was forbidden and Christmas was not recognized as a legal holiday. Much of this resentment of Christmas celebration was from its close association to the Catholic Church, and Briton. The newly adopted Church of Scotland was Lutheran. You were allowed to attend church services on Christmas but before work, during lunch break or after work. Christmas did not return as a legal holiday in Scotland until 1958.

Since Christmas was not celebrated in Scotland, attention turned to the festivities of the New Year and what is known as Hogmanay. There are discrepancies as to the origin of the term Hogmanay. Some think it was coined from the French term Homme est ne – man is born. several thoughts are from the Scottish Gaelicoige maidne (”youth of morning”); Old Englishhaleg monaþ (”Holy Month”), Norman Frenchhoguinané, from Old Frenchanguillanneuf (”gift at New Year”); Frenchau gui mener (”lead to the mistletoe”); and Flemishhoog min dag (”day of great love”). Lastly the term Hogmanay is possibly a corruption of “Hug-me-now” referring to the Hogmanay custom of kissing other revelers at random passing by. Wherever the origin, Hogmanay means last day of the year and continues into First Footing, sometimes lasting well into the next day.

First Footing begins at any moment past midnight when the first person to step foot through your door. In a simpler time, it was not uncommon to open your home to weary travelers seeking refuge from the cold night, extending hospitality to strangers. On this night it was customary for a First Footer to present a gift (referred to as a handsel). Customary gifts included fuel (wood or coal) for the fire. Food, such as shortbread or Black Bun (a very rich fruitcake with an abundance of spirits added) or drink (usually a good whiskey). The host would then serve the food or drink to everyone in attendance including the traveler. If the gift was fuel the traveler himself must place it on the fire and say” a good New Year, to one and all, and many may you see”. Today a polished piece of coal or wood (to later be used as an ornament) or a candle may be substituted for fuel. First footers also determined the luck a of household during the coming year. If a dark, haired male stranger was the first to step through your door, it meant good luck for the following year. If it were a light haired male, it was bad luck for the year. This stems from the fair-haired bands of marauding Vikings that often plundered and pillaged throughout Scotland. In contrast, during Christian times, if a fair-haired visitor entered first it meant good luck, especially if his name was Andrew, as St Andrew was the Patron Saint of Scotland. Any time a woman first footed a household (regardless the color of her hair) it was bad luck for the coming year.Ashes in the hearth foretold of coming events also. On Christmas morning, if a footprint in the ashes faced the door it meant a death soon. If the footprint pointed away from the door, it meant an addition was on the way.

Candlelight customs are similar for all Celtic peoples. Candles are lit in each window to show the way for the holy family on Christmas Eve and again on Hogmanay to light the way for First Footers. Shop keepers would give out Yule candles as a kind gesture, wishing his customers good will by saying “A fire to warm you by and a light to guide you“

Burning of the Cailleach. A piece of wood carved to resemble an old woman and named the spirit of winter placed on a good fire. The family gathered around and watched the log burn until the end. This symbolized the end of the bad luck of the old year and a fresh start for the new.

Going into this Holiday season in this troubled time. A wish to you, to share the love of family and embrace the real reason for this season. May your First Footer bring you good things and your Cailleach burn clean. May God bless you in ways you never knew possible.

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