Christmases of Scotland Past- Part 1: Yule in Renaissance Scotland

Monday 23 December 2019

Looking at their wedding photo you wouldn’t be able to guess that my paternal grandparents, my nana and gaga, had been married on the so-called “most wonderful time of year”, Christmas Day. The reason? Until 1958, celebrating Christmas in Scotland just wasn’t a big thing. Hogmanay was the true winter holiday north of the border. The history of Christmas in Scotland is eventful and if we turn back time to consider its nature under the Stewarts in the fifteenth and sixteenth-century Renaissance court, we can glimpse a lot we recognise as “Xmas’ related today but also a lot of traditions that would disappear under the Scottish Church and Kirk from the 1560s onwards.

So how did the Stewart royal court celebrate Christmas, or as they called it, Yule? One of the first traditions to kick off the twelve days of Christmas was the bringing in of the Yule Log, or “Yule Stok” in Scots. While ours today are festive desserts, the Renaissance form was a literal large block of wood which was ceremonially brought in on Christmas Eve and meant to keep burning until the holidays ended on Twelfth Night (January 5th). A source of light and heat at the darkest point of winter, the Yule Log likely came from Germanic Pagan midwinter rituals but stayed relevant in the Christian Scotland of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The 25th itself would see the entire court attend chapel then the King or Queen would reward certain servants in the Great Hall of whatever residence the celebrations were occurring in. For instance, the Christmas 1491 saw James IV reward heralds for their service on “Yule Day” while in James V’s reign middling servants with ties to entertainment, like his fools called John Mackerie and John Lowis or his viol players, received red and yellow royal coloured livery as yule gifts, as happened in 1539. Charity occurred with 1497, for instance, seeing “Pur folk begyndand at Yule” given alms by King James IV. A variety of entertainments existed and continued from Yule day until the 12th day of Christmas, Twelfth Night in the first week of January. James was a lover of card games with payments for Yule 1497 also going towards “the cartis with other lordis” and to enable the “King playit at the cartis”. Performances and disguisings were common yule games. James IV in 1491 rewarded mummers who “dansyt” for him, gave £2 14s to three men of his chapel who had sang a “ballat” for him on January 2nd 1492 and in 1506 had one of his court fools, John Bute, entertain the assembled court via a performance in doctor costume.

Two figures presided over special Yule merriment in addition to this. The carnivalesque figures of the Scottish Abbot of Unreason and the King and Queen of Bean. They embodied the same “ritualised rebellion” as the Feast of Fools and May Day and presided over the transitional period between Christmas and the New Year. For a brief period, the hierarchy of the court turned upside down with “temporary misrule and tolerated folly” normal. Those appointed the Abbot of Unreason could be servants to members of nobility with a fine the only way to get out of the role. Alexander Kers, a cook, for instance, played the Abbot in 1501. The mischief they could evoke is demonstrated by the compensation paid out by James IV to a “Gilbert Brade” for the “spilling [spoiling]” of his home!

Meanwhile, on Twelfth Night (January 5th or 6th), a figure called the King or Queen of Bean was found by sharing the Twelfth Night Cake. Whoever found a bean or pea becoming Mock-King and Mock-Queen of Bean. For the final day of Christmas celebrations, they ruled a topsy-turvy version of the Scottish court and presided over fun and games. Various instances of the role survive in different accounts. In 1492, James IV had “Pryngill, King of Bene” given 36 shillings for his performance and in 1496 gave “Johnne Goldsmith” £5. This role lasted into Mary Queen of Scots’ reign as one of her companions the four Marys, Lady Mary Flemming, was made “Queene of thee Beene” one Yule holiday.

This half-familiar, half-alien, Yule and Christmastide holiday soon disappeared, however, as part 2 will discuss on Christmas Eve…


Sarah Carpenter, “Plays and Playcoats: A Courtly Interlude Tradition in Scotland?”, Comparative Drama, 46, 4 (2012), pp. 475-496, p.485

Thomas Dickson ed., Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Volume 1 1473-1498 (Edinburgh: H.M GRH, 1877), p.ccxxx-ccxlii,184, 270, 374

Keely Fisher, “The Crying of Ane Playe: Robin Hood and Maying in Sixteenth-Century Scotland”, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, 12 (1999), pp.19-58, p.22

Robert Henryson, The Poems and Fables of Robert Henryson, ed. David Laing (Edinburgh: William Paterson, MDCCCLXV), p.46

Marc Jacobs, “King for a Day: Games of Inversion, Representation, and Appropriation” In Mystifying the Monarch: Studies on Discourse, Power, and History, eds. Jeroen Deploige and Gita Deneckere, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), pp.117–138, p. 117-118

James Balfour Paul, ed., Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Volume 3 1505-1507 (Edinburgh: H.M GRH, 1901), p.127, 307-308

James Balfour Paul, ed., Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Volume 7 1538-1541 (Edinburgh: H.M GRH, 1907), p.271-272,274

John Pinkerton, Ancient Scottish Poems, Volume 2 (London: C.Dilly and William Creech, 1786),p.431

William Willeford, The Fool and his Sceptre (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969), p.155-156

“Twelfth Night Traditions: A Cake, A Bean, And A King – Smithsonian Libraries / Unbound”, Blog.Library.Si.Edu, 2019 <…/twelfth-night-traditions-a-…/…> [Accessed 22 December 2019].

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