Christmases of Scotland Past- Part 2: The Land without Christmas

Friday 27 December 2019

The new Scottish Reformation Parliament of 1560 led the Scottish adoption of a Protestant confession of faith while rejecting the Catholic Church and its representative, the pope. Inspired particularly by Calvinism, the new reformed church would become Presbyterian with the Kirk system at its centre. Following the 1567 downfall of Mary Queen of Scots, the church’s influence only grew with the new child king, James VI, raised Protestant during his minority. In the 1570s the kirk went after a supposed relic of the Pre-Reformation Scotland…Christmas. An act of the assemblies of the kirk in 1577 stated that from then on, all days that had “bein keipit holie” besides “sabboth day” such as “yoole [yule] day, saincts days” etc. were now abolished as holidays with civil penalties to be administered to anyone who dared engage in celebrating them with “ceremonies, banqueting, playing, fasting and sick [such] other vanities”. It took time for the new rules to be followed by the majority of the Scottish population with a meeting of the kirk in 1587 including complaints of the continued “superstitious keeping of yoole”.


The early seventeenth-century, with the crowns of Scotland and England united under James VI/I, saw a difference in views regarding Christmas develop between the two countries. James, opposing the form of Protestant faith and Kirk control in Scotland, instead adopted English traditions. In Scotland, after a generation of Yule being frowned upon, the lack of celebration had become normal. In 1619, this difference in Scotland and England’s views of Christmas comes across starkly in the examination of an imprisoned Scottish bookseller, James Cathkin, by the king himself. Caithkin told him that these holidays had “bein castin out of our kirk” and only preached against for as long as he remembered  as Christmas was deemed “superstition”. An irate King James supposedly replied to him “fart on you and the session of your kirk baith!” and stated he had kept “yoole [Yule] and pasch [Easter] when in Scotland. In 1640, the Scottish Parliament finally established a concrete law that outlawed the celebration of Yule, the act stating that “this kingdome is now purged of all superstitious observatone of days”.

What had once been a holiday, for the next 300 years was not. The Scottish historian, John Spalding, in 1641 discussed how the 25th of December, “of old called Yool-day” when one praised the birth of Jesus and “made mirrie with others” with “good cheir” had become “ane work-day”. While a 1712 act of the Westminster parliament partly repealed the act, the celebration of Christmas continued to be slight, quiet or absent in Scottish homes. In the nineteenth century, a clergyman told the Scottish antiquarian, Robert Jamieson, of his disgust at the “ministers of Scotland” who “in contempt of the holy-day observed by England”, allowed wives and servants to be seen outside during Yule and had their men yoke the plough. Scotland’s particular fondness for Hogmanay ties into this history. Without Christmas as the midwinter holiday of Scotland, New Year’s Eve took its place. Only in 1958, just 62 years ago, did this finally change. Christmas or Yule finally returned to Scotland as a public holiday, and whether for good or bad, it’s here to stay. While we might not remember a Scotland without Christmas, its absence was recent and in living memory. Its impact noticeable in something as unassuming as a wedding photo took on the 25th of December.

Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, Volume 1 1560-1577 (Edinburgh: Maitland Club, MDCCCXXXIX)

Acts and Proceedings of the General Assemblies of the Kirk of Scotland, Volume 2 1578-1592 (Edinburgh: Maitland Club, MDCCCXL), p.719

John Spalding, The History of the Troubles and Memorable Transactions in Scotland and England, from MDCXXIV to MDCXLV, volume 1 (Edinburgh:1828 ed.), p.358

James Napier, Folklore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland within this century: with an appendix, shewing the probable relation of the modern festivals of Christmas, May Day, St. John’s Day, and Halloween, to ancient sun and fire worship (Paisley: Alex Gardner, 1879), p.190.

“A Relation of the Imprisonment and Examination of James Cathkin, Bookseller, June 1619” In The Bannatyne Miscellany, Volume 1 (Edinburgh: MDCCCXXVII), pp.197-217, p.202,206

The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, eds. K.M. Brown et al (St Andrews, 2007-2019), 1640/6/22 [accessed: 20 December 2019]

Related topics

Share this story

Leave a reply

By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.