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

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]

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

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].