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  • Kylie Sprott

Solstice, Christmas and Hogmanay

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

We are mere days away from celebrating Christmas, and my thoughts have often turned toward Scotland. Watching from Australia, I am quite fascinated by the traditions there and their origins. In truth, I feel rather ignorant about most!

However, I am a keen student when it comes to history and especially when it has anything to do with Scotland and the United Kingdom. It helps a great deal to see how those on Bute celebrate at this time of year. It is certainly different to our family's festivities in Australia, which usually involve hot weather, swimming and seafood. Despite my reservations about the cold, I think a Christmas in Rothesay is definitely on the cards in the future.

Just look at this lovely photo of Rothesay encased in Snow from winter 2018 - it looks absolutely magical! That is Serpentine Road, which is just near my flat.

And this year, I have been eagerly watching the photos from Bute on my social media feed. In Rothesay they have featured Christmas light projections onto buildings in Montague Street and the pavements in Guildford Square. I particularly love the castle illuminations and the tree in the Ampitheatre.

photo credits:

My mum and I were chatting the other day about Hogmanay and how my Gran used to say that it was a bigger celebration than Christmas in Scotland. This piqued my interest - not least because I had no idea what Hogmanay is!

By coincidence, that very night Trish sent me an article about Hogmanay being the party of the year in Scotland and that it was celebrated for several days. Sounds good to me! I decided to look into this a bit more and do some research.

Hogmanay has its origins in the celebration of the winter solstice among the Vikings with wild parties held in late December. So, the roots of the celebration are both from Pagan and Norse customs.

Long before Christmas became the norm, the inhabitants of Scotland were celebrating the arrival of the new year around the time of the winter solstice (the shortest day). The winter solstice is still celebrated today, and I was fascinated to see photos of the Solstice celebrations on Bute on 21 December. They seemed magical and included traditional rituals of bonfires and ale. Hopefully no sacrifices though!

This is a post from the beautiful Mhairi, owner of Bonnie Bling in Rothesay:

It is believed that the traditional Hogmanay celebrations were brought to Scotland by the Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries. Even today, in Shetland, New Year is called "Yules", which comes from the Scandinavian word for the midwinter festival of Yule.

Interestingly enough, Christmas was not celebrated as a festival and was actually banned in Scotland for approximately 400 years! This dates back to the early days of the Protestant reformation during King Henry VIII's reign, when Christmas was seen as a Catholic tradition and was banned. This was apparently Cromwell's idea - nice one... (not!).

Although the ban was lifted in England, Wales and Ireland around 1652, it remained in Scotland until the late 1950s! At that stage, it was finally recognised as a holiday once more along with the rest of the UK. So, for my Gran (Mary) and Great Grandmother (Margaret) who left Rothesay in 1920, Hogmanay absolutely would have been the big celebration - not Christmas.

What is so very interesting to me is the number of traditions that remain from ancient Pagan and Norse customs for this time of year. In Scotland, before the arrival of Christianity, on the solstice, Celtic priests would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it a blessing. Oaks were sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark, winter months.

I confess to never having seen real mistletoe - it looks quite beautiful.

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And it was the Druidic priests who maintained the tradition of the yule log. Ancient celts believed that burning a yule log from the previous year's fire would conquer darkness, banish evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year.

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Many of our festive traditions originate from Pagan solstice rituals - including Christmas trees which were originally yule trees decorated with brightly colour objects to represent the sun, moon and stars and the souls of those who had died in the previous year. The modern practice of gift giving evolved from the tradition of hanging gifts on the tree as offerings to Gods and Goddesses.

But it is the traditions and superstitions from Hogmanay that have captured my imagination! I may try to embrace some of these come 31st December this year:

  • Clean the house and take out the ashes from the fire (easy)

  • Clear all your debts before the bells sound midnight (hoping that does not include the mortgage!)

  • Welcome all friends and strangers with warm hospitality (easy)

  • Lots of enforced kissing for all (yes please!)

  • To ensure good luck, the first foot in the house after midnight should be a dark haired male who brings coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and a wee dram of whisky (this might prove more difficult - and what exactly is black bun?)

  • Then immediately after midnight sing Robert Burns "Auld Lang Syne" (easy)

  • The festivities include the lighting of bonfires and tossing torches. Oh and animal hide wrapped around sticks and ignited to produce smoke to ward off evil spirits (not so easy and potentially a fire hazard!)

Although I am not in Scotland this year for Solstice, Christmas or Hogmanay, so many of those traditions are present in Australia and it is quite lovely to know their origins. There are some little reminders of Bute and Scotland on our tree this year instead - sourced from the Rothesay Visit Scotland iCentre and of course, Bonnie Bling!

Wishing friends and family from near and far all the very best for the festive season!

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