Not many people are aware that Christmas Day wasn’t celebrated in Scotland till the mid-20th century. Even after it was declared a public holiday in 1958, some Scots blissfully ignored the event and continued their day-to-day work. One friend remembers coal being delivered on Christmas Day, not because the thrifty Scots were saving resources for Hogmanay, but “out of defiance”.
The Rev Charles Robertson, the former minister of Canongate Kirk, which the Queen attends when she is in residence in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, recalls that he delivered mail on Christmas Day as a part-time postman during the Christmas rush when he was a student at Edinburgh University in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “But I managed to get to a Christmas service at 11am,” he hastened to add.
Unlike the recent “wars on Christmas”, the four centuries-long Scottish indifference to the birthday of Jesus was rooted in the Reformation and John Knox’s rejection of many forms of Catholic worship. Until then Yule had happily been celebrated with “games and feasting”.
The present minister at Canongate, the Rev Neil Gardner, explains that “Knox took a dim view on this, and associated Christmas with excessive frivolity”. Knox, having abandoned the grandeur of St Andrew’s Cathedral, also rejected celibacy for priests and nuns, bishoprics, belief in purgatory, the Virgin Mary, rosary beads, saints, the Pope, holy water and incense. The fiery preacher did not stop there. He set his face resolutely against the observance of the Christian year and all its festivals, including Christmas, on the grounds that the Lord’s Day alone could claim scriptural authority.
In 1640, an Act of the Parliament of Scotland abolished the “Yule vacation and all observation thereof in time coming … the kirke within this kingdome is now purged of all superstitious observatione of dayes…”
The historical basis of the Christmas feast was not difficult for Knox and other Reformists to challenge. As Jews didn’t celebrate birthdays, there is nothing in the Gospels, or even in the books by Josephus, about the month, let alone the day, when Jesus was born. But it is well known that in the 4th century Emperor Constantine introduced December 25, the feast day of his former god, Mithras, as the birthday of Christ – a convenient date as it coincided with multitudes of other pagan celebrations around the European winter solstice.
The Rev Charles Robertson admits that Christmas is “a Christianised pagan festival” but thinks it is a special date for all Christians as “it is important to walk through the year with Christ, marking it with the events of Jesus’s life – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost”. When I asked what he thought had brought around the change in Scottish attitudes to Christmas, he spoke of the influence of the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume and Adam Smith, and the inheritance of their liberalising attitudes.
Interestingly, many Scots point out that the high educational standards in Scotland which had bolstered the Enlightenment were the legacy of Knox. Wanting everyone to be able to read the Bible, “the word of God”, he had introduced “a school in every parish”.
The stark contrasting way in which Christmas Day continued south of the border after the Reformation shows how, although both England and Scotland were both officially Protestant, the Church of England had never freed itself of many Catholic traditions. Apart from the 13 years when Christmas celebrations were banned by the Puritan-led parliament in 1647, the merry-making festivities marking the birth of Jesus grew.
Indeed, one international Christmas custom can be directly traced back to London. Although it is well known that Christmas trees originated in Germany, few realise that the tradition of sending Christmas greeting cards originated in England. In 1843 Sir Henry Cole, an entrepreneur, patron of the arts and founding director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, sent the first Christmas card with greetings for a merry Christmas. Earlier, he had been an assistant to Sir Rowland Hill, who in 1840 had introduced the Penny Post.
One member of the House of Lords drew my attention to a curious fact about Christmas not being a holiday until 1958 in Scotland: “Surely the trade unions would have insisted on there being the same number of holidays north and south of the border, especially after the First World War when there the unions were very strong? There was then one parliament in Westminster.”
Christmas in Bethlehem this year will be a sombre affair. Vera Baboun, the Catholic mayor of Bethlehem, says that they are quietening their usual celebrations as “the situation is critical”. The current wave of violence in Israel and the West Bank has caused the deaths of more than 124 Palestinians and 20 Israelis since October 1. The dove of peace this Christmas might have tears in his eyes.
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