Old Scottish Christmas Traditions

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Scotland has had some interesting Christmas traditions over the years…


It may be surprising learn that Christmas, December 25, only became a public holiday for Scotland in 1958. In fact, Christmas was virtually banned here for almost four centuries.

A little history lesson for you before we dive in.

Christmas was considered a ‘religious feasting day’ in Scotland up until the Reformation in 1560. Nearly a century later, in 1640, the Scottish Parliament passed a law which declared ‘Yule vacations’ illegal and the baking of Yule bread a criminal act. This was due to the religious politics of the time and the views of the  Kirk, the Church of Scotland.

The traditions below are not necessarily popular today in Scotland, but some do still participate or remember them from their youth.



A ‘First-footer’ is usually the first person to visit your home on Christmas Day (now more commonly New Year’s Day). They normally come bearing gifts and in the past this would have been in the form of whisky, salt and bread. Scottish black buns were a popular offering, as well. These days, a box of chocolates or a nice bottle of something carries the same message!

Discover more first foot favourites >>


Baking Yule bread

It is believed that baking Yule bread originated in Shetland and Orkney. Yule bread is a three-threaded, plaited loaf that is turned in a circle to represent the sun. This magical bread is also made with caraway seeds (a popular addition to a number of Scottish treats), which is a protective symbol related to the Scottish folklore of Sìdhe and the spirits of Winter.


Burning rowan twigs

A very old, long-held tradition which some people still keep is burning a twig from a rowan tree. This is a symbolic act which is said to cleanse everyone and the space of bad feelings, be that between family, friends and other acquaintances. Leaving it all in the past, basically.



It may not be Christmas related, but many people are fascinated by this Scottish word for New Year celebrations, so we thought we’d include it.

It began as an ancient traditional New Year ceremony which, involved people dressing up in the hides of cattle and running around the village being hit by sticks. The festivities would also include the lighting of bonfires, rolling blazing tar barrels down the hill and tossing torches. Animal hide was also wrapped around sticks and ignited which produced a smoke that was believed to be very effective to ward off evil spirits.

The smoking stick was also known as… a Hogmanay.


Do you know any other unusual Scottish traditions at Christmas time? Let us know!

Discover even more fascinating Scottish Christmas facts in our Festive Q-Aye >>

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