The pagan origins of Christmas in Scotland
Christmas is just around the corner, which means it’s time for all the gorgeous decorations that come along with it. The Pagan origins of Christmas in Scotland is evident in just how many festivals we have throughout the year, stemming from as long ago as our Neolithic ancestors, who built some of the incredible stone circles found scattered all over the country, from Stenness in Orkney and the Callanish stones in Lewis, to Stonehenge in England.
During certain festivals, much emphasis is put on fire in particular – have you ever wondered why that is? Most of the Christmas traditions we’re familiar with today, are actually pagan in origin – mistletoe and Christmas trees, for example. The Mistletoe has been a part of pagan culture for thousands of years; the ancient Celts would hang it in their homes as a means of warding off evil spirits (in much the same way as fire was intended to do) and in Norse mythology it was a symbol of love and friendship – this may be where the origin of kissing under the mistletoe originates.
Christmas lights are pretty to look at but they have a deeper meaning connected to them, which can be traced back to Samhain, the Celtic New Year that we have come to know today as Halloween. Samhain marked the beginning of the longer, darker nights and, as a consequence, this meant to our ancestors, that the barrier between good and evil (light and dark) was much thinner, resulting in evil spirits or the dead being able to cross over from the otherworld (Celtic mythology) into the world of the living and ultimately causing much harm. As a precaution against the dead being able to enter this world, it was common practice for people to light fires (among other practices, such as people disguising themselves as evil spirits so that they could avoid being harmed by the spirits) as a means of bringing in light as a force against these evil spirits — this is why fire festivals are so common, not just in Scotland but in many Northern cultures. Here in Scotland, we have fire festivals all winter long, starting from Bonfire Night — which would traditionally have been part of Samhain, but this lasted much of the dark, winter season up until January and beyond. Today we still have the Stonehaven Fireballs at Hogmanay and in Shetland, there’s the ever popular Up Helly A held every January.
The town of Burghead has an annual ‘Burning of the Clavie,’ which is held on January 11th; Biggar Bonfire, which is held on December 31st and also on December 31st, there’s the Flambeaux Procession, held in Perthshire. The most popular celebration is Hogmanay, which is held annually on December 31st, all over Scotland with the tradition of ‘first footing’ being the most famous tradition. Edinburgh’s street party is famous world-wide and of course, a large part of the party involves a procession of torch-light and fireworks. We are still very much Pagan in our traditions in many ways, we simply have a modern take on it and so add pretty lighting to our Christmas trees, and decorate entire towns, a practice people continue to love thus keeping traditions alive.
Scotland is always beautiful, but spending the festive season here should be something everybody does, at least once in their lifetime.