Traditional Christmas? Not so

Dec 11 2012 | By More

Exhibition looks at humbug attitude to Christmas in years past

A fascinating artifact from the Christmases Past exhibition - the Cameron Highlanders official Christmas card, 1918

A fascinating artifact from the Christmases Past exhibition – the Cameron Highlanders official Christmas card from 1918

By Thom Dibdin

As we steam into the Christmas period with all the traditional pantomimes now open – with the notable exception of EPT’s Aladdin – and everyone looking forward to a traditional Christmas day off, it is salutary to remember that Christmas in Scotland was not a public holiday until the 1970s.

It was always Hogmanay celebrations that took precedence. Had they not, then Edinburgh would probably have lain claim to the first ever Christmas card. It was, however, a New Year card which Charles Drummond of Leith published in 1841, showing a fat disembodied face laughing and bearing the legend “A Guid New Year An’ Mony o’ Them”.

This was a good two years before Sir Henry Cole, founder of London’s V&A museum, commissioned a card bearing the words “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”.

In Edinburgh, at the National Records of Scotland, archivists have been looking through the records to create an exhibition that uses official documents dating back to the 1500s that give a sense of how Scotland’s Christmases have changed through the ages.

Christmases Past is a display of documents, photos and old artefacts being held until January 18 at General Register House in Edinburgh.

According to Audrey Robertson, Acting Keeper of the Records:  “This free display gives a timely and fascinating insight into how the way Scots celebrate Christmas has changed through the ages, and the restrictions that have prevented people from enjoying the festivities in the past.

“This display provides an opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of the run up to Christmas 2012 and discover what Christmas meant to our ancestors. The display showcases some of the wealth of information we hold about Scotland in days gone by.”

Top Fascinating Festive Facts according to the Records Office:
  • Christmas celebrations were an illicit pleasure in post-Reformation Scotland, and the kirks sought to punish festive revellers. In December 1574, St Nicholas Kirk session in Aberdeen scolded 14 women for “plaing, dansink, and singin off filthy karrells on youll day.”
  • December 25 was treated as a normal working day and traditional festivities were considered ‘popish superstitions’. In 1575, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland abolished ‘all days that heretofore have been kept holy except the sabbath day, such as Yule day, saints’ day and such others.’
  • By 1694, the Church of Scotland’s dim view of yuletide celebrations was often flouted. Alexander, Lord Montgomery (later the 9th Earl of Eglinton) wrote on Christmas Eve to invite Sir William Cunninghame of Cunninghamehead to join him ‘the morow to keep Crisinmass’, explaining that he hoped to ‘eate ane gouse that day’.
  • Many Scots were married on Christmas day because for many people this was one of the few days in the year that they didn’t have to work. One marriage register shows the marriage of Jean Christmas McCormack to Gilbert Reid on Christmas day in 1936.
  • The Statutory Registers show there have been 17 people with the first or middle name ‘Christmas’ who were either born, married or died in Scotland since 1855. Many were born on Christmas day.
  • The forename ‘Christmas’ seems to have been a tradition in some Scottish families. The 1901 Census shows that both the wife and daughter of David Taylor, living at 37 Castle Lane in Dundee, were named Christmas.
  • Christmas is also a surname for some Scots. Since 1855, 45 babies have been born into Christmas families in Scotland.
  • The Statutory Registers include 1,538 children with the first or middle name ‘Angel’, 2,207 named ‘Noel’, 328 named ‘Star’, 2,525 named ‘Gabriel’ and 28,726 named ‘Carol’. One boy, born in 1901, was given the middle name ‘Bethlehem’.

Christmases Past runs until January 18, 2013, at General Register House, West Register Street. Mon – Fri, 9am-4.30pm (not Dec 25/26 or Jan 1/2). Website:

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  1. Susan Wales says:

    I moved to Scotland in 1972 and remember there hardly being any fuss of Christmas but plenty about Hogmanay. How things change.