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Why Christmas Was Banned in Scotland for 4 Centuries

22nd Dec 2022
Why Christmas Was Banned in Scotland for 4 Centuries

From hauntings to heritage, return to Edinburgh’s dark past again & again. Use your Returner’s Rewards for a discount each time you come back.

Did you know that Christmas was once banned in Scotland? The tradition feels so widely celebrated in Scotland that people are often surprised to learn that it only became popular after its ban was lifted in the 1950s!

At one point people caught celebrating the holiday could be imprisoned and in today's blog we're going to share the history of why an act as simple as baking Yule Bread became a crime.

Christmas' Beginnings & The Scottish Reformation

When Vikings started to arrive in Scotland in towards the end of the 8th century, they brought with them a Pagan belief system which included a tradition named Yule, celebrated during the winter solstice. This name spread throughout Scotland, and 'Yuletide' which essentially means 'Christmas Day', was adopted as a feasting day in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. However, it wasn't any more important than any other annual feasting day, and was even less prominent than Easter!

Some of the celebrations that were common at this time are still prevalent today, such as kissing under the mistletoe and burning a log from a Yule tree. It was thought to bring good luck if the log burned throughout the twelve days of Christmas, but bad luck if it went out.

However, during the Scottish Reformation in 1560 Scotland split from the Papacy and Catholic Church and adopted more Calvinist traditions.

Under Scotland's new belief system, the celebration and its traditions were deemed too excessive to be Christlike and were seen as a celebration of the Catholic belief system that Scotland had started to move away from. Alas, the festivities were phased out and the Scottish Parliament officially passed a law that made celebrating Yule vacations illegal in 1640.

With Christmas outlawed, celebrating the holiday could lead to imprisonment and even an act as simple as singing a carol or baking Yule bread was seen as a violation!

Was Anyone Actually Arrested?

You may be wondering if anyone was actually arrested for celebrating Christmas and the answer is yes and there are records to prove it. Notes taken from a Glasgow Church session in 1583 reveal how five individuals were made to repent for celebrating Yule. In another event, in the Glasgow Cathedral, those celebrating Yule were excommunicated. 

In another act towards banishing Christmas, several people in Aberdeen were also ordered to repent for singing 'filthy Christmas Carols'.

The Christmas Ban Was Lifted

Despite the attempts to quash Christmas, it slowly eased its way back into Scotland's traditions. As early as the 18th-century people had gradually started to celebrate again behind closed doors and in 1841, the first Yuletide Card in the UK was displayed in a shop window in Leith. 

However, despite the gradual increase of celebrations in private, Christmas was not freely celebrated again until it was re-listed as a public holiday in 1958. Hence, it would have still been rare to witness anyone publicly celebrating the tradition a little over fifty years ago.

If you'd like to learn more about Scotland's past, why not join us on a five-star Edinburgh history tour? You can see what's on offer here. Plus, sign-up for our fortnightly newsletter here to discover more of the city's incredible history!

Don't forget your Returner's Rewards! Already been on tour with us? Try another—with a discount! From hauntings to heritage, return to Edinburgh’s dark past again & again.

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