Scottish Christmas Customs and Traditions

Christmas traditions in Edinburgh and Scotland

Believe it or not, celebrating Christmas in Scotland is a relatively new affair. Unlike the rest of the UK, where unwrapping presents and enjoying large feasts was the norm come Christmas Day, it wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas was officially recognised as a public holiday in Scotland. Before that, a traditional Scottish Christmas usually meant coming home from work, enjoying a meal with your family and waiting for Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) to arrive. So, we’ve been digging deep to find our favourite Scottish Christmas traditions…

The cancelling of Christmas

Way back yonder when we used to say things like ye olde and yesteryear, before the Reformation of 1560, Christmas used to be known as Yule. We would celebrate Yule with games, gifts and feasts. But after the reformation, these celebrations were not permitted, and in 1640, the Scottish parliament made celebrating Yule illegal. The official Christmas ban did not last long, but Scots didn’t really celebrate Christmas until about 400 years later. Instead, Hogmanay was the prevailing Scottish winter festival. That’s why Hogmanay is such an important festival for us Scots. And while it remains a huge event in our calendar, Christmas has been widely celebrated in Scotland since the 20th century. Christmas Day became an official Scottish bank holiday in 1958, with Boxing Day (the day after) following suit in 1974.

Old Scottish traditions

While we have a few surviving pre-ban Christmas traditions, one of the best-loved was the baking of Yule bread. Divination and fortune-telling with egg whites and fireplace ash was also a favourite Christmas pastime. People burned rowan tree twigs to clear away feelings of jealousy and mistrust in the household. And to honour the Holy Family’s search for shelter, they placed candles in the window to welcome strangers in from the cold, which is a long-standing Scottish Christmas tradition.

Candles on a window sill
Placing candles in the window at Christmas time is an old Scottish tradition.

A modern Scottish Christmas

Our modern-day celebrations include many Christmas traditions from around the world. Today we enjoy parties and gatherings, festive food and drink and beautiful decorations. We put up a Christmas tree, hang winter lights, pull Christmas crackers and sing seasonal songs and carols. Gift-giving generally takes place on Christmas Day, and we enjoy a large festive feast, usually turkey with all the trimmings and Christmas pudding for dessert.

Christmas gifts wrapped under the tree
Gifts are traditionally wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree.

Celebrating Christmas in Edinburgh

All across Scotland, we celebrate in true Scottish style. This usually means with a wee dram or two, and a fabulous feast. Here in Edinburgh, we celebrate the jolly holly-day with a month-long Christmas festival. The streets are decked in bells and holly, and a wonderful winter wonderland takes root in Princes Street Gardens, with Christmas markets, fairground attractions, food and music. Across the city, there are magical winter light trails, parties and events, shows and pantomimes. Visit from mid-November to the end of December to experience the magic of Edinburgh’s Christmas!

The lights and market at the Edinburgh Christmas Festival
Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens sparkle with colourful lights during the festive season.

Stay at Parliament House Hotel in Edinburgh city centre and be close to all the festive action. We’re just a 5-minute walk from the Christmas markets and attractions! Find out more and book your stay today!