I started researching this article by talking to several Scottish people about their views of Christmas – its importance, how much they celebrate it, what is different about celebrations now compared with when they were children. I was consistently told that Hogmanay – the New Year celebration – is more important than Christmas. Many people commented on the commercialisation of Christmas, and the fact that to them this meant the festival has lost its true meaning. As one adult who does celebrate Christmas with a tree and presents for children put it “I always think when people buy me presents why did you spend your money on me, why did you give me this?” Their childhood memories of Christmas are of Midnight Mass and church services, not gift giving, decorations and lights.
I heard how in the 1950s and 1960s people would often work on Christmas Day. How in the 1970s people might take Christmas Day off but would then be back at work on December 26, having their longer holiday at New Year. I was told Christmas was a festival imported from England, that the Christmas tree tradition originated in Germany, the concept created by St Boniface and legitimised by Martin Luther.
What does seem to be important here is celebrating the seasons and the turning of the year. The winter solstice, shortly before Christmas, marks the shortest day, the retreat of darkness, the lengthening of days and earth turning to the light in the heart of winter. The return of life and growth to an agricultural land is a cause for celebration.
Living in northern Scotland I witness how seasons rule us and shaped the lives of those that came before us. Our ancient ancestors built monuments that align with the midwinter sun. Maes Howe on Orkney, believed to have been built about 5,000 years ago, is a cairn with an entrance passage leading to several chambers. Up to and after the winter solstice the setting sun shines directly into the passageway, lighting the chambers within.
Outside my window on this late November day snow falls on snow. Walls, trees and buildings are weighted with whiteness. A beautiful Christmas scene in a country where church and community are still a large part of many lives. A country where midwinter festivals are celebrated, where just below the surface ancient traditions of land and life rule.