Before the 16th century New Years and Christmas were celebrated equally by the Scots, the name of Yuletide came from the Scandinavians, which derives from the twelfth month being the twelfth name of Odin who was supposed to come to earth during that time in a hooded cloak and sit with people by the hearth and would leave gifts or coins when he left. Christmas was often known as Nollaig Beag , Little Christmas. The custom was to celebrate the Birth of Christ with all solemnity, the festivities began a few days later, and spilled into New Year and Twelfth Night, which was known as ‘Little Christmas’. However, the French often called Christmas colloquially, ‘Homme est né’ (Man is Born) which is thought by some scholars to be the origin of the word, ‘Hogmanay’, steaming from the time of the ‘Auld Alliance’.
The Reformation hit Scotland as hard as everywhere else. By 1583, Bakers who made the Yule breads were fined, their punishment could be lessened if they gave the names of their customers!
In 1638 the General Assembly in Edinburgh tried to abolish Yuletide.
In Scotland there are many customs and beliefs associated with a Scottish Christmas. The Black Bun, or better known as the twelfth night cake, is a rich fruit cake, with plenty of whisky and fruit. There is an old belief that bees will leave their hives on Christmas morning to greet the locals as they made their way out to Church and family. There are a number of divination customs as well in Scotland associated with Christmas, One involves checking the cold ashes the morning after the Christmas fire. A foot shape facing the door was said to be foretelling a death in the family, while a foot facing into the room meant a new arrival.
Another was the ceremonial burning of Old Winter, the Cailleach.. A piece of wood was carved roughly to represent the face of an old woman, then named as the Spirit of Winter, the Cailleach. This was placed onto a good fire to burn away, and all the family gathered had to watch to the end.. The burning symbolised the ending of all the bad luck and enmities etc of the old year, with a fresh start.
The Candlemas Bull was in reality a cloud. It was believed that a bull would cross the sky in the form of a cloud, early on the morning on Candlemas, February 2nd. From its appearance people would divine. An East travelling cloud foretold a good year, south meant a poor grain year, but if it faced to the west the year would be poor. This custom was a remnant of the ancient Mithraiac religion, when the Bull-god would come at the start of Spring to warn of the year the farmers could expect.
All of the Celtic countries have a similar custom of lighting a candle at Christmastime to light the way of a stranger. In Scotland was the Oidche Choinnle, or Night of Candles. Candles were placed in every window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve and First Footers on New Years Eve. Shopkeepers gave their customers Yule Candles as a symbol of goodwill wishing them a ‘Fire to warm you by, and a light to guide you’.