Light and ice
Christmas marks the high point of winter, and lights, maybe more than anything else mark Christmas. Christmas is the drama of light, going back millennia to when it was vital to keep the precious commodity of the fire burning during the long cold dark months. It also celebrated the sun's return after the winter solstice. Today we still celebrate this elemental force with candles, torches and strings of fairy lights. It is the most fundamental human triumph.
In Glasgow the countdown to Christmas is officially launched with the switching-on of the city's famous lights in George Square on 20th November by the Lord Provost. A local radio station, starts the evening with an hour of festive music and cheer whilst street entertainers amuse the crowds in the square. With a magnificent Christmas tree and an enchanting fireworks display set off from the roof of the City Chambers, Glasgow will be shining bright.
Glasgow on Ice, takes place in George Square from November until early January, providing entertainment for the whole family. Step through the icy entrance, skate underneath the backdrop of the City Chambers and the Christmas Lights and enjoy a glass of mulled wine in the rink side cafe bar.
Meanwhile in the East a 15 metre (45 foot) Norwegian Christmas tree is erected on the Mound (a famous Edinburgh landmark just by the Castle). For 20 years the people of Hordaland, Norway have given the City of Edinburgh a Christmas tree that lights up the Mound throughout the festive period in celebration of the strong links between the Scots and the Norwegians.
'Winter Wonderland' provides magical outdoor skating whilst the Edinburgh Wheel affords exhilarating views across the city from its 33 metre vantage point next to the city's famous Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens.
The 500,000 or so people visiting Edinburgh during December for Capital Christmas might be surprised to see the traditional German Christmas market on Princes Street; but again this marks strong traditional links between the two nations. Every year thirty-three stalls come direct from Germany with a variety of products from hand-blown baubles, crafts and candles to wooden toys, meats and cheese, and the highly popular gluwein. The spicy aroma is hard to resist on a cold winters evening.
Another ancient connection is that with the Vikings and nowhere is this more apparent than in the far north of Scotland. In Shetland the 1000-year old-Viking connection is celebrated on the last Tuesday of every January with the largest fire festival in the world Up Helly Aa. After a torch-light procession of up to a thousand guizers through the streets of Lerwick, a full-size replica Viking long ship is ceremonially burned. The guizers and onlookers then repair to local halls for a night of revelry, dancing and partying. The torchlit procession and galley burning echo pagan Norse rituals at the cremation of great chieftains.
Fire festivals and traditions have had a long history in Scotland, with many claiming pagan origins. Certainly, the idea of using fire as a purifying force to drive out or frighten away evil is very old and it commonly manifested itself in ceremonies such as the mid-winter bonfires at all points of the compass from Dingwall in the North, Campbeltown in the West, Invergordon in the East and Newtown Stewart in the South.
Stonehaven's Fireball Ceremony (Aberdeenshire) is one of the most unique Hogmanay festivals in Scotland. At the strike of midnight, the High street is lit up as fireball-swingers make their way through the town, whirling their blazing balls around and above their heads. Over sixty swingers march down the High Street to the accompaniment of pipes and drums from the Mercat Cross to the harbour where the balls are then thrown into the sea.
From fire to water
At the other elemental extreme, every New Year's Day dooks (or swims) are held at Broughty Ferry on the River Tay and South Queensferry on the River Forth. The latter is aptly named the Loony Dook.
A legendary event, the Loony Dook takes the form of a chilly dip in the Firth of Forth. Every year, a large crowd of brave (or mad) people splash into the icy waters from the beach, down the Boathouse Steps at South Queensferry, beside the Forth Rail Bridge.
The event which first took place on 1st January 1988 attracts participants from all over the world, many in fancy dress as they take the plunge in the River Forth on Queensferry's foreshore. It also attracts large numbers of spectators of all nationalities.
At Broughty Ferry, Dundee, the New Year's Day Dook has been taking place for more than 30 years and is organised by Ye Amphibious Ancients Bathing Association, a local open water swimming club. More than 100 swimmers take part every year braving the harbour waters come rain, snow, hail or shine.
After the celebrations of Christmas and Hogmanay it is good to know that there are other winter festivals through the months of January and February to look forward to. Scotland of course is the spiritual home of Burns Night on 25th January but there are also some contemporary festivals worth marking in the diary.
The Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow has become a premier showcase for music and culture, featuring artists from the Celtic heartlands of Canada, USA, France and Spain as well as Scotland. Celtic Connections takes place throughout most of January and comprises of over 200 events in multiple venues across the city.
As well as concert performances there are talks, debates, a series of Master and Apprentice sessions, New Voices Commissions, workshops, Open stage, the annual finals of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician Awards, a Showcase Scotland weekend for promoters and a legendary Festival Club.
Other winter delights to check out include the Aviemore Sled Dog Rally which takes place at Glenmore Forest Park in January and the Fort William Film Festival in February.
The Sled trail is a designated cross-country ski course and is clearly defined. The first part is quite demanding, but then runs along the lochside to the finish without great problem. There are events for junior mushers (AKA young husky drivers).
The Fort William Film Festival offers nine days of film going, lectures, exhibitions and activities during the best winter walking and climbing conditions of the year.
All in all quite enough to keep you bright and warm this winter. Apart from the loons, that is.