Christmas is a special time for many of us– a time to stop, slow down, and look back over the year.
Now, we might be a little bit biased, but Scotland is a very special place at Christmas; think dark skies; crisp, icy mornings; roaring fires; and fabulous festive food and drink.
A Fishy Tradition on Christmas Eve
While a lot of people in Scotland will be sitting down to a traditional turkey dinner, many family festivities draw on lots of different histories and traditions from around the world, adding fresh and exciting flavours, and an alternative take on Scotland’s Christmas calendar.
Since the 1860s, Scotland has been home to a large Italian community (they introduced us to the joys of ice cream, and fish and chips!). On Christmas Eve, many Scozia Italian families will go meat-free, sitting down to a feast of fish, shellfish, or pasta.
On Christmas Day, the Scottish Italian community might indulge in porchetta (crispy, golden, roasted pork) in place of turkey; and rich panettone fruit bread in place of Christmas pudding.
One festive tradition that the Scottish people and Italians share is the bagpipes.
At Christmas, in various Italian cities, and especially in Rome – you are likely to meet pipers, called ‘zampognari’. Dressed as shepherds, the tradition dates to ancient Rome, and is based on the story of the shepherds who visited Jesus on the night of his birth and played the bagpipes for him.
Even though Italian bagpipes are smaller than Scottish ones, the Northern Italian town of Nonantola, boasts the real deal. Their Heart of Italy Pipe Band plays traditional and contemporary Scottish pieces, along with their own compositions on authentic Scottish pipes.
Turn up the heat!
Many of us are familiar with the Scottish Christmas curry, usually made from leftover turkey. In fact, Glasgow’s Shish Mahal restaurant claims to have invented the UK’s favourite curry, chicken tikka masala. It should be no surprise then that many Scottish Asian communities join the seasonal celebrations, bringing new traditions to the fold.
Come Christmas, why not introduce some zingy seasonal salads to the table – a blessed relief from all those rich foods; deeply flavoured curries and pilaffs, fabulous, fluffy flatbreads, and rich, sweet treats, and pastries – usually made from ground nuts.
And, if you are left with too many Brussels sprouts, why not try making them into crispy and tasty sprout pakoras?
Lighting the way
One of the great things about Scotland at Christmas and New Year is how we look back to our ancient, pre-Christian traditions to light our way through the dark winter nights.
Stonehaven, in Aberdeenshire, takes these fiery celebrations to a whole new level, with their centuries-old annual Fireballs Ceremony. With a pipe band at the head of the parade, participants swing giant fireballs over their heads. It’s a spectacular, and unforgettable sight and even when you can't make it up north, you can still enjoy the virtual Fireball parade.
Europe’s largest fire festival, Up Helly Aa, marks the end of Yuletide in Scotland, towards the end of January each year. Taking place in Lerwick, on the Shetland Islands, the torchlight procession ends with the symbolic burning of a replica Viking longship.
Bringing The World to Scotland in Winter
Christmas isn't the only important religious celebration held in Scotland during the winter months.
The Jewish celebration of Chanukah (also known as Hanukkah) takes place across eight days and is marked by the lighting of a candle situated in a Menorah (a nine-branched candelabrum) every night- giving the festival its moniker 'The Festival of Lights'. Every year in Edinburgh, Scotland's tallest Menorah is built in St Andrew's Square. The lighting of the candles is often attended by people from all over the country, including our First Minister. At the event, traditional Chanukah foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) are served as well as deep-fried jelly doughnuts called Sufganiyot that are a delicious treat.
Our gift to you
Whisky – Scotland’s gift to the world – also plays it part in many annual festivities. Whether drunk as a traditional dram, with a wee splash of water, in a whisky cocktail, or as a warming hot toddy, you could say it’s the ‘spirit’ of a Scottish Christmas.
No matter how you are spending Christmas, Scotland wishes friends old and new, a cool yule, peace, prosperity, happiness and good health in the coming year.