Unlike the recent “wars on Christmas”, the four centuries-long Scottish indifference to the birthday of Jesus was rooted in the Reformation and John Knox’s rejection of many forms of Catholic worship. Until then Yule had happily been celebrated with “games and feasting”.
The present minister at Canongate, the Rev Neil Gardner, explains that “Knox took a dim view on this, and associated Christmas with excessive frivolity”. Knox, having abandoned the grandeur of St Andrew’s Cathedral, also rejected celibacy for priests and nuns, bishoprics, belief in purgatory, the Virgin Mary, rosary beads, saints, the Pope, holy water and incense. The fiery preacher did not stop there. He set his face resolutely against the observance of the Christian year and all its festivals, including Christmas, on the grounds that the Lord’s Day alone could claim scriptural authority.
In 1640, an Act of the Parliament of Scotland abolished the “Yule vacation and all observation thereof in time coming … the kirke within this kingdome is now purged of all superstitious observatione of dayes…”
The historical basis of the Christmas feast was not difficult for Knox and other Reformists to challenge. As Jews didn’t celebrate birthdays, there is nothing in the Gospels, or even in the books by Josephus, about the month, let alone the day, when Jesus was born. But it is well known that in the 4th century Emperor Constantine introduced December 25, the feast day of his former god, Mithras, as the birthday of Christ – a convenient date as it coincided with multitudes of other pagan celebrations around the European winter solstice.
The Rev Charles Robertson admits that Christmas is “a Christianised pagan festival” but thinks it is a special date for all Christians as “it is important to walk through the year with Christ, marking it with the events of Jesus’s life – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost”. When I asked what he thought had brought around the change in Scottish attitudes to Christmas, he spoke of the influence of the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume and Adam Smith, and the inheritance of their liberalising attitudes.
I doubt that David Hume, who thoroughly despised Catholicism, would have much to do with the revival of Christmas. The Enlightenment did not really liberalize attitudes toward Catholics or anything connected to Catholicism. Remember that John Locke in England denied that Catholics were even Christian! Perhaps it was the number of Irish coming to Scotland in the nineteenth century adding to the numbers of native Catholics who had survived the long period of oppression or the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland by Pope Leo XIII in 1878 that brought the celebration of Christmas back.
Christmas became a public holiday in 1958.