Christmas Happenings

This year, 1251, King Alexander III had a solemn interview with Henry, King of England, at York, accompanied [by] a great many of the nobility of both kingdoms, about Christmas-time; on which day King Alexander received the order of knighthood from King Henry; and on the 26th of December, being St. Stephen’s day, he solemnly married the Lady Margaret, eldest daughter to King Henry of England,..

– Historical Works, Alexander III.


Annan was explicitly and formally called a burgh in legal writs of the fourteenth century. It flourished during the long peace before the war of Independence; then its troubles began. An English invasion at Christmas time, 1297, was resisted on Annan moor, but the Annan men were worsted. Tradition still preserved memories of the disaster. Three stones in Dornock churchyard, of copestone shape, carved with primitive floral ornament, probably marked the graves of Annan’s three hundred slain. 

– Scots Lore, pp.335-340.


The site of [Linlithgow] Palace was, at the dawn of authentic history, a Roman fort or station, and sent off a communication – intended apparently to serve both as a road and as a line of defence – to Antoninus’ wall, at a point in the parish of Falkirk nearly opposite Callendar-house. Edward I., according to Fordun, built a peel or castle on the spot in 1300, and spent here the Christmas of next year. 

– Scotland Illustrated, Linlithgow Palace.


During the invasion of Edward III. in 1324, Baliol celebrated his Christmas at the Castle of Renfrew, in royal state; and there distributed lands and offices among his guests. 

– Select Views, Blythswood House.


BANE, King of Bane, The same with King of the Bean, a character in the Christmas gambols. This designation is  

given to the person who is so fortunate as to receive that part of a divided cake which has a bean in it; Rex fabae. Knox.

” Now, now, the mirth comes, 
With the cake full of plums, 
Where bean’s the king of the feast here.” 
– Herrick. 

Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary (1867).


In December 1562, Randolph intimated to Cecil, that one of the Queen’s priests had been assaulted, in a dark night: and, he added, that her musicians, both Scots, and French, refused to play, and sing, at her mass, and evensong, upon Christmas-day: thus, continued he, is her poor soul so troubled, for the preservation of her silly mass, that she knoweth not, where to turn herself, for defence of it. 

– Life of Mary, From the Queen’s Return to Scotland.


On Twelfth-Day, 1563, Mary Queen of Scots celebrated the French pastime of the King of the Bean at Holyrood, but with a queen instead of a king, as more appropriate, in consideration of herself being a female sovereign. The lot fell to the real queen’s attendant, Mary Fleming, and the mistress good-naturedly arrayed the servant in her own robes and jewels, that she might duly sustain the mimic dignity in the festivities of the night. The English resident, Randolph, who was in love with Mary Beton, another of the queen’s maids of honour, wrote in excited terms about this festival to the Earl of Leicester. ‘Happy was it,’ says he, ‘unto this realm, that her reign endured no longer. Two such sights, in one state, in so good accord, I believe was never seen, as to behold two worthy queens possess, without envy, one kingdom, both upon a day. I leave the rest to your lordship to be judged of. My pen staggereth, my hand faileth, further to write…

The queen of the bean was that day in a gown of cloth of silver; her head, her neck, her shoulders, the rest of her whole body, so beset with stones, that more in our whole jewel-house were not to be found… The cheer was great. I never found myself so happy, nor so well treated, until that it came to the point that the old queen [Mary] herself, to show her mighty power, contrary unto the assurance granted me by the younger queen [Mary Fleming], drew me into the dance, which part of the play I could with good will have spared unto your lordship, as much fitter for the purpose.’1

– Book of Days, 6th of January.

1  Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of Scotland, iv. 20.


At the end of this year 1563, the Queen’s attention was wholly engaged, with the lovers, whom Elizabeth had found for her: Many were importunate to know, what person Elizabeth meant: Whether Lord Ambrose Dudley, whether the Earl of Leicester, whether Lord Darnley. It was, no doubt, excellent Christmas pastime, to decypher the enigmas of Elizabeth, who was the greatest enigmatist of her age. The Queen mother of France, and the Cardinal of Lorraine, meantime, urged the Scotish Queen “that it was not safe to trust Elizabeth’s council in her marriage, who means, merely, to serve her own turn.” And the French government, seeing that intercourse, between the two British kingdoms, endeavoured to restore the ancient league; gave fresh assurances, for the payment of her dowry: the Scots guards were to be restored, and given to her brother, the Lord Robert; and the Scotish nation, were to be restored to their former privileges. Thus was the Scotish Queen, for the moment, caressed, by the two Queens of England, and of France. Yet, was her life, constantly, embittered, by the seditious conduct of Knox, who was yet protected, by Murray, her brother, and minion, who would sacrifice nothing to her, but covert every incident to his own aggrandizement. She was now out of humour with both: But, throughout her whole life, she never could see, and understand, that Murray’s whole conduct was adverse, from her stability, or ease.”

– Life of Mary, From her Return to Edinburgh.


In the midst of those various intrigues, the Queen, and Darnley, enjoyed the festivities of Christmas, at Edinburgh, though the King became every day more impatient, for the crown matrimonial, without understanding the meaning of the term, or the thing. In the beginning of January 1566, the King, who delighted more in the sports of the field, than in the business of the cabinet, went into Peeblis-shire, to enjoy, for a few days, the diversions of the chase. The King, not finding the game very plenty, soon returned to Edinburgh. He now indulged daily his sensual propensities; and continued to harass the Queen, by his frequent importunities, for the crown matrimonial, which, without knowing what this bauble was, he already enjoyed. 

– Life of Mary, From the Arrival of Darnley.


Dec. 25 [1618]. – Christmas was observed in Edinburgh at the command of the king, and two churches opened for service; but the attendance was scant. ‘The Great Kirk was not half filled, notwithstanding the provost, bailies, and council’s travels… The dogs were playing in the flure of the Little Kirk, for rarity of people, and these were of the meaner sort… Mr Patrick [Galloway] denounced judgments… famine of the word, deafness, blindness, lameness, inability to come to the kirk to hear and see, to fall upon those who came not to his Christmas sermon.’ – Cal

– Domestic Annals, Reign of James the Sixth (1603-1625).


Snow had begun at Christmas 1664, and it lay upon the ground till the 14th of March – a storm of which the like had not been seen for many years before. – Nic. ‘Some began to say there would hardly be any seed-time at all this year; but it pleased the Lord, out of His gracious goodness, on a sudden to send seasonable weather for the seed-time, so that in many places the oat seed was sooner done this year [than] in many years formerly; for the long frost made the ground very free, and the husbandmen, for the most part, affirmed they never saw the ground easier to labour.’ Many sheep perished during the storm, and the frost was severe enough to kill the broom and whins in many places. – Lam.  

– Domestic Annals, Reign of Charles the Second.


Jan. 11 [1681]. – The house of Priestfield (now Prestonfield), near Edinburgh, was burnt this evening between seven and eight o’clock. Political circumstances gave importance to what would otherwise have been a trivial occurrence. Sir James Dick, the owner, was provost of Edinburgh, and a friend of the Duke of York. His having adopted energetic measures with some college youths concerned in a Christmas anti-papal demonstration, was supposed to have excited a spirit of retaliation in their companions; and hence a suspicion arose that the fire was designed and executed by them. The Privy Council were so far convinced of this being the case, that they shut up the College and banished the pupils fifteen miles from the city, unless they could give caution for their good behaviour. Sir James’s house was rebuilt at the public expense. 

– Domestic Annals, Reign of Charles the Second.


One of [David Hume’s] most intimate friends and correspondents while in France was Mrs. Cockburn of Ormiston, authoress of one of the beautiful songs called “The Flowers of the Forest,” who died at Edinburgh, 1794. Some of her letters to Hume are dated in 1764, from Baird’s Close, on the Castle Hill. About the year 1766, when still in Paris, he began to think of settling there, and gave orders to sell his house in James’s Court, and he was only prevented from doing so by a mere chance. Leaving the letter of instruction to be posted by his Parisian landlord, he set out to pass his Christmas with the Countess de Boufflers at L’Isle Adam; but a snow storm had blocked up the roads. He returned to Paris, and finding that his letter had not yet been posted, he changed his mind, and thought that he had better retain his flat in James’s Court, to which he returned in 1766. He soon after left it as Under-Secretary of State to General Conway, but in 1769, on the resignation of that Minister, he returned again to James’s Court, with what was then deemed opulence – £1,000 per annum – and became the head of that brilliant circle of literary men who then adorned Edinburgh. 

– Old and New Edinburgh, The Lawnmarket.


Serjeant. – And then, gentlemen, how very strangely – so far as we blind mortals can perceive – are others permitted to perish at the very door, as it were, of help. I think it is now about sixteen years ago – and, if I remember rightly, it was about the Christmas time – that James Stewart, son of the miller of the Delnabo, perished, on the very haugh there, just below the House of Inchrory. The poor fellow passed by this place, on his way over to Braemar one morning that I happened to be here. He stopped a few minutes with me, and had some talk. “I’m likely to get a fine day for crossing the hill, Archy,” said he. “Well,” said I, “I hope you will, and wish you may. Yet I don’t altogether like yon mountaneous heap of white tumbling-looking clouds, that are casting up afar off over the hill-top yonder.” “They dinna look awthegither weel, to be sure,” said Jemmy; “but I houp I may be in weel kent land lang or they break.” We parted. The snow came on in a dreadful storm, about mid-day; and I had two or three anxious thoughts about Jemmy Stewart, as the recollection of him was ever and anon brought back to me, during the night, by the fearful whistling of the wind, and the rattling of the hail. Next morning, I, and some of the other men about the place, found a human track, running in a bewildered, irregular, and uncertain line, between the house of Inchrory and the burn yonder, which must be a width of not much more than forty yards. We had not followed this far, when we came to the poor man, whose worn-out feet had made these prints. His walking-stick was standing erect among the snow beside him, – and there lay poor Jemmy Stewart, on his face; his hands were closed, and his head rested on them, just as if he had lain quietly down to sleep. The lads who were with me, stupid gomerills that they were, had a superstitious dread of touching him; but, deeply as I grieved for the poor fellow, I had seen too many dead men in my time to have any such scruples. I accordingly turned him, and found, alas! that he was quite gone. It appeared that he had been suddenly surprised and bewildered by the snow-drift among the hills, and that, having lost all knowledge of his way, he had unconsciously wandered in the very opposite direction to that in which he had intended to go. Becoming more and more confused, as he wandered and wandered, he became at last so entirely stupefied by the multiplied terrors of that awful night, that he ultimately yield to the last drowsiness of death, and so laid himself down to court its fatal repose. Alas! he was unhappily ignorant that he was within a few yards of the friendly house which he had passed on his way upwards on the previous morning, to the reviving shelter of which, the least possible additional exertion might have easily brought him, had he but known in what direction to have made it.  

Clifford. – What a sad and fearful story!  

Serjeant. – Aye, sir, sad and fearful indeed! Is it not dreadful to think how often the recollection of him crossed my mind during that fatal night, and how little trouble, on my part, would have saved him, had I only known that he was wandering in the snow so near me? Aye, and to think that I should have lain ignorantly all the while in my warm bed, allowing him so cruelly to perish! Willing would I have been to have travelled all night through the drift to have saved poor Jemmy Stewart!  

Author. – No one can doubt that, Archy. 

– Tales of the Highlands, Fate of the Auld Ancient Monuments.


I was once at Christmas at a hurling match in Ireland. The game was played on ice on a lake, and after some hours the owner of the lake sent down a Scotch butler with bread and cheese and whisky for the players. They gathered about the cart in perfect good humour, when suddenly, without cause, an excited banker’s clerk shouted, “Hurro for —–” (the nearest post town), and performed a kind of war dance on the outside edge of his skates, flourishing a stick wildly, and chanting his war song, “I’ll bet ere a man in England, Ireland, or SCOTLAND.” A knobby stick rose up in the crowd, and the Scotch butler was down; but an Irish boy who had not opened his mouth was the next. He went head-foremost into a willow bush amongst the snow, and three men in frieze great-coats kicked him with nailed shoes. In ten minutes the storm was over, the butler was up again in his cart dispensing the refreshments, the man in the bush was consoling himself with a dram, and all was peace. But that night the country party took up a position behind a stone wall, and when the others came, they sallied forth and there was a battle-royal. 

– Popular Tales, Language of the People.


“To the notion of good necessarily follows that of evil. The Eastern mind, with its Ormuzd and Ahriman, is full of such dualism, and from that hour, when a more than mortal eye saw Satan falling like lightning from heaven (St Luke, x, 18.), the kingdom of darkness, the abode of Satan and his bad spirits, was established in direct opposition to the kingdom of the Saviour and his angels. The North had its own notion on this point. Its mythology was not without its own dark powers; but though they too were ejected and dispossessed, they, according to that mythology, had rights of their own. To them belonged all the universe that had not been seized and reclaimed by the younger race of Odin and Æsir; and though this upstart dynasty, as the Frost Giants in Promethean phrase would have called it, well knew that Hel, one of this giant progeny, was fated to do them all mischief, and to outlive them, they took her and made her queen of Niflheim, and mistress over nine worlds. There, in a bitterly cold place, she received the souls of all who died of sickness or old age; care was her bed, hunger her dish, starvation her knife. Her walls were high and strong, and her bolts and bars huge; ‘Half blue was her skin, and half the colour of human flesh. A goddess easy to know, and in all things very stern and grim (Snor. Edda, ch.34, English Translation.).’ But though severe, she was not an evil spirit. She only received those who died as no Norseman wished to die. For those who fell on the gory battle-field, or sank beneath the waves, Valhalla was prepared, and endless mirth and bliss with Odin. Those went to Hel, who were rather unfortunate than wicked, who died before they could be killed. But when Christianity came in and ejected Odin and his crew of false divinities, declaring them to be lying gods and demons, then Hel fell with the rest; but fulfilling her fate, outlived them. From a person she became a place, and all the Northern nations, from Goth to the Norseman, agreed in believing Hell to be the abode of the devil and his wicked spirits, the place prepared from the beginning for the everlasting torments of the damned. One curious fact connected with this explanation of Hell’s origin will not escape the reader’s attention. The Christian notion of Hell is that of a place of heat, for in the East, whence Christianity came, heat is often an intolerable torment, and cold, on the other hand, everything that is pleasant and delightful. But to the dweller in the North, heat brings with it sensations of joy and comfort, and life without fire has a dreary outlook; so their Hel ruled in a cold region over those who were cowards by implication, while the mead-cup went round, and huge logs blazed and crackled in Valhalla, for the brave and beautiful who had dared to die on the field of battle. But under Christianity the extremes of heat and cold have met, and Hel, the cold uncomfortable goddess, is now our Hell, where flames and fire abound, and where the devils abide in everlasting flame. 

Still, popular tradition is tough, and even after centuries of Christian teaching, the Norse peasant, in his popular tales, can still tell of Hell as a place where fire-wood is wanted at Christmas, and over which a certain air of comfort breathes, though, as in the goddess Hel’s halls, meat is scarce. The following passage from ‘Why the Sea is Salt’, No. ii, will sufficiently prove this: 

‘Well, here is the flitch’, said the rich brother, ‘and now go straight to Hell.’ 

‘What I have given my word to do, I must stick to’ said the other; so he took the flitch and set off. He walked the whole day, and at dusk he came to a place where he saw a very bright light. 

‘Maybe this is the place’ said the man to himself. So he turned aside and the first thing he saw was an old, old man, with a long white beard, who stood in an outhouse, hewing wood for the Christmas fire. 

‘Good even’ said the man with the flitch. 

‘The same to you; whither are you going so late’ said the man. 

‘Oh! I’m going to Hell, if I only knew the right way’ answered the poor man.  

‘Well, you’re not far wrong, for this is Hell’ said the old man; ‘When you get inside they will be all for buying your flitch, for meat is scarce in Hell; but mind you don’t sell it unless you get the hand-quern which stands behind the door for it. When you come out, I’ll teach you how to handle the quern, for it’s good to grind almost anything.’  

This, too, is the proper place to explain the conclusion of that intensely heathen tale, ‘the Master-Smith’, No. xvi. …traits which come out in ‘the Master-Smith’, .., when the Devil, who here assumes Hel’s place, orders the watch to go back and lock up all the nine locks on the gates of Hell – a lock for each of the goddesses nine worlds – and to put a padlock on besides.”

– Popular Tales from the Norse, pp.52-54.


If every remnant of Christmas decoration is not cleared out of church before Candlemas-day (the Purification, February 2), there will be a death that year in the family occupying the pew where a leaf or berry is left.  

An old lady (now dead) whom I knew, was so persuaded of the truth of this superstition, that she would not be contented to leave the clearing of her pew to the constituted authorities, but used to send her servant on Candlemas-eve to see that her own seat at anyrate was thoroughly freed from danger. 

– Book of Days, 13th of July._20181224_034106.JPG

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