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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

What's the Scots for Christmas and New Year?

The Scots in common with other European nations have long celebrated rites at the end and beginning of a new year, whether in pagan or Christian times. Indeed, the early Christians often grafted new names on to old festivals and these became part of the Christian calendar. The Lowland Scots naturally had their own forms of names for these feasts and rites.


The Lowland Scots celebrated the feast of the birth of Christ as ‘Yule’, the use of which has since declined in English but which is still the common name in Scots. It first appears in the forms ‘zoill’ in the 14th century and ‘yuill’ in the 15th century with Yule later becoming standard. It also takes the form ‘Yeel’ in northern Scots. Yule could mean either Christmas day itself or the season as a whole, hence such phrases as ‘Yuletide’ meaning ‘Christmas season’. The season officially lasts from 25th December until 6 January and was often known in Scots as ‘The Daft Days’ because games and other celebrations were held. The night before Christmas – Christmas Eve – is usually called ‘Yule E(v)en’ in Scots. In modern Christmas cards produced in the Scots language it is usual to see the message ‘A Blithe Yule’ meaning ‘Happy Christmas’ or even ‘A Cantie Yule’ meaning ‘Cheerful or pleasant Christmas’. However, when a Scots speaker wishes to give a Christmas present they do not say ‘Yule present’ but simply ‘Christmas’: ‘Whit did ye get for yer Christmas?’ (What presents did you get?) or ‘Here yer Christmas’ (Here’s your Christmas present). This particular use of the word Christmas in Scots to mean a present came into fashion during the Victorian period when the feast became very commercialised with gifts, cards, trees and decorations.


The day after Christmas has long been known in English by the curious name ‘Boxing Day’. In Scots in earlier times this day was formerly known as ‘Childermes’ in honour of Holy Innocents Day, but this feast ceased to be celebrated after Scotland became Calvinist.


The end of the Christmas season has long been known as ‘Uphalyday’ in the Scots language and is marked on 6 January. In English this is known as Epiphany. It first appears in the form ‘Vphalyday’ in records of the 1470s and means, in English, ‘finish of the holiday’. The word ‘up’ meant over or finished. The night before this feast is called ‘Uphalyday E(v)en’ while the night of the feast itself is ‘Uphalynicht’. The most well known use of this Scots feast name is in Shetland where ‘Uphaliday’ was being celebrated in 1774. By the late 19th century the name had taken on the local form ‘Uphellya’ in the speech of Shetland. Uphellya is celebrated on the last Tuesday of January and combines both pagan fire festival with Christmas rites.


Traditionally in Scotland the marking of the New Year was of greater signifance than Christmas. Scots had long celebrated old rites at this time and, besides, the Calvinist church after 1560 took a dim view of the Catholic practices celebrated at Christmas and so discouraged those. Until 1599 the New Year began on 25 March but King James VI changed this to 1 January from 1600 onwards. In the Scots language New Year’s Eve has been known as ‘Hogmanay’ since at least the 17th century. It is thought to derive from the French for a New Year’s Eve gift. In Scots we say ‘haud Hogmanay’ for ‘celebrate the end of the old year’ and, once the New Year comes in, we call it ‘Ne’rday’ or ‘Neerday’ – New Year’s Day. It has been traditional in Scotland to ‘first-fit’ or make a first visit to the homes of friends and neighbours on this day and to bring a ‘handsel’ or gift. ‘Handsel’ comes from an old word found in various languages and means to give with the hand. It is found in this form in Scots from the 14th century onwards. In Scots we greet people at the start of the New Year with ‘A Guid New Year’ (Happy New Year) and on greetings cards we find the same message.