Sixty years ago in 1958, Christmas Day became a public holiday in Scotland for the first time. Until the 16th century, when religious reformers banned it, Christmas was celebrated as enthusiastically in Scotland as elsewhere in Europe. But the Protestant Reformation changed all that. In 1581 new legislation outlawed carol singing and other Yule-tide customs on the grounds that they were variously papish, pagan, superstitious and idolatrous. Those who broke the law were fined the first time but repeat offenders risked the death penalty. Scotland’s religious leaders took their reformation very seriously!
With the celebration of Christmas banned for almost 400 years, Hogmanay (December 31) and the New Year became the focus of mid-winter festivities. The period after Christmas, through Hogmanay and up to the first Monday of the New Year (Handsel Monday*) became known as the “Daft Days”, a time of fun and light-hearted good cheer, the essence of which Robert Fergusson captured in his 1772 poem “The Daft-Days”. Here’s an extract:
When merry Yule-day comes, I trou,
You’ll scantlins find a hungry mou;
Sma are our cares, our stamacks fou
O’ gusty gear,
And kickshaws, strangers to our view,
Ye browster wives, now busk ye braw,
And fling your sorrows far awa;
Then come and gie’s the tither blaw
Of reaming ale,
Mair precious than the well of Spa,
Our hearts to heal.
Then, tho’ at odds wi a’ the warl’,
Amang oursels we’ll never quarrel;
Tho’ Discord gie a canker’d snarl
To spoil our glee,
As lang’s there’s pith into the barrel
We’ll drink and ‘gree.
Fidlers, your pins in temper fix,
And roset weel your fiddle-sticks;
But banish vile Italian tricks
Frae out your quorum,
Not fortes wi pianos mix –
Gie’s Tulloch Gorum.
For nought can cheer the heart sae weel
As can a canty Highland reel;
It even vivifies the heel
To skip and dance:
Lifeless is he wha canna feel
Let mirth abound, let social cheer
Invest the dawning of the year;
Let blithesome innocence appear
To crown our joy;
Nor envy wi sarcastic sneer
Our bliss destroy.
Robert Fergusson, 1772
Robert Fergusson was a contemporary and favourite poet of Robert Burns who acknowledged Fergusson’s influence on a number of his own works. Though the two never met, it was Burns who commissioned a headstone for Fergusson’s grave after the latter died in Edinburgh at the age of only 24. While much less well-known than Burns, Fergusson remains highly regarded by Scottish poets as a result, in particular, of the 35 poems he published in Scots during his short life.
The year is almost over so to end, I will simply say:
“A Guid New Year tae a’ body an’ lang may yer lums reek.”
* Handsel Monday was a holiday when people exchanged a small gift as a token of good luck.