A Good Old Scottish Christmas

A walk down memory lane with Mrs. Dorothy Mackay as she shares her stories of celebrating Christmas as a child in Scotland, during Word War 2. Filled with exciting details and amusing anecdotes, this article makes me nostalgic as I fondly remember sitting with her as a 10 year old listening to her captivating stories. I'm sure you will also be transported to the Scotland of old as you begin reading. So get yourself a cup of coffee, find a comfy chair and get started! :)

80 years ago, in the north of Scotland where I grew up, Christmas was very different from what it is in the north of England now. Then, we were in the middle of World War 2 and Britain was virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Everything was rationed, most of the men were in the armed forces, wardens patrolled the streets to make sure no chink of light was showing from windows or doors and people stayed indoors once it grew dark which happens about 3pm in winter.

Christmas Day was not a holiday in Scotland till the early 1950s so it was business as usual. The Scottish national holiday was New Year’s Day and the day after, so on Christmas Day the local milkman, vegetable man, firewood and coal man and postman all made their deliveries with their horse and carts as usual except for Donaldson the postman who walked on his rounds. He would have a lot more mail in his big red bag and at nearly every house he would be offered a dram (a small glass of whisky) so by the time he reached our long street this normally quiet and rather shy man could be heard singing loudly and calling cheerful greetings as he went. This was a cause of great amusement to all the children who would run out of the house as soon as we heard him to watch his unsteady progress. Older people on the street would often come out and give the children a few sweets, an apple or a few pennies so it was all great fun. Turkey, Christmas trees, Santa Claus with his reindeer, fairy lights and loud music were never heard of. At school we sang lots of Christmas carols and made paper chain decorations, and at home Mum made a Christmas cake and puddings using dried egg, and sugar and dried fruit which had been carefully hoarded all year. Mum was a very generous person and would make lots of small cakes for elderly relatives and neighbors and it was the job of my sister and I to go round and deliver those on Christmas Eve. We loved this job except for going to visit Great aunt Jane who was a rather grumpy old lady. She was my Grandfather’s aunt and had lost her cherished only son at the age of 17 during the Great War and had become very bitter as a result. She had a lovely portrait of Charlie in his full regimental uniform which for years we thought was Bonnie Prince Charlie (the last pretender to the throne of  Scotland).

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Church was no different from the rest of the year but with rather more emphasis on the birth of Jesus. The Sunday School celebrations were held at the end of January so that they would not become associated with the more worldly celebrations of Christmas. There were no parties and families did not get together as they do now because travelling was very difficult and trains often crowded with soldiers, and you never knew when or if you would arrive at your destination.

On Christmas Eve children would hang up their stockings near the fireplace and would find it in the morning with lots of interesting bulges which included a 2/- piece (about 1 rupee in those days) donated by Great- Grandmother, an apple (Canadian mac reds if they got past the German U-boats in the Atlantic), an orange from South Africa – we only saw those once a year, some beautiful hand -knitted gloves in the traditional designs and a book or small toy. My brother always longed for some marbles or a ball instead of a book but I have always loved books and was furious one year when an unimaginative aunt gave all three of us the same book. Mum had some difficulty persuading me not to take two of the books back to her and ask her to exchange them!!

Both my parents came from large families but my Father’s family followed the old custom of celebrating New Year and my Mother’s family did not give us gifts till the war was over with the exception of Aunt Meg who bought me books whenever she had to go to Edinburgh for work. I still treasure many of them.

Parties were almost non- existent. I remember one. One of our friends had a birthday just after Christmas and one year when her father got leave from the army he did some cooking and we had a lovely party with food we could only imagine. He was a cook in the army and brought home things like real eggs, not the dried variety. We played lots of games, sang carols, and at the end each child was given a bar of chocolate. I was devastated when all the children got milk chocolate and mine was dark which I have always disliked. Nothing was said but as we were leaving the house I put my chocolate down near a plant by the door.

We were fortunate that many of our school teachers were Christians so we were taught about the true meaning of Christmas, how the Lord of Heaven came to earth as a child  to grow up and die for us on a cross. Mum reinforced this message at home. One year when my father who was serving in the army, happened to be in Palestine, now Israel, he managed to send me a card with a picture of the bells on the  Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Although the censer had blacked out the name, Mum recognized it  and explained its significance. Many years later we were able to visit Bethlehem and visit the church and I remembered the joy which that card had brought to us as a family.

y the time I started teaching I was able to buy a Christmas tree for my classroom and the children had great fun making decorations for it, and some of the mothers sent sandwiches and cakes and we could have a party.

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Over the years things have changed. Now at the end of October food and gifts start to appear in shops and malls and Christmas music, not carols, are played everywhere while television advertisements are all  trying to persuade people to spend lots of money on expensive, and usually unnecessary gifts. Many people get into serious debt buying gifts, most of which will be broken or discarded within a few days and few of which will be truly appreciated. Now quite small children expect to be given things like computers, mobile phones and expensive gadgets and taken to places like Lapland to see Santa Claus, or skiing in Europe or to Disneyland, and many adults spend large amounts of money travelling to Europe to Christmas markets.

When we were children we had never heard of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas in which we prepare for the celebration of the Savior’s birth. Now people buy Advent candles and Calendars. The candles have the dates written on them in sequence and each day you burn down the part for that date. Sometimes you can find one with one of the lovely names of the Savior  for each day. Advent calendars have a picture on the front with a series of doors which open, one for each day, with behind them a small piece of chocolate and a picture. If made by a Christian company they may well have a bible text as well. When our daughters were small we always ate our evening meal by the light of the Advent candles. There are also Advent rings, wreaths of foliage which have four candles, one for each Sunday in Advent and sometimes a fifth candle in the centre which is lit on Christmas Day. In the past few years Advent Calendars for adults have become popular. These are very expensive, contain items like cosmetics or perfume and have nothing to do with Christmas but it all adds to the growing sense of excitement.

Somewhere in all of this the true meaning of Christmas has all but disappeared.  Children are not taught about the coming of the Lord Jesus, God’s great gift to the world. Very few teachers or parents would have any idea of its significance. To them Jesus is just another myth like Santa Claus. Very few of today’s young parents could explain what Jesus has to do with Christmas or that the word Christmas actually means Christ’s birthday. I remember when our daughter Elizabeth was small she invited one of her young friends to a meeting at our church. When asked what would happen she explained that there would be singing and a story about Jesus to which the little friend replied “Don’t say that word. It’s a naughty word.” She had never heard the Savior’s name except in blasphemy and she was not alone.

This means that Christians have a great responsibility to share the true meaning of Christmas with family, friends and neighbors and to show their children that Christmas is not about consumerism gone mad, but is about giving, not receiving. You are perhaps fortunate in India that Christmas is not celebrated as it is in the west, and though Jesus may not be mentioned in shops and malls, yet you can teach your children about our beloved Savior without all the unnecessary clutter. He is the greatest gift of all.

May you all have a blessed and Christ-filled Christmas!

Dorothy Mackay
Dorothy Mackay

Born and raised in the north of Scotland, Dorothy is a wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Her great passion is writing and teaching Bible studies. She has been instrumental in organizing ladies conferences, writing Bible studies and speaking at women's meetings in several countries. She and her husband live in Sunderland, United Kingdom, and love sharing their home with others.

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