Scottish Holiday Traditions with an Outlandish Twist

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Merry Christmas! Now, Christmas in America today (where Sarah and I live) is nothing like Christmas in Jamie’s time, especially in Scotland. So, let’s take a little trip through Christmas past and some holiday-themed passages in the Outlander series to see how to add an Outlandish twist to your season. Now, the passages are plucked from different parts in the series and contain small slivers of spoilers, but we’ll share them after our historical fun facts. If you don’t want to know a thing, stop reading ones you reach the naked Jamie and then take a look at our Outlander Saturday page for some Scottish goodness that is spoiler-free!

♦Yule♦

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Let’s get into a time machine in the shape of a Viking longship and talk a bit about Yule. Yule was traditionally a Norse festival that centered around the Winter Solstice. There would be offerings to the gods, sacrifices, and toasts to Odin and people that had passed (sounds like Christmas at my house) and the revelries would last for days. It’s assumed that the Vikings brought Yule to pagan Scotland around 800AD. But around 1060AD, the Catholic church then adopted some of the customs, turning it into a holiday that venerated the birth of Christ. This focus on the Catholic religion is exactly why the practice was later banned in Scotland for 400 years, but we’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s see a few festive things that we took from the pagans.

♦The Yule Log♦

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The history of the yule log isn’t 100% clear. But it’s widely recognized as another pagan tradition where it was burned as an offering to the fertility goddess. It’s considered bad luck to have to relight the flame and you should let it burn completely out before daring to touch it. Side note, you can watch 90 minutes of a roaring yule fire in Lallybroch now on the Starz website! How cozy.

♦The Yule Tree♦

Winter was biting, frigid, and cold, usually bringing hunger and sickness to the Norse region and Scottish Highland areas. Because of this, the plants that thrived in the winter, such as holly, mistletoe, and the evergreen tree were considered magical because how the hell else could something be bright green when the highlanders were freezing their bagpipes off? People would hang wreaths and ropes of these plants over their doors and throughout their homes to ward off the winter spirits. The tree, usually an outdoor one, would be decorated with offerings to the faeries and gods, such as lights to brighten their way and small offerings. The Christmas tree that we know today didn’t grow in popularity until King George III’s German wife introduced the indoor version in the early 1800’s. Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be a grand tree in Lallybrook’s halls because…

♦The Kirks Were Dicks♦

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So, Mary Queen of Scots wanted to be a chill ruler and allow the Protestant and Catholic Scots to practice their religion as they pleased, because she was cool like that and said they were worshiping the same god anyway, so why dick around? But she lived mainly in France for a long time, so the Scottish parliament could kinda do what they wanted, mainly abolish the Catholic practices in Scotland in favor of the “Kirk”, the Scottish church. When the Kirk took over, even hosting or attending Catholic masses could be punishable by death. The banned all “Pope-ish” practices, which included the fun traditions like lighting a yule log and decorating their homes with holly. So for 400 years, until the 1960’s, the Scots treated Christmas just like any other day and went about their business. Of course, I’m sure many people still held some of the traditions quietly. When being Catholic was allowed again, Christmas was very subdued and was basically all about mass and prayer. So in Jamie’s later years, he would spend his time giving thanks to God and possibly praying in a church, if he thought about Christmas at all.

♦Hogmanay♦

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or, like…presents are cool, too.

This fun little holiday was continually celebrated from the time of the vikings to present day Scotland. It acknowledges the final day of the year (New Years) and features a combination of things taken from Yule and Samhain traditions. It took the place of Christmas after the reformation banned the practice. It’s still a popular celebration today! The highland house was deep cleaned, gifts were given to friends and neighbors, who would visit after midnight to drink and eat together. In later years, Auld Lang Syne (discussed below) would be sung as well. There was also an additional tradition done called “First Footing”.

♦First Footing♦

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At the strike of midnight, it was tradition for someone to be the first to step into the house, bringing with them the good luck of the year. It was said that a tall, dark haired man was best and that he should bring with some some silver, salt, or whiskey. A woman or fair-haired man could bring bad luck to the house. In Outlander…“A red-haired man, though, was frightfully ill luck as a first foot, and Jamie had been consigned to his study…” Poor Jamie. He’s welcome to be my first foot. Bad luck be damned! I live in New Jersey, how much worse can it get?

♦Auld Lang Syne♦

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Sound familiar? It should. We recognize it as a traditional New Years Eve song we don’t know the words to, but we drunkenly belt out after kissing strangers at the stroke of midnight. The song originated in Scotland and the first mention of it was in 1711 by a guy named James Watson but this guy, Robert Burns, put it to music and made it the song we all know. It’s possible that the song was around before that, but as many people know, songs and stories were mainly passed down verbally. The song is also, traditionally, sung at a slower and more somber pace, giving it a sadder vibe. It’s played sung at the end of dances and at funerals in some parts of Scotland.

Now that we’ve talked a bit about the history behind Christmas, let’s get to some Outlander book goodness that might contain some wee spoilers, if you haven’t read a whole lot. If you’re averse to any and all hints of what happens, head over to our Outlander page and skim that instead! Now…about that naked Fraser…

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♦From The Fiery Cross♦

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“With a certain amount of forethought, Mrs. Bug, Brianna, Marsali, Lizzie, and I had made up an enormous quantity of molasses toffee, which we had distributed as a Christmas treat to all the children within earshot.  Whatever it might do to their teeth, it had the beneficial effect of gluing their mouths shut for long periods, and in consequence, the adults had enjoyed a peaceful Christmas.”

As a parent, I appreciate that even Claire Fraser needed to have a break from small children shrieking in her ear. Warms the cockles of my soul. Anyways, let’s chat about this sweet treat.

Molasses became a popular substitution for expensive refined sugar in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly in North America. This was because the triangle trade brought the molasses from the Caribbean through the American ports on it’s way to England. Americans, being an inventive people, put it in everything they could; candy, birch beer, rum, baked goods, meat…hell, I bet our forefathers poured it directly into their freedom holes. The Americans kept on with their love affair of all things molasses until England said, “Hold up. You’re making all this money from exporting your molasses rum and we’re not getting a cut. That’s some shady shit, America. Here’s a molasses tax. Pip pip, cheerio!” And then, as you know, the Americans were all “Pip pip this, you tea loving f*cks”, and ruined some perfectly good tea, but not before smuggling in molasses because colonists were not about to give up on molasses rum. It’s tasty as hell.

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No one taxes George Washington’s molasses and gets away with it. No one.

If molasses is your thing, The Outlander Cookbook has a recipe for old style molasses toffee that would have been very similar to the Fraser brand. If you’re feeling up to the challenge, the recipe is available on their website, here!

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♦The Fiery Cross…♦

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 Brianna makes a dozen geese…

 “What’s the occasion? For our homecoming?”
She lifted her head from his chest and gave him what he privately classified as A Look.
“For Christmas,” she said.
“What?” He groped blankly, trying to count the days, but the events of the last three weeks had completely erased his mental calendar.
“When?”
“Tomorrow, idiot,” she said with exaggerated patience.

I’m guessing that most of the Christmas celebrating readers have ham or turkey when they cook, instead of goose. But goose is still seen as a traditional Christmas dish. Why, you ask? Well, let’s chat about it.

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Geese are “prime” to be eaten twice a year; as new gosling (if you’re a total monster) and in the fall and winter after they’re all chubby from finishing off the last of the corn. Their fat is delicious and it made for a fine feast throughout history. The Norse served it to Odin and Thor for giving them a good harvest. It was also eaten during the feast of Michaelmas, a minor Christian holiday, during Medieval times. The feathers were also used in all manner of bedding, particularly for winter blankets, so it only made sense to butcher the goose when it had the most down and then eat the meat. The goose swayed over to turkey thanks to the settlers in North America, as the bird follows the same cycle of maturation. And, as we know, Brianna was quite the good shot when it came to felling the turkeys!

 ♦Drums of Autumn♦

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“What if I tell you a story, instead?”
Highlanders loved stories, and Jamie was no exception.
“Oh, aye,” he said, sounding much happier. “What sort of story is it?”
“A Christmas story,” I said, settling myself along the curve of his body. “About a miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“An Englishman, I daresay?”
“Yes,” I said. “Be quiet and listen.”
I could see my own breath as I talked, white in the dim, cold air. The snow was falling heavily outside our shelter; when I paused in the story, I could hear the whisper of flakes against the hemlock branches, and the far-off whine of wind in the trees.

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Hate to be the one that points this out, but Jamie will never read A Christmas Carol for himself or even lay eyes on the book. It wasn’t printed until 1843, far later than is possible for Jamie to have lived. Still, this classic is one that most people know by heart, and Claire is no exception. Let’s all be collectively glad that at least he will never know the disappointment that was Jim Carey’s version. Ugh.

♦The Fiery Cross♦

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Catholic as many of them were–and nominally Christian as they all were–Highland Scots regarded Christmas primarily as a religious observance, rather than a major festive occasion. Lacking priest or minister, the day was spent much like a Sunday, though with a particularly lavish meal to mark the occasion, and the exchange of small gifts.

While Claire, Bri, and Roger would have remembered Christmas in their time as a celebration of food, gifts, drinks, and shopping, Christmas for Jamie would have been very different. In the books, while the Frasers are on the ridge, there’s usually a fine meal, a few drinks, and a plate of Claire’s molasses cookies for the bairns.

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The Outlander Kitchen Cookbook has a recipe for Claire’s cookies here.

Lastly, in The Fiery Cross, a rather wintery book, apparently, Brianna asks Roger…

“Didn’t you see all the Greenery when you came in? Lizzie and I made all the Chisholm go out with us to cut evergreens; we’ve been making wreathes and garlands for the last three days.”

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Sarah and I both have books out now, so if you like our posts, you’ll probably love our books! First Semester is a thrilling college romance that you can get HERE. Queen of Emeralds is a historic romance set in the highlands that you can get HERE.

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