With just over a week to go until Christmas, Writer at Large Neil Mackay, speaks to some of the nation’s best minds to discover the secrets of the festive season and why it matters so much to us as human beings.


SCOTLAND has a unique relationship with Christmas. Up until the 1950s, when the holiday was focussed on religion and the birth of Christ, we hardly bothered with it as a nation - but once Christmas started to become much more secular we fell under its spell.

‘As far as Scotland is concerned,’ says Professor Sir Tom Devine, one of the nation’s leading historians and public intellectuals, "Christmas is a recent event.’ In Scotland, after the Protestant reformation in the 1500s, he says, Catholic holidays like Christmas and Saints’ Days were abolished, and hostility to do with anything seen as ‘Popery’ intensified in the 1600s during the Convenanting period.

Scotland ‘was much more hardline and uncompromising’ in its Protestantism than England - and so while Christmas grew south of the border, it barely existed here.

‘The Scottish festival was New Year unambiguously,’ Devine says. It wasn’t until 1958 that Christmas was made a public holiday in Scotland. Devine, a schoolboy in the 50s, recalls going to class on Christmas Day.

It was the Victorians who created the idea of the modern Christmas - with trees, holly, a big family meal and present giving. ‘Immediately before the Victorian era, Scotland had experienced five successive Jacobite risings,’ says Devine. These 18th century rebellions created a ‘ferocity of hatred’ and intensified the anti-Catholic sentiment in Scotland, helping keep Christmas in abeyance.

The path to 1958 when Christmas was finally welcomed in from the cold was laid by the tragedy of two world wars, Devine explains. The conflicts were ‘a very good mixing process’ for Scots, Devine says, and gave young men away at war their first experience of the traditions of Christmas. The influence of ex-soldiers ‘prepared the way for that watershed date in 1958’.

Devine says that from the 1960s onwards the story of Christmas in Scotland has been one of ‘conquest over all other festivals’, however, he adds: ‘There is a very considerable irony in that Christmas has become so core as a national festival while at the same time losing much of its religious meaning.’

Devine, a practising Catholic, despairs at ‘the taking out of Christ from Christmas’. He sees this as a ‘reflection of the horrible hedonistic materialism of modern life’.

For Devine and his family, the holiday season has been tinged with more than a little sadness for many years since one of his children, John, took his own life during the Christmas period in the 1990s. Just a week ago, though, a newly adopted grandchild came along. There will be 19 people over for dinner at the Devine house - all the children and grandchildren - and this year Christmas will be ‘a magical experience’, he says.


For Rev Sally Foster Fulton Christmas is revolutionary. Fulton, one of the most influential voices in the Church of Scotland and head of Christian Aid Scotland, sees Christmas as about the poorest and the weakest ‘speaking truth to power’.

Whether someone is an atheist or a believer, the Nativity story has a strongly subversive message. In the story, says Fulton, ‘the angels bring the good news first to the shepherds who were on the edge of society, they were the poorest of the poor’. The Nativity, she says, ‘is a huge challenge to power, and it poses a huge challenge to us to come together and stand up for a different world’.

‘The central heart of the story,’ she says, ‘is that vulnerable love is more powerful than those we deem powerful. There is a subversive wisdom that turns what we think on its head - that might makes right, than money creates happiness. The Nativity story flips that, and says no … the story is about God’s love for humanity and our love for each other - the potential for us to embrace each other in a way that transforms the world.’

Fulton explains that if we study the Nativity story we will find the revolutionary message hidden in the text. She points out that Jesus is described as ‘the Son of God’ and ‘the Prince of Peace’ - but these were also terms used to describe Caesar when Judea was occupied by imperial Rome. She says the story is asking the reader ‘where are you going to put your belief? Behind power and might? Or are you going to put your belief in love and forgiveness and vulnerability and equality’.

But the story didn’t just speak to Jewish people 2000 years ago, she says. It asks questions of people today as well. ‘What does Caesar look like today?’ Fulton asks. ‘Where are you going to put your love and effort?’

Fulton is not a dogmatic preacher, and she believes secular Scotland can embrace the central message of the Nativity without having to worship God. ‘The Christmas story has so many deep truths which are not dependent on historical fact,’ she says. ‘The power of the story is not dependent on whether you believe it is factually correct.’

For Fulton, Christmas should also be about old-fashioned fun as well. However, what she doesn’t want ‘is the power and opportunity to live differently to be covered over by all the crackers and wrapping paper’.


CHRISTMAS is a time of make-believe, of story-telling. To some extent, says Dominic Hill the artistic director of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, Christmas itself is one great fiction. ‘There’s a guy who comes down your chimney,’ says Hill, who is currently directing A Christmas Carol, ‘and we buy into it, we buy into a complete fiction, just the same as we buy into a piece of theatre. Christmas is like a collective theatre in our collective unconscious - we are all sharing in something which we know is an act of ritual and fiction.’

A Christmas Carol is one of the founding texts of Christmas - it’s the blueprint not just of what we should do on Christmas Day, but how we should feel, it taps directly into the heart and soul of Christmas. It’s perfect for adaption into a Christmas play. Most pantos have nothing to do with Christmas if you look at their plot.

Christmas is also a time when people who wouldn’t usually go to the theatre pay to see a show - as theatre-going has become part of the ritual of Christmas along with the turkey and the carols. At its heart Dickens’ story is about kindness winning through in a dark world, about the unbeatable goodness in human beings, and about the magical alchemy of Christmas which can turn even the worst person into a decent soul.

‘At Christmas,’ says Hill, ‘I want people to go away from the theatre feeling Christmassy - warm and fuzzy and loving their fellow man.’ A Christmas Carol, he says, ‘is a cry for sympathy, generosity and understanding of our fellow human beings. I’m afraid that the fundamental issues it deals with - of a world driven not by understanding and sympathy but by money - is as relevant as ever before.’

Dickens originally intended to write a political pamphlet, says Hill, but realised he could make his point better with fiction. ‘His aim was to get to the mind and engage with a problem by engaging with people’s hearts and that is both the power and role of theatre and fiction and art.’

Like Christmas itself, Dickens’ novel presents this time of year as an alternative world - as a time when anything can happen. Just as in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Hill points out, Scrooge like George Bailey is shown an alternative world and an alternative version of himself. It is about change, and people’s ability to change for the better. ‘With fiction we can make right the wrongs of the world,’ says Hill - which is what Christmas is all about.


HUMANS need Christmas - or at least a festival like it, an event at the end of the year, when we try to be better people, when we connect to each other, an occasion which quite literally brings a little light into the dark.

Scottish clinical psychologist Dr Simon Stuart says: ‘All humans have an innate desire for things to make sense, and there is a huge amount of evidence that we need to be part of a group. Christmas is the key part of our end of year ritual, and we humans are very good at thinking symbolically, so when the end of the year rolls around we want to mark that, and there is something very comforting in the narrative that we tell ourselves of things feeling alright, that things make sense, even if it is just for one day.

‘Christmas allows us to feel the safety and warmth that, if we were lucky, we felt as children. It is an excuse to let go of grim daily responsibilities and to enjoy simple pleasures like just being with people we love.’

Perhaps the key to Christmas is that it lets adults feel childlike, to play even - think of all those board games brought out on Boxing Day. ‘Christmas,’ says Stuart, ‘allows us to get in touch with the good things in childhood we are no longer in touch with. Play is something we let go terribly as adults and Christmas is a playful time.’

Play connects us to other people, it helps us deal with the difficult parts of life, and play, like so much about Christmas, mostly centres on spending time with those we love.

‘Christmas is predictable and secure and has rituals which go with it - it allows us to feel at peace and safe,’ says Stuart. Yet for all the psychological benefits it gives us, if we do Christmas wrong - if we feel everything has to be perfect - it will cause us more pain and upset than joy and happiness.

People who think their child will only be happy if they spend a fortune on presents, or those who fret about the perfect lunch, are missing the point. A racist uncle or spoiled brat nephew are part of the deal, as they are part of your life.

‘We cling to this idea that we must be happy,’ says Stuart, ‘and to be happy we have to push away all the sadness, but what is most psychologically healthy is being able to make room for all things - good and bad - in recognition of what the human condition involves. If we accept that Christmas is never going to be perfect, that imperfection is part of the ritual, that might be a more psychologically flexible way to go into the festive season.’

Gratitude, family and simplicity are what Christmas is about for Stuart. ‘It’s a time when we are able to get in touch with what matters,’ he says. The sad thing is, he feels, that when Christmas ends we let go of this uncomplicated lesson.

‘This time of year reminds us of what it is to be a contented human being living out our values and that for me is the real magic of Christmas,’ he adds.


AS an anthropologist who studies what makes humans human, Christmas and its rituals are especially revealing to Professor Richard Baxstrom of Edinburgh University. A culture becomes real when it shares rituals, he says, and all of us participating in a ritual like Christmas binds us together.

It is like a cultural anchor, buried in the past. Nostalgia is at the heart of Christmas. The holiday takes old traditions that our great grandparents had and recreates them anew every year. Where your grandparents attended a Christmas Eve church service to hear a message of hope, you maybe watch It’s a Wonderful Life with your children to hear the same message of hope.

‘Christmas is an address to our ancestors,’ says Baxstrom, ‘the coherence of a group depends on its ability to make that address together - if you don’t do that then the claim to be alike, to be part of the same group, starts to suffer as you lose understanding of what you really share.

‘An address to the dead, to the ancestors - whether a generation ago or a millennia ago - is an important part of any cultural group. I don’t know of any group that wouldn’t in some way address themselves to those who existed before as a way of dealing with the present.’

Without rituals like Christmas, he says, ‘what will you be left with?’


Many symbols of Christmas are obvious - like the star on top of your tree representing the star over Bethlehem at the birth of Christ. But others are not so clear.

Take the tradition of candy canes, often hung from the tree. Have you ever asked yourself - why is the sweet shaped like a cane? Well, it is to commemorate the shepherds who were first told of the nativity. The cane represents a shepherd’s crook.

The giving of gifts at Christmas is often linked to the Three Wise Men who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh for Christ - but what about the bows we put on presents? The bow is meant to represent that all of humanity should be ‘tied’ together.

There’s a lot of red and green at Christmas as well, isn’t there? The red symbolises the blood of Jesus spilt on the cross, and the green stands for the idea of everlasting life.

What about holly - why do we bring the spiky plant inside over the holidays. Well, the holly and its jagged leaves represents the thorns worn by Christ on the cross.

Bells tend to make an appearance at Christmas also - because bells represent the announcement of the birth of Christ by the angels.


Christmas is as much about our pre-Christian past as it is about Christianity. Christmas Carols can trace their roots back to pagan fertility rites when men and women wandered through fields in mid-winter singing songs to drive away spirits that might harm the crops.

Mistletoe comes straight from the Druids - it was one of their most magical plants. Roman fertility rites took place beneath mistletoe and that’s translated into a kiss under the mistletoe at a Christmas party today.

The Christmas tree goes right back to the Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia when the king of the gods Saturn was honoured by bringing greenery into the home.

The Yule log goes back to our ancient nordic and germanic roots when on the night of the winter solstice a giant log would be placed on the hearth to burn until the dawn, celebrating the return of the sun to the earth each year.

Father Christmas himself is about as pagan as you can get. That red coat? Well, that’s an ancient shaman wearing the skin of slain animal inside out. Santa flying through the sky? Shamans also liked a little dose now and then of hallucinogenic mushrooms and one thing magic mushrooms will do is make you think you’re flying.