Monday, 21 December 2015

Uncovering Christmas Traditions

An Edwardian era Christmas card
with  no religious references but
with an image of Santa Claus 

A recent interesting talk by my learned friend Dr Alison Clarke on Scottish influenced Christmas traditions in 19th century Dunedin and Otago New Zealand inspired me to specifically search out references to Christmas Day and traditions in my own Scottish born maternal family and additionally also how these may have evolved over the years and adapted to suit New Zealand conditions and changing attitudes.

Until the death of the final Scottish born member of my family in 1978, and even for many years thereafter, Christmas Day held no overt religious relevance for my Scottish Presbyterian family other than the saying of grace before the Christmas meal. The reason for this in fact dates back to 1575 when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland abolished those religious festivals known as "holy days" :

All days which heretofore have been kept holy except the Sabbath day [Sundays], such as Yule day, saints’ day and such other, may be abolished, and a civil penalty be appointed against the keepers thereof, by ceremonies, banquetings, playings, fasting, and other like vanities.” 

The 25th of December was henceforth to be treated as a normal working day with traditional Christmas festivities being looked upon as “popish superstitions”.

The Scottish Parliament officially abolished the observance of Christmas in 1640 :

"... the kirke within this kingdome is now purged of all superstitious observatione of dayes... thairfor the saidis estatis have dischairged and simply dischairges the foirsaid Yule vacance and all observation thairof in tymecomeing, and rescindis and annullis all acts, statutis and warrandis and ordinances whatsoevir granted at any tyme heirtofoir for keiping of the said Yule vacance, with all custome of observatione thairof, and findis and declaires the samene to be extinct, voyd and of no force nor effect in tymecomeing."

Until well into the 19th century Christmas Day was thus spent like any other working day. In fact it was not until 1958 that Christmas Day again became a Scottish statutory public holiday. The main celebration continued to be Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) which of course had always been a non-religious festival.  

"Marley's Ghost" from "A Christmas Carol"
by Charles Dickens, 1843.
[From my own collection ex South Wyndham
Public Library, Southland NZ, c.1890's]

But in 1843, Charles Dickens wrote a novel entitled “A Christmas Carol” which helped to again revive and popularize the 'spirit' of Christmas and of seasonal merriment. The book’s instant popularity played a major role in portraying Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion. The Royal family, perhaps mainly through their German origins and traditions, also acted as a catalyst in introducing various Christmas customs which are so well known today.

Throughout the 19th century the celebration of Christmas in Scotland as a family day gradually grew in popularity but with absolutely no adherence to any religious observance. The only religious reference would be the saying of grace before the Christmas meal which would in any case have been a daily ritual.

From at least the mid to latter part of the 19th century my Scottish born family would appear to have fully embraced the spirit of Christmas as a family day. If this initially only amounted to a family gathering and Christmas meal or whether they quickly embraced all the 'traditions' and 'accoutrements' of Christmas which would be very familiar to us today is however still unclear.

James Watson, c.1890's

The earliest actual reference I have located is 1888 when my Great Great Uncle James Watson, having only emigrated from Scotland to New Zealand in 1882, wrote in his diary in large block letters  “A MERRY CHRISTMAS”. This was during a voyage from New Zealand to Melbourne Australia on the 'SS Tarawera' to attend the Centennial International Exhibition. Christmas dinner on board consisted of soup, potatoes, fowl, roast beef, roast pork, green peas, jam tarts, rhubarb pie & plum pudding. James, who had been born in Lanarkshire Scotland in 1859, was obviously already very well acquainted with the traditions of Christmas.  

On the 27th December 1904 my Great Grandfather John Watson writes from Lanarkshire Scotland to his sister Helen in New Zealand that :

"The weather took a turn for the better and we had a splendid hay time and harvest and the good weather lasted to a week before Martinmas [Nov 11th] when we had a good fall of snow and hard frost. It soon came a thaw and we are now having fine mild fresh weather at Christmas. 

This is another direct acknowledgement of Christmas [Day] as a specific and established event on the calender. 

An Edwardian Christmas card from 1905 showing monks fishing.
This image was painted by Walter Dendy Sadler and includes
the word "Thursday". This refers to the fact that Friars were
forbidden to eat meat on Fridays.   

The sending and receiving of Christmas cards appears to have become quite popular from the 1870’s onwards as the price of postage dropped to half a penny and printing processes improved. I hold a number of Christmas cards received by my family both in Scotland and New Zealand which date from as early as 1905. These are all of a non-religious nature or, as the card above shows, hold no direct religious references to the true meaning of Christmas. My family collection of Edwardian Christmas cards may be viewed HERE. As very few cards have survived I do not know when cards with an overt Christian theme became appropriate and acceptable for general use.

A Christmas box given to my Scottish Great Grandfather in 1909

I am assuming, as in later years, that the giving of Christmas presents was another old family tradition that slowly crept in during the latter years of the Victorian age. The earliest verified actual Christmas gift I hold dates from December 1909 when a Scottish business associate presented my Great Grandfather with a lockable box of polished sycamore wood with decorative Scottish Arts and Crafts style ‘strapwork’ metal imitation hinges.

My Great Grandmother feeding her hens and a solitary goose
(highlighted in the red box).  Is this perhaps the unlucky
Christmas Goose? Taken at 'Cander Mains', Dalserf,
Lanarkshire, Scotland by Jack Watson, circa 1904.

As to the Christmas day fare, a postcard from Scotland to my Great Grandmother in New Zealand in February 1914 includes the specific reference “…I hope you have survived the New Year Duck, as you did the Christmas Goose….”. I do know that geese had been kept by my Great Grandmother until she emigrated from Scotland in 1910 so this would have been their standard Christmas fare instead of Turkey as we would expect today.

The threepenny bit coins and the purse they were kept in

Uncovering a Victorian Christmas tradition also appears to have finally solved a mystery relating to items belonging to my above Great Grandmother, being a number of old British threepenny bits dating from the late Victorian era through to the early years of the 20th century. These were all neatly wrapped up in small pieces of paper and marked with the names or initials of some of her children. It was, I have discovered, a Victorian tradition to make a wish as one stirred the Christmas plum pudding then each member of the family would place a threepenny bit in the pudding “for luck”.

A commercially made Christmas plum pudding
from New Zealand

This would appear to be the only likely scenario relating to these coins. So it appears that a traditional steamed plum pudding, being a Victorian Christmas favourite, would have graced my Great Grandmother's Christmas table. Being then mid winter in Scotland such filling Christmas fare would have been eagerly devoured. Latterly my New Zealand born mother was the only one who made a plum (steamed) pudding but I understand that one had always been made for the Christmas table. Such stodgy fare was not always what one desired on a hot New Zealand summer's day but this was one family traditional that lingered on until the 1980's.

My Scottish born family quickly adapted to Christmas in a New
Zealand summer by enjoying an al fresco summer Christmas Day
picnic lunch with extended relatives at Heddon Bush.
Taken by Jimmie Watson, 25th December 1916.

My own memories (late 1950's to 1970's) of my family Christmas Day gatherings were of up to four generations of the family gathering for a large Christmas Day meal commencing with the saying of grace. The large extending table (complete with a winding handle) would be covered in two starched white damask linen tablecloths and linen napkins provided for each guest. Only the best tableware and crockery would be used. For practicality and availability a large stuffed turkey now replaced "the Christmas Goose". The Christmas food would be placed on the table in crockery or glass containers or on plates and handed round or you served yourself if you could reach.

I know that it was of considerable pride that they put on a good Christmas table. My Scottish born Great Aunt bemoaned the poor standard of Christmas fare on a voyage from Britain back to New Zealand on the "RMS Orion" in 1957,  "we were all agreed we had a better spread at home for Xmas…” As they were travelling first class their expectations had naturally been considerably higher.

Afternoon Tea and Christmas Cake "al fresco"
on the front lawn, Christmas Day on a
sunny Invercargill day in 1958
(that's me with my arm in the air!)

A rich fruit double iced Christmas cake would, as in earlier years, be baked some time before (around 3 months) so that it had time to mature. This would be cut for afternoon tea which, if it was fine, was served with a cup of tea poured from their best china teapot in a much more relaxed "al fresco" manner on the front lawn (with a silver birch tree decorated with balloons) after the handing out of Christmas gifts.

Overall, it would appear that my Scottish born family members were very much brought up with the traditions of Christmas as a non-religious family day from an early age and took great pride in carrying those same traditions on into their latter years. While they were intensely proud of their Scottish origins and upbringing they were however happily not above adapting to and embracing a "New Zealand" summer style Christmas when the opportunity (and weather) allowed.

But until the day they died, and being brought up staunchly Scottish Presbyterian, there would still not be any religious celebration of any kind placed on the day save for the saying of the grace.

An end of year blog will explore some New Year traditions in my Scottish family.

Sources :

- Watson family papers, photographs and artefacts (all held by the writer)
- Hocken Collections / Uare Taoka o Hākena (James Watson's 1888 diary)
- Google books

Copyright : All images are from my personal collection and may be freely copied provided this site is acknowledged.


  1. This is a very informative and interesting site. Would you object to me adding your link to an eBay item I'm selling shortly? It is a small group of original photographic images of the construction sites for the Franco British Exhibition of 1908.

    1. Definitely no objection Geoff. Sounds like an interesting sale!

    2. Definitely no objection Geoff. Sounds like an interesting sale!


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