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A very Shetland Christmas

by Laurie Goodlad -

Christmas in Shetland is celebrated in much the same way as anywhere else. We put up our decorations, and we look forward to the John Lewis Christmas advert and the message it represents and, we tuck into a turkey greater than our needs, then try to find imaginative ways to eat the leftovers between Christmas and New Year.

Living on a beautiful island means that for many, a pre- or post-dinner walk is a memorable part of the day – a stroll on the beach, or a stomp through the hills to blow away the cobwebs and shakedown the mince pies. But for me, Christmas is a time to recharge and spend time with family. It’s the one time of year that there are no obligations to leave the house; no school, no work and no meetings – a time to shut the shutters and lock the world out, allowing the warmth, the candles and the merriment to envelop our home in its entirety.

By December, the northern light means that we only have daylight for about six hours, nothing beats getting out and enjoying some of the low-slung winter light during the festive period.

In the past, Christmas in Shetland meant something very different; we even held it on a different day. Known as Yule, it was a time of celebration and tradition, much of it stemming from pagan rituals and beliefs. The celebrations of Yule began in midwinter and lasted for 24 days, every evening a dance was held in a barn somewhere within the community, bringing people together in an otherwise dark and unforgiving season. The origins of ‘Yule’ are thought to come from Viking/Norse times when the festival of Jul celebrated midwinter. There were many ‘special days’ attributed to Yule, including Tul-yas-e’en, Helya’s Night, Tammasmas E’en, Byana’s Sunday & Yule E’en, each one bringing its own rituals and observances.

Winter, in general, was a time of coming together for Shetlanders. The hard work of the previous seasons was on hold as darkness returned and the land lay fallow. It was during this time that families and friends got together to pass evenings spinning, knitting, making fishing lines and sharing stories. It was also at this time that most weddings would take place as the men were home from sea and the work on the croft was on hold till voar (spring).

Yule was characterised by music, dancing, food, friendship and a good helping of superstition. The fiddle was the instrument of choice and Shetlanders were very good at playing it (an estimated one in 10 people could play in the early 19th century). Without television or radio, this was the main form of entertainment. The Shetland reel was one of the most popular dances, carried out in barns and the small living spaces of the traditional but-and-ben houses, each district had its own version of the fast-paced dance.

Meat has always been a big part of Yule (and Christmas) celebrations, where today we tend to celebrate with the masses and enjoy turkey, in the past the best hog (castrated male sheep) was slaughtered for the occasion.

Superstition played a prominent role in the celebrations of Yule and, on Tul-yas-e’en (one week before Yule), trows were thought to be at their most active. Trows are hill-people who live in underground houses and can only venture out among people in the dark, and in the depths of winter, their power is greatest. A mischievous bunch, they loved fiddle music, deplored disorder in the home and they were often blamed for unexplained infant death. To keep trows at bay, people would leave two pieces of straw, in the shape of a cross, by the door and walk through the house brandishing a burning peat.

On Yule morning the head of the house would light a candle in the eye socket of a cow’s skull (that had been prepared and eaten on Byana’s Sunday) and walk to the byre carrying it as he went to feed the animals. After this, he would offer everyone in the house a dram and offer up the following verse:

Yule Gude and Yule Gear
Follow de trow da year.

Rituals like these were part and parcel of Yuletide celebrations across Shetland.

After the Yule dinner, families, friends and neighbours would gather outside and play ba’ – a form of football but seemingly without rules – using a ball made from a pig’s bladder. Playing ba’ was a feature of Yule celebrations until the early 20th century in Shetland.

With the spread of Christianity, changes to Yule celebrations meant that many of the traditions and rituals were lost – although good company, good friends and good food have remained at the heart of what Christmas means to people in Shetland. Today we now have carol services, crackers, Santa’s grotto and nativity plays just like anywhere else

But that’s not the end of the story of Christmas in Shetland. In the 16th century, Pope Gregory introduced the Gregorian Calendar to bring the calendar year back in line with solar equinoxes; as a result, the dates all shifted, bringing Christmas (or Yule) forward ten days. Shetland was slow to adopt these changes, and Christmas and New Year were still held on the old dates (5th January and 12th January). Even today the island of Foula, Shetland’s most westerly outpost, still celebrates Christmas and New Year according to the old calendar. So, as you tuck into your Christmas dinner, remember that for some in Shetland, Christmas has yet to come!

Information from Traditional Life in Shetland and Shetland Folklore by JR Nicolson, and Shetland Traditional Lore by Jessie Saxby

Posted in: Heritage

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