Shetland Christmas Past
Shetlanders today celebrate Christmas in much the same way as people anywhere else in Britain. There are the carols, the presents, the sherry, the turkey, the crackers, the church services late on Christmas Eve and the family gatherings on Christmas Day. There are also, of course, the raised eyebrows when mince pies and plastic holly appear in the shops a little earlier every year.
Centuries ago, things were rather different. Accounts of earlier Christmases barely refer to "Christmas" at all. The festival was Yule, which had ancient pagan roots and was closely linked to the turning of the year and the lengthening of the days. As Christianity spread, old festivals like Yule were adapted in order to fit a new Christian calendar.
Yule didn't last for just a day or two; in fact it was referred to as "the Yules". Yule Day was originally on 23 December and the festivities began a week before that, but went on for a month. Yule was a blend of celebration and tradition with a very large helping of superstition. In Shetland, the Trows – obsessively acquisitive little people, with magical powers, who lived in caves or rocky mounds – were never far from people's minds. On Tulya's E'en– seven days before Yule Day – Trows were supposed to have permission to leave their hideouts and live above ground, if they wanted to. At dusk, humans took various precautions in order to guard life and property. Two straws were taken from the stock of corn and hay, formed into a cross and laid at the stile or gate leading into the yard where the corn and hay were stored. A hair was taken from the tail of each cow or other animal; the hairs were pleated and fastened over the byre door. Finally, just to make sure that the Trows were kept at bay, a blazing peat was carried through all the outhouses.
A day later came Helya's nicht, when hot milk and meal were eaten, and this was followed by Tammasmas (a reference to St Thomas), which may have been a Christian adaptation of the earlier Tundiman's Nicht. No work was to be done after dusk on Tammasmas and breaking that rule was bound to bring bad luck: in this old rhyme, "dül" means sorrow:
The very babe unborn cries, "Oh dül, dül",
For the brakkin o" Tammasmas Nicht
Five nichts afore Yule.
On the Sunday before Yule Day, called Byaena's Day, supper consisted of half a cow's head, boiled; a sheep's head (or other animal's) would be used if no cow was available. Brose was made with bursteen (a kind of oatmeal) and fat from the cooking liquid. The skull was cleaned and a candle was stuck in the eye-socket, ready for Yule morning when it would be carried through the house.
On Yule Eve, even the poorest family would have meat of some kind. Everyone washed themselves from head to toe. Three blazing pieces of peat were dropped into the water when hands or feet were put in, otherwise the Trows would take the power from them. People put on clean (preferably, new) nightclothes, tidied the house and hid away anything that was "unkirsin" (unchristian). Locks were opened, a light was left on and an iron blade was left near the door, as Trows were apparently put off by iron.
Before dawn on Yule day, the candle in the cow's skull was lit and carried through the house and byre, where the cattle received a bit more food than usual. There was an early-morning dram, offered to young and old alike, followed by a candlelit breakfast around a big fire. Fiddlers would play "The Day Dawn".
Yule cakes were made for everyone in the house. They were round, but had points around the outside and a hole in the middle, symbolising the sun. One account suggests that, as turkeys and geese were rare, wild ducks would be captured early in December and fattened, with cloves and "spice-grass" in the diet, producing a delicious flavour. Salted or fresh mutton, beef or pork, along with salt or dried fish, would also feature through the Yule days. There would probably be a version of black pudding. Buns flavoured with spices and peel were made and imported treats such as oranges and dates became more widespread with the passage of time. A potato soup made with reestit mutton (mutton steeped in brine, then dried) was - and still is today - an essential part of the celebrations.
Yule Day was emphatically a day of rest, although apparently football, indoor games and dancing were allowed. In the growing town of Lerwick, there developed a tradition involving the dragging of a barrel of burning tar through the streets. So messy and dangerous was this that the burghers of the town eventually transformed that particular tradition into the version of Up-Helly-A that is nowadays celebrated, minus tar barrels but with hundreds of torches, on the last Tuesday in January.
There was also much visiting of neighbours over Yule. This pattern – and the prohibition on work – continued until Neuersday (New Year's Day), when the period of rest was brought to an end, symbolically, by everyone doing a little. Men would fish for an hour or so, women would begin some knitting or do some mending and fishing gear was repaired.
Work and play continued from then until twenty-fourth night – which was called Up-helly-a, meaning the end of the holiday or sacred time. On Up-helly-a night, there was dancing in any available barn; again, all sorts of precautions were taken against those troublesome Trows. Young men in disguise, carrying torches, moved in procession around the community and at midnight the torches were used to light a huge bonfire, banishing the Trows. When day dawned on the morning after Up-helly-a, the Yules were over.
In some respects, Yule may still have more of a hold in Shetland than in other places. The period from around Christmas to late January is still a time when people remark on the lengthening days – which are especially welcome at this latitude – and there's still a sense of celebration right through that period, with fire festivals involving torches and guizers not just in Lerwick but elsewhere. The islands" literary magazine, The New Shetlander, still adheres to Yule in naming the quarterly edition that appears in December.
Finally, mention must be made of another unusual aspect of the Shetland Christmas. The old Julian calendar survived rather longer in Shetland than elsewhere, so – well into the 19th century – Christmas was celebrated on 5 January and New Year on 12 January. On our westernmost island, Foula, which is about sixteen miles from the west mainland of Shetland, the islanders still observe the old Julian calendar rather than the modern Gregorian one. However, because they ignored a leap year in 1800, they celebrate Christmas on 6 January and New Year on 13 January.
This article draws heavily on material from the Shetland Museum and Archives, in particular Saxby, J.M.E (1932), Shetland Traditional Lore, Edinburgh, Grant & Murray. We are very grateful to Joanne Wishart at the Archives for her assistance.