Christmas in Aberdeen is a time for… schoolboy riots, murder and blood sacrifice.
These are just some of the astonishing incidents that have happened in the north-east around Yuletide, set to be revealed in a festive talk by local historian Dr Fiona-Jane Brown, of Hidden Aberdeen Tours.
The fascinating stories, ranging from how Santa Claus, well St Nicholas, became Aberdeen’s patron saint, to the Christmas lights of Union Street, will be told online on Monday.
Fiona-Jane said An Aberdonian Christmas – Yuletide Through The Ages In The Granite City will be a chance to bask in nostalgia while stuck at home, with a virtual celebration of the city’s festive highlights of yesteryear.
Old-style Yuletide celebrations
“I think a lot of people are not aware of half of the stuff about Christmas in Aberdeen,” she said. “There are a lot of fascinating things that are a result of the old-style, pre-Reformation Yuletide celebrations. Most folk think of Union Street Christmas lights, but there is a thousand years’ worth, at least, of Yuletide stuff I have been delving into.”
Fiona-Jane said festivities and rituals at this time of year stretch back to pagan times, when people marked the Winter Solstice on the shortest day of the year. That was the origin of Yuletide, which over the centuries has become co-mingled with Christmas and New Year celebrations.
“Certainly in Aberdeenshire you have the Burning of the Clavie at Burghead,” said Fiona-Jane. “Started by the fisher folk, it derived from the New Year tradition of burning away all the evil spirits with fire and making sure you have prosperity for the coming year.
“And there was a weird tradition, recorded back in the 1920s by Peter Anson who was actually a monk who lived in Macduff and wrote books about fisher beliefs. He recorded that on the first day of fishing in the New Year, you had to draw blood. It was like a blood sacrifice. So somebody had to skelp someone in the face, or something like that.”
Patron saint of fishermen
In the Christian era, St Nicholas was adopted as the patron saint of Aberdeen and the city’s first church, the Mither Kirk, was named for him.
“The main reason was that he was the patron of fishermen and Aberdeen has been a fishing community since pre-Roman times. He was also the patron of bachelors and male students and we were a student town,” said Fiona-Jane.
St Nicholas also helped the needy and went on to become tied into the custom of giving gifts at Christmas. In Holland he was Sint Nikolaas, nicknamed Sinterklass – Santa Claus.
Christmas continued to be a time for momentous events for Aberdeen, including when Alexander II celebrated the sacred day at his palace, where Schoolhill is today, and confirmed a guild charter to the city burgesses, helping boost the prosperity of the growing city.
Christmas was also the time of some more notorious events – including a riot in 1612 by Grammar School boys, incensed that their festive holidays were cut short after the Reformation.
“December 21 was St Thomas’s Day and originally the day the Grammar School boys went on holiday and they were off until Epiphany, the sixth of January. With the Julian calendar that was the old Christmas or Aul’ Eel – old Yule,” said Fiona-Jane.
Armed with swords and pistols
“But the Grammar School boys got very, very angry when the reformed Kirk tried to take away their rights for this long holiday. They caused trouble to the extent of causing a serious riot. You have to remember the Grammar School was Aberdeen’s only private school at the time, so all the sons of noblemen went to it.
“These teenagers literally did have a riot. They got a hold of their fathers’ swords and pistols and holed themselves up in the Song School that used to be in Back Wynd and was part of the Mither Kirk. They were there for three days until they got hungry. Twelve of them got arrested and chucked in the Tolbooth.”
Fiona-Jane will also evoke more recent memories with a look at the city’s Christmas lights and the way “local emporia” tried to entice customers into their shops. That includes the glittering displays at the Northern Co-op’s arcade on Loch Street that were famed across the city and a highlight of the festive season in the Granite City.
Of course, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a ghost story and Fiona-Jane has a couple up her sleeve for her online celebration.
Planets align for ‘Christmas star’
“One is a ghost that resulted because of a Christmas murder outside the New Inn – where Archibald Simpson’s is – on December 21st 1763. It resulted in the death of a very important Aberdeenshire nobleman and his ghost has never left his home since.”
Fiona-Jane said Monday is an auspicious day to hold her online Zoom celebration of the city’s Yuletide past.
“It is the shortest day of the year and it’s on the day when Saturn and Jupiter will align to give us a ‘Christmas star’,” she said.
“Also, I don’t know if it’s because of Covid, but this year we all seem to be completely tuned in to nostalgia. The other night I went for a drive with my pal round all the Christmas lights and it was fantastic, people have so engaged with seasonal festivals this year. It is good to look at the traditions behind it.”
Tickets are available to join the talk from the Hidden Aberdeen Tours website. If you can’t join on Zoom on Monday, the session will be recorded and sent on to those who have purchased tickets.