Tuesday 6 December 2022

Christmas and Mary, Queen of Scots by Barbara Henderson

As I write this blog post, Christmas lights are everywhere. The shops are blaring out the same melodies, shoppers crowd the streets and there is a Christmas tree in every second window already.
It is hard to imagine that not so very long ago, Christmas celebrations were frowned upon in this country. I share a December birthday with the famous Mary, Queen of Scots. Both of us were born on the 8th of December, in the run up to Christmas. You may not be aware, but Mary’s father died days after her birth in 1542. He had recently sustained a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss. Bruised and ailing, he visited his pregnant wife at Linlithgow Palace before travelling on to Falkland Palace where he took to his bed with a fever. When he heard that his wife, the French-born Mary of Guise had given birth to a girl rather than the hoped-for male heir, it is said that he turned his face to the wall and died of despair!
Mary Queen of Scots' parents: James V and Mary of Guise 

Poor Mary didn’t have the easiest start in life. England’s King Henry VIII was outraged that Mary was not promised to his own son in marriage and proceeded to ransack Scotland in a period called the Rough Wooing. Mary was sent to France for her own safety and married the Dauphin of France, the Crown Prince, briefly becoming France’s Queen – and still only a teenager. When her young husband died and she lost her position, she chose to return to Scotland and claim her throne. Her first Christmas in Scotland did not quite go to plan for the catholic Mary, used to the extravagant feasting and the celebrations of the French Court. No, both Scotland and England were now protestant, and Christmas feasting was frowned upon by strict reformers like the influential John Knox. No-one even got Christmas day off!
The statue of reformer John Knox in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

It hadn’t always been like this. Mary’s catholic grandfather, James IV had celebrated Yuletide at the local Abbey and commissioned elaborate clothes to be made for the occasion which were to be left in front of his door on Christmas morning. There was a High Mass, nativity plays, poems and even aerial acrobatics. Courtiers would sing carols at their King’s door. 
By contrast, Mary - widowed already at 18 - had left a catholic country behind. Her designs for her first Christmas as monarch of Scotland were quickly frustrated. For a start, she was was told that she couldn’t have the music or the dancing she craved – in fact, the musicians refused to sing at all, afraid of repercussions in this newly protestant country. An envoy to the court declared that Mary was ‘upset’. However, Mary did manage to sneak some of her favourite celebrations in at the later date of 6th January, the end of the twelve days of Christmas.
Barbara outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse

We have good records of the Festival of the Bean, for example. A cake was made, and a bean baked into it. Whoever’s slice of cake contained the bean became the ‘Queen of the Bean’. Queen Mary’s friend and companion Mary Fleming won it one year and became the Queen of the Bean for the day. She was allowed to wear the Queen’s silver dress and her necklace of rubies, and to be treated like the Queen herself. What fun! Fancy a game of ‘Festival of the Bean’ yourself this year? What special treatment will the winner receive? Will they get the TV remote?
Mary was famed for her stylish and extravagant dresses

Less than a hundred years later, by the year 1640, it was illegal in Scotland to celebrate Christmas at all. And it would take till 1928 for people to get Christmas Day off work!

Barbara Henderson is the author of six historical novels for children. You can find out more about her on her website. Her new book, Rivet Boy, will be published in February 2023.

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