Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Having Fun with Festive Customs

Writing a festive romance set in Scotland I was, quite literally, in my element. My mother’s family hail from the Isle of Lewis, a brooding and romantic landscape awash with ancient traditions and customs, some of them pre-dating Christianity. When I was a wee lassie, my maternal grandfather, a sea captain, filled my head with his stories of selkies and mermaids, sea sirens and sea ghosts. I was terrified and fascinated in equal parts. It seemed to me that the high seas were chock full of creatures (mostly women and often in the form of seals) who spent their days trying to lure poor innocent sailors to their death.

My Nana, who was a herring girl in her youth, was even more superstitious. It seemed that the wee people, or faeries, had it in for bairns on the islands every bit as much as the sea sirens had it in for sailors. Faeries were always on the lookout for new borns, which they would replace with their own changlings if they got half a chance. During childbirth, mirrors were covered to stop them stealing the baby’s image, and a cross of rowan was laid on the birthing bed to scare them off. When the mother was ‘churched’ after the birth, hot coals and peat were thrown behind the procession to make sure no faery could follow. Making a cradle from sacred woods such as elder, oak or rowan would keep the babe safe, as would the father’s dirk, or dagger, placed under the bairn’s pillow.

My maternal grandparents, whose stories inspired several of mine
The fairies my Nana talked about were not, you’ll have gathered, the pretty, playful wee things you see in story books. Many Scottish New Year traditions have at their root this need to keep the mischief-makers, sometimes called Kelpies, out of the house. Take the obsessive cleaning that still goes on, for example. The house must be gleaming, and I mean gleaming, when midnight strikes. Not a dust mote under the beds, not a teaspoon in the sink can there be, for it would mean a dirty home for the rest of the year, and the dirt gave a faery somewhere to hide.  

Clootie dumpling. a Scottish delicacy!
Rowan brings luck, and hazel wards off evil spirits. Both of these are traditionally hung over the front door on Hogmanay. The door is opened as midnight strikes to let out the old year and let in the new, so the rowan and hazel make sure that no wee people can dive in. Sometimes the old year is literally swept out the door.
An Invitation to Pleasure, my latest ‘Undone’ short story, takes place over Christmas and New Year, and contains a lot of customs, not all of which are Highland. The stirring of the pudding is actually a an English tradition which I adopted. Fergus and Susannah, my hero and heroine, stir a Clootie dumpling, which was my paternal grandmother’s speciality. Made with suet, treacle and rich with fruit, it is cooked in a muslin (actually, my Gran used an old pillow case) and can be eaten hot with cream or custard, or fried up for breakfast. My Gran made me one every year for my birthday. I loathe dried fruit of any kind, but every year I’d smile happily and nibble daintily, then pass the whole lot to my mother – who loved it. Gran put sixpences and thruppences in the pudding for luck. When we went decimal, it just wasn’t the same.

The bundling board, a huge bit of wood which divides up the bed Susannah and Fergus sleep in, is another real Highland tradition. Unlike my hero and heroine, the courting couples were, in reality, fully-clothed, in fact the lass’s legs may even have been tied up in a bolster cover just to keep her ‘safe’, but bundling was an accepted custom in the days when courtship was long and drawn-out while the couple saved to marry.
Feet washing is another Highland custom that I adapted. Traditionally, the groom’s feet are washed by his friends the night before the wedding. It’s a raucous and by the sounds of it painful ceremony involving boot-blacking and scrubbing brushes. I thought it would be much more fun to have the groom wash the bride’s feet though. Fergus uses wine and not water to bathe Susannah’s feet, and this part of the ceremony is true to tradition – wine instead of water being used for high-ranking men such as the laird. The other part of the ceremony, relating to a ring – now that, I did make up.

Christmas Day here in Argyll two years ago 
Christmas Day itself in the Highlands used to be much more about the church than celebrating. My mum remembers going to church three times every Sunday when she holidayed in Lewis. There was no cooking, no playing on the Sabbath, no reading of anything but the bible. She was severely chastised for reading a comic once. It is only very recently that ferries have started running, and some woman have even dared to hang out their washing, behaviour so scandalous that it was reported in the press. Christmas Day was definitely not a party day in the Highlands. Which explains why Hogmanay in Scotland is one big party.

After the old year has been swept out, the anxious wait begins for the first foot – the first stranger through the door. A red-head is incredibly unlucky, as is a female. Best of all is a dark-haired man, and if he’s carrying a lump of coal then your luck is made. Black bun is the traditional Hogmanay cake, another of those fruit-rich concoctions that my Gran used to make and I cannot abide, though I’m very fond of shortie. And once that’s all over, it’s ceilidh time – though not, of course, on the dreadful days when New Year’s Day fell on the Sabbath, when the fiddles and pipes had to wait an extra day to be aired.

I had fun using a mixture of real and imagined Scottish festive customs and I hope they lend colour and atmosphere to the story. I’d love to know what  traditions or customs do you hold dear?

An Invitation to Pleasure is out now in the UK, US and Canada in digital format only. My other Christmas story set in the Highlands, Spellbound and Seduced, is available in digital format in the UK, US and Canada, and also in a print anthology (UK only), Sinful Regency Christmas anthology with four other seasonal shorts.

There’s excerpts, background and more about my books on www.margueritekaye.com. I’m always happy to chat on Facebook or Twitter. And if you want to see the ideas and inspiration behind some of my stories then check out my boards on Pinterest


Barbara Monajem said...

Such fun, Marguerite. I've been researching folklore for some stories I'm writing, and there were indeed a ton of scary stories about faeries and suchlike in Scotland.

Nice to see what the clootie dumpling looks like. I love all kinds of dried fruit, so I'm sure I would gobble it up. And the black bun, too. :~)

Barbara Monajem said...

I forgot to mention -- when researching for my current release, A Lady's Lesson in Seduction (which is also a holiday story), I tried making lamb's wool, which is a kind of wassail drink. It's made of beer, apples, and spices and when it's done right, it tastes fabulous. (I'm assuming I got it right the second try. ;))

Cheryl St.John said...

The clootie dumpling resembles a loaf of bread, but sounds like a fruitcake. What does it taste like?

Ann Lethbridge said...

Such a great post, Marguerite. I must say I have to be grateful we don't have the house cleaning one anymore. But perhaps that accounts for the ongoing dust bunnies. :)

Marguerite Kaye said...

I've never heard of Lamb's Wool Barbara, but it sounds delicious - that's just the kind of research I like.

Cheryl, it is like a very solid fruit cake with raisins and sultanas in it, though not quite so sweet because it's got suet (real, proper animal suet) in it, which gives it a more bready texture. My mum prefers it fried and served for breakfast as a savoury to having it as dessert, but since I never, ever eat it, I'm afraid I don't know how it compares with, for example, Dundee cake.

Ann, sadly the house cleaning is one custom that my mum has beaten into me (not literally!) - I'm just as manic as she is at five to midnight. We also have a 'last meal' just before the bells at midnight, though some people serve it as their first meal after the bells - I have no idea why on that one.