Gardens to Gables

Christmas in Edinburgh, Scotland

I will always associate Edinburgh with Christmas. The capital city of Scotland boasts an impressive history, and the architecture ranges from ancient to avant-garde, which creates an exciting (if sometimes contentious) city environment. But for me, the flavor of Edinburgh – and I include the smog of roasting malt that drifts across the city – is always tinged with Christmas. Even the craggy landscape surrounding the city takes on a heightened sense of romance during December.

Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

My first trip to England was over Christmas, and it seemed to me, as I walked up and down the Royal Mile, that Christmas and Edinburgh belonged together. In the years since that first trip, the holiday season in Edinburgh has become a major tourist draw, with festivals and parties to suit most everyone – as well as a Ferris wheel and ice rink.

The Ferris wheel at the center of Edinburgh. Image from Wikimedia Commons, photo by Magnus Hagdorn.

The largest open air ice rink in Europe is open in Edinburgh during the winter, set up on Princess Street Gardens. A Ferris wheel over 100 feet high provides an amazing view over Edinburgh.  Shopping opportunities, including the German Christmas Market, appear unlimited, but if you prefer a slightly more low-key celebration, it is possible to walk the Royal Mile and take in the Christmas spirit, and also get a glimpse into the history of the city, and of its buildings.

Edinburgh has two distinct historic parts: the medieval Old Town, and the 18th century New Town.

The former has winding, cobblestone streets, and at one end, upon Castle Rock (and it sounds like Game of Thrones, but it’s not) is Edinburgh Castle, and at the other end, the Palace of Holyroodhouse (official residence of the Queen in Scotland).

The Palace of Holyroodhouse. Image from Wikimedia Commons, photograpgh by Scott Marsland

The orderly arrangement of New Town was a reaction to the organic muddle of the old town, with roots in the Scottish Enlightenment. Located north of Old Town, the new area became the refuge of the wealthy, and retains many of its elegant Georgian buildings.

The two towns are linked by “the mound,” an artificially constructed hill (begun in 1781 and not finished until 1830) that sports a number of the city’s most impressive institutional buildings, and at Christmas, a 20-foot Christmas tree, a gift from the people of Norway. It is incredibly moving to attend the tree lighting and amidst all the lights and festivities think about the fact that the tree is in remembrance of the aid that Scotland gave during World War II. (New York, London, and Washington, DC also receive trees from Norway for this very reason)

The Christmas tree on the mound in Edinburgh. Image from Edinburgh Spotlight.

Edinburgh Castle is striking at any season, but during Christmas, the castle engages in its own time travel spree: there is a Dickens Christmas, with costumed actors bringing the classics to life (in a setting the author may well have never imagined); or perhaps you can visit with ladies-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots, and eavesdrop on their holiday plans. On New Year’s Day and January 2, Cromwell’s men occupy the castle, and visitors can learn about the Great Hall’s transformation into a barracks during the English Civil War.

Edinburgh Castle on the left. Image from Wikimedia Commons, photo by Kim Traynor.

I have attended many church services in Britain – the country’s churches and cathedrals are like catmint for architecture lovers. But attending Christmas Eve services at St. Giles Cathedral – the High Kirk of Edinburgh – makes one feel both small and at the same time, interconnected to the all of the joy (and sorrow) of the Christmas season.

St. Giles is the Mother Church of Presbyterianism and contains the Chapel of the Order of the Thistle (Scotland’s chivalric company of knights headed by the Queen). John Knox, leader of the Reformation in Scotland, served as minister at St. Giles until his death.

The west elevation of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Image from Wikimedia Commons, photo by Carlos Delgado.

St. Giles’ beginnings go back to the 1120s, and its founding by the Scottish royal family. The original building might have fit into a corner of the present cathedral – its small footprint and likely understated Norman architecture would be lost in today’s elaborately ornate building.

The Gothic style followed, and between 1385 and the mid 1500s, numerous chapels were added to the church. One of the most interesting things about the Cathedral’s history is how it was used after the Reformation: for over 300 years it was church, as well as a police station, fire station, school and meeting place for both Parliament and the town council.  The Cathedral Choir of St. Giles holds an annual Christmas concert in Parliament Square, which is amazing.

Fireworks in Edinburgh on New Year’s Eve. Image from Wikimedia Commons, photo by Robbie Shade.

Christmas in Edinburgh can be amazing (just remember that unlike the States, lots of places close up on Christmas Eve) – and if you happen to be there for Hogmanay – you can participate in an ancient Scottish tradition.  Hogmanay is the Scottish word for the last day of the year, our New Year’s Eve – and in Edinburgh it has become an enormous festival. Our custom of singing “Auld Lang Syne” in the States is a Hogmanay tradition …and I wouldn’t mind borrowing some of Edinburgh’s three days of celebrations, complete with concerts and fireworks.  Of course, I would then need to borrow three days to recover… which sounds like a nice tradition itself!

 

This post originally appeared on the Smitten by Britain website in December 2013. 

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