Memories of Edinburgh’s Christmases past

Crowds gather at The Mound in Edinburgh to watch the lights of the Norwegian Christmas tree being switched on, December 1988. Picture: TSPL

Crowds gather at The Mound in Edinburgh to watch the lights of the Norwegian Christmas tree being switched on, December 1988. Picture: TSPL

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There was a time when Edinburgh’s Christmas was a much simpler affair, an era when young and old descended on Waverley Market to enjoy the quaint fairground delights of its Christmas Carnival, mulled over which of the city’s numerous department store Grottos to visit, and swamped the Mound in their hundreds to witness the switching on of the big Christmas tree.

The tree on the Mound was first installed in 1949, a gift from the people of Denmark to “cement the friendship between the two countries”.

Michael Fielden (4) and Father Christmas at Waverley station beside the Santa Special in December 1986. Picture: TSPL

Michael Fielden (4) and Father Christmas at Waverley station beside the Santa Special in December 1986. Picture: TSPL

The first tree measured 58 feet high and was festooned with 1000 fairy lights. It took hold as a tradition throughout the 50s and 60s, attracting large crowds for the annual switch-on. Today the tradition continues, though for the past three decades the tree, while still Scandinavia-grown, has been a gift from Norway, as a mark of appreciation for Scotland’s assistance during the Second World War.

Speaking of Christmas trees, the Mound’s wasn’t the only ‘show’ in town. They could be found all over Edinburgh – even in the austere post-war years.

The city’s two main railway stations each had their own, Princes Street Station at the West End being particularly memorable as it featured a model railway set circling the tree’s base.

Leith’s main Christmas tree in the early 50s could be found at Taylor Gardens just off Great Junction Street, the location eventually shifting to the New Kirkgate following its construction in the 1960s.

The Cameronians Christmas children's party at Redford Barracks in December 1964. Picture: 
Carluke and Lanark Gazette

The Cameronians Christmas children's party at Redford Barracks in December 1964. Picture: Carluke and Lanark Gazette

Just like today, children of Edinburgh Christmas past weren’t satisfied without a trip to see Santa at his grotto – and there were plenty to choose from. As if by magic, Santa managed to appear in most of the city’s major department stores, with the grottos at Jenners, Patrick Thomson’s, Binns, and Goldbergs all choc-a-bloc with youngsters. The Santa’s Grotto tradition is strong with Edinburgh hosting its first at 79 George Street way back in 1859 – the earliest example in the world, as revealed in last Tuesday’s Evening News.

Some stores went to great lengths to promote the festive season. In 1955 Patrick Thomson’s on North Bridge billed itself as “The Store of a Thousand Gifts” and heralded in the start of the festive season by staging a grand event which involved Santa Claus descending an enormous golden staircase from the building’s upper reaches down to the street below. A tremendous crowd was in attendance to witness the moment – as was a Scotsman photographer, conveniently situated in the newspaper’s offices directly opposite the famous department store.

And in 1965, Santa made his most dramatic appearance yet, touching down on Leith Links by helicopter with a sack full of toys to dish out to throngs of delighted local kids.

Annual “Santa Specials” departing from Waverley Station also proved hugely popular throughout the years. The vintage steam excursions saw Santa giving out presents to boys and girls aboard the train.

Nearby Waverley Market was a huge draw for festive crowds. The market’s main hall, although not quite large enough for a Star Flyer or Christmas wheel, was filled with a variety of fairground attractions to keep the bairns amused. The old Waverley Market was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the shopping centre which initially bore the same name when it opened in 1985.

Christmas street decorations in 50s and 60s Edinburgh were far removed from the explosion of light and colour which we bear witness to today. While most of the big shops made a considerable effort to bedeck their frontages in all manner of Yuletide cheer, the arrays of bright bulbs hanging from one side of the street to the other didn’t become a regular feature until the early 1970s.

On Princes Street, a series of iron tripods were erected. Originally designed for the Edinburgh International Festival, these cost-effective, permanent fixtures were decorated with a brilliant array of moving lights every Christmas, bringing the empty side of Princes Street to life with a veritable parade of festive illuminations.

And if any of this has left you misty-eyed or craving a trip to Christmas past, just be thankful that most of us have tomorrow off, and remember that Christmas Day didn’t become a public holiday until 1958.