Tales of Christmas past at Edinburgh Castle

Charles Dickens (played by Alastair Strachan) working on his latest novel in the Great Hall at Edinburgh Castle. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Charles Dickens (played by Alastair Strachan) working on his latest novel in the Great Hall at Edinburgh Castle. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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IT is one of the most famous Christmas stories, a classic case of good conquering evil.

But while the story of A Christmas Carol has been retold countless times everywhere from the page to the stage, it may come as a surprise to most that the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge actually originated in an Edinburgh cemetery.

“Charles Dickens was visiting Edinburgh giving a talk and while he was killing some time beforehand, he took a walk round the Canongate graveyard,” explains Mike Newcomen, a living history presenter.

“He used to wander around graveyards and alter names from the headstones to put in his books.

“He saw the headstone for Ebenezer Scroggie who was a meal merchant who sold oatmeal in the city. On the headstone it said ‘meal man’ and Dickens misread that as ‘mean man’.”

The story is one of many Mike will tell to visitors to Edinburgh Castle this weekend as part of Historic Scotland’s Tales and Traditions of a Victorian Christmas.

It will provide a calming haven for those keen to escape the commercial aspects of Christmas and transport themselves back to simpler times.

Taking place in the Castle’s Great Hall, visitors will learn where commonplace festive traditions such as sending cards and putting up Christmas trees originated.

“A lot of things we associate with Christmas date back to Victorian times and don’t go much further back than that,” explains Mike. “The origins of the first Christmas tree in Britain, the Christmas cracker, Boxing Day – these are all things which date back to the Victorian period.”

The first Christmas cracker was created by a man called Tom Smith in 1846. “He took the idea from a visit to Paris,” says Mike. “He saw people making big sweets for the women at Christmas – that’s why a cracker looks like a big sweet. He put notes in the crackers and gifts and party hats. Supposedly he was standing by the fireplace one night and heard the fire crackling, giving him the idea for the bang.”

According to Mike, the term Boxing Day came from the fact that servants – who always worked on Christmas Day – were given a gift by the house owners they worked for on December 26. These gifts – usually money or food – were presented to them in a box, coining the term Boxing Day.

And for an even bigger step back in time, join Mary, Queen of Scots for an insight into how Christmas was celebrated 1566 style in the Castle’s Very Mary Christmas events.

Visitors will be greeted at a party in the Great Hall by the Queen herself as she enlightens them about the festive traditions she would have partaken in – which were of a rather cloak and dagger nature.

Jackie Lee, director of Artemis Scotland – which is providing the costumed Mary for Edinburgh Castle – says: “Being a Catholic she celebrated Christmas whereas Scots didn’t. Her Catholicism was frowned upon but she definitely did celebrate Christmas.”

Those who venture into the Great Hall will be treated to some traditional dance lessons and will learn about festive traditions from the era – such as the King or Queen of the Bean game where whoever found the bean baked into a cake would become an honorary King or Queen for the evening.

Nick Finnigan, executive manager of Edinburgh Castle, says: “Christmas is a magical time at the Castle and our seasonal costumed performers will be on hand to provide our visitors with a taste of Christmases past.

“This year people can enjoy tales of a Dickensian Christmas from December 20 to 23 and meet ‘Dickens’ who will explain how Edinburgh provided the inspiration for one of his most famous characters – Ebenezer Scrooge.

“Meanwhile on Christmas Eve and also from December 27 to 31, they can meet ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ who will regale them with tales of how Christmas may have been celebrated in renaissance times.

“We hope that visitors enjoy their walk through Christmases past and look forward to welcoming them to the Castle.”

Tales and Traditions of a Victorian Christmas runs from today until Tuesday. Storytelling session take place four times each day in the Great Hall – at 11.15am, 12.15am, 2pm and 3pm.

A Very Mary Christmas will run from December 27 to 31 – again with four sessions per day at the same times.

There will also be a special Christmas Eve appearance from Mary, Queen of Scots.

For more information, visit www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk.