A (Not So White) Edinburgh Christmas

Christmas is a week from today! I’ve been faithfully opening the windows on my advent calendar and counting down the days. However, there are still three long days between me and my flight, and I can honestly say that I’m itching for home, where there’s snow on the ground and a Christmas tree in the living room and eggnog in the fridge. In Edinburgh it’s wet and windy, Christmas trees are banned in Darroch Court, and good luck trying to find eggnog in the Tesco! I’ve been open-minded about trying Scottish Christmas foods (and I apologize to any fans of the dish), but I cannot stand mince pies. I firmly believe that suet has no place in a pie. Although I’m longing for certain American Christmas traditions, I can’t deny that Edinburgh celebrates Christmas in style.

The German Christmas Market, as seen from Edinburgh Castle.
The German Christmas Market, as seen from Edinburgh Castle.

The enormous German Christmas Market in the East Princes Street Gardens boasts a Ferris Wheel, a carousel, an ice rink, a Christmas Tree Maze, Santa’s Grotto, and the miniature Santa Train. The stalls offer sausages, pretzels, mulled everything, chocolate fountains, Belgian waffles, crepes, coffee beans, trinkets, ornaments, textiles, leather goods, candles, toys, crystals, pottery—something for just about everyone on your shopping list. The Ethical Christmas Fair is just down the street, and the adjoining market in St. Andrew’s Square boasts the Star Flyer (which I would not trust in the high Edinburgh winds, but some people seem to enjoy). I’m lucky that such incredible Christmas shopping is at my doorstep, and that I have something to distract me while I impatiently count down the days until my flight home.

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However, in my exploration of this winter wonderland I have found that American and Scottish Christmas customs differ slightly. I am sometimes surprised by the absence of a treasured American food item, or the presence of an unexpected Scottish tradition. Here is a brief guidebook for the North American traveler, to help prepare you for things that you may or may not encounter during Christmas in Edinburgh:

Mulled wine/beer/cider: Yes!
Apple cider: No.
Mince pies: Yes!
Pumpkin pie: No.
Plum pudding: Yes!
Eggnog: No.
Eggnog lattes: Yes!
Rain: Yes!
Wind: Yes!
Snow: No.
Santa Runs: Yes!
Department Store Santas: No.
Michael Buble: Yes!
Mariah Carey: No.

This past weekend, after my exams had finally ended, I had the pleasure of hosting my wonderful friend Chelsea! We grew up together in Bryn Athyn, but she is now quite the world citizen. Her family lives in Colchester, and she has just returned from a semester abroad in Italy. It was exhilarating and more than a little surreal to spend so much time with a close friend from home. It was also incredibly satisfying to show off all the best parts of my city—there’s nothing to make you appreciate a place like showing it off to a wide-eyed spectator. There’s no shortage of things to do in Edinburgh, and I was a proud tour guide.

St. Giles' Cathedral (and Christmas tree!)
St. Giles’ Cathedral (and a Christmas tree!)

Chelsea only had three full days in the city, so we packed in the fun, visiting the Castle, Dynamic Earth, the Christmas Markets, the Elephant House Café, the Curious Tea Rooms, the Salisbury Crags, and many of my favorite pubs. Her first night in town coincided with a friend’s birthday, and so we celebrated at a Wetherspoon’s in New Town with many of my classmates from the department of Celtic and Scottish Studies. We enjoyed mulled cider and good conversation, and successfully fended off a couple of inebriated (but very polite) Welsh men.

It comes in pints!!!
It comes in pints!!!

Speaking of the department, I didn’t expect to end up spending so much time in Celtic and Scottish Studies this year, but I am really glad that it turned out this way. I’m supposed to be an English Literature major, with an emphasis on creative writing, but because I’m a visiting student I was only allowed to take one English course per semester this year. (Don’t ask me why—apparently there is an excess of English Lit students, or something like that, and so generally the courses are too full for visiting students to land spots).

It’s a small and friendly department, and everyone knows each other, so in some ways it reminds me of the atmosphere at Bryn Athyn College. I’m continually fascinated by the politics surrounding Gaelic and other Celtic languages, Scottish independence, and the endangered traditions of the Highlands and Islands. I’m continuing Gaelic next term, and now that I’m finished with Scotland and Orality I’ll be taking Visualizing Scotland. I think it’s the work of fate that I landed in such a small, fascinating and close-knit department. I’m learning things here that I won’t be able to learn anywhere else in the world, and as an added bonus, I get to travel to Islay for a week in February with my classmates to take some extra Gaelic courses!

Over the weekend Chelsea and I were also lucky enough to see White Christmas at the Edinburgh Festival Theater! Theater tickets are far cheaper here than they are in the States, and we were thrilled with our seats. The musical was of the highest quality, and the actors were all very talented, but we couldn’t help giggling over their attempted American accents. Lets just say that at least they tried. I give the cast an A for effort and a C- for execution. But we didn’t mind, and at the end of the show, when the snow fell on the audience and the actors invited us to join them in singing  “White Christmas,” I have to admit I teared up a little bit.

The fairy lights on Victoria Street
The fairy lights on Victoria Street

Chelsea mentioned that one thing that struck her during her visit to Edinburgh was the friendliness of the people, and all of the strange and wonderful interactions that we had with shopkeepers and strangers on the street. I hadn’t realized until she mentioned it how much I talk to shopkeepers. I didn’t used to—I’m very shy, and it took moving to a foreign country by myself before I could work up the courage to say more than ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to a stranger. But I’ve had to ask for help and advice often, and Edinburghers (yes, real word) really are lovely for the most part. Eventually I realized that I had nothing to be afraid of. Most people really do want to talk, and often you’ll find that they have wonderful stories to tell. I’ve met several fellow Philadelphians this way, as well as fellow Gaelic learners, dancers, and writers. The ticket man at Dynamic Earth was familiar with Commedia dell’arte, an Italian form of theater that Chelsea learned this semester, and the waitress at a restaurant we ate at turned out to be one of my classmates. Edinburgh really is a small world, and that can be very comforting.

Conquering the city!
Conquering the city!

It was so wonderful seeing an old friend, and I am just glad that Chelsea survived her visit, and wasn’t blown off the Salisbury Crags and to her death. (It was a close call—the wind blew me off my feet once, and we had to hold on tight to our earmuffs and scarves!) But of course she had to return home, and so here I am in my cheerless, undecorated flat. It’s pouring rain in Edinburgh, most of my friends and flatmates have gone home for break already, and my Christmas spirit is running low. But I had one chance encounter in the Christmas Market earlier this evening that really cheered me up.

I am inspecting some merchandise in a stall when behind me I hear someone ask, “Rebecca?” I always get a shock when someone calls me by name in Edinburgh, especially if I’m nowhere near campus. I turn around, expecting to find that there’s another Rebecca close by. But there stands a friend I made on the weekend trip to the Highlands! I haven’t seen him for weeks. It turns out that today is his last day in Edinburgh—he flies back to Norway tomorrow. We have a lovely chat and talk about our Christmas plans, and then we hug and he says that he hopes we will meet again someday, whether in Europe or America or another distant location.

When you move to a city for only a year, you’re bound to make a lot of short-term connections, and that’s the bittersweet reality. But I was reminded that even though I am so anxious to get home for Christmas, I will still have friends and classes and a life to come back to in Edinburgh when break is over. It’s hard to enjoy the city when I’m wishing for home, but I have to remember that when I move home for good, I will be missing Christmas in Edinburgh, the Markets and the mulled wine, and maybe even the mince pies.



  1. Christopher says:

    You do get snow in December in Edinburgh – sometimes quite heavy, but it’s unpredictable. And you often get department store Father Christmases in Britain, or at least you get grottoes in shopping centres. Is Bryn Athyn connected with Wales? I know of people who go to Bryn Mawr college.Nice blog!

  2. rebeccagyllenhaal says:

    Thanks for enlightening me! The past few days have been pretty cold, so maybe there’s snow on the horizon yet. But the week before that it was hovering around 12 degrees celsius, which I consider quite a heatwave for December. Bryn Athyn is a Welsh name, but the town has no real Welsh connections that I know of. And Bryn Mawr College is actually very close to Bryn Athyn, I have some friends there as well!

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