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Mary Queen of Scots and Christmas at the Palace of Holyroodhouse

It was 1564 and the smells that filled the air at the Palace of Holyroodhouse were positively festive. Hints of cloves and oranges surrounded guests who were dressed in their finest clothes for the Court’s ongoing Christmas celebrations. Christmas, or Yule, was an important time of the year for Mary Stuart and her court. As custom with the Catholic tradition, the joyous celebrations would last for twelve nights starting on December 25th. This would involve a mix of entertainment and church services.

However, Christmas wasn’t always a happy time for poor Queen Mary. She was born on December 8th, 1542, at Linlithgow Palace. Tragically, her father died several days later on December 14th leaving the Court in mourning for her first Yule. Later, she would lose her first husband, François II, King of France, on December 5th, 1560. Mary was already grieving the loss of her mother who had died several months prior. Thus, the young widow spent another sombre Yule in mourning.

Mary Stuart in mourning clothes

Perhaps, with this in mind, Queen Mary was determined for this Yule at the Palace of Holyroodhouse to be a happy one. On the evening of January 5th, as part of the Twelfth Night festivities, she held a ball to celebrate the ‘Feast of the Bean’. Among other members of the Court, Queen Mary’s childhood friend, Mary Fleming, was in attendance. She was one of her ladies-in-waiting and of the famous four Marys (the others were Seton, Beaton, and Livingston). They had returned to Scotland from France with Queen Mary just a few years prior bringing with them the experiences of living in the splendour of the French court. Meaning, Mary and her ladies-in-waiting knew how to throw a party. This evening would prove to be a smashing success for Mary Fleming- the Queen’s loyal friend.

A tradition during the ‘Feast of the Bean’ was to hide a bean in a cake, and whoever found it would be crowned ‘King/Queen of the Bean’. Well, Mary Fleming found the bean and became Queen of the Bean. As part of her ‘prize’, she was queen for the day and could dress as the real Queen. It is said that Mary Fleming was a natural beauty and was positively dazzling in her royal silver dress and headpiece. This exquisite ensemble is pictured below and is on display at the Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum.

Unfortunately, these happy times would be short-lived for Queen Mary as malevolent forces were working behind the scenes to undermine and overthrow her position as Queen of the Scots. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the Scottish Lords of the Congregation wanted power for themselves. They used the infamous, John Knox, as an accomplice to achieve their goal. Knox willingly worked the Scottish people into an anti-Catholic mob resulting in the Scottish Reformation and the forced abdication of Queen Mary. She spent Christmas of 1567 imprisoned in Lochleven Castle and her remaining Christmases being held prisoner by Elizabeth I in various English castles. Mary never experienced another Yule out of captivity.

Hogmanay Celebrations over Edinburgh Castle

A dark period followed for the Palace of Holyroodhouse as the once glorious Christmas celebrations that decked its halls were silent. This is because Knox and the Church of Scotland ensured that Christmas was banned, and this became law in 1640 by an Act of Parliament of Scotland. Historic Environment Scotland explains how, “even singing a Christmas carol was considered a serious crime”. The law was eventually repealed in 1712, but that was just a formality as the Church continued to “frown upon the festive celebrations. Punishments for celebrating Yule were harsh, and there was no public holiday for the Scottish people on Christmas Day”. In fact, Christmas wasn’t formally made a public holiday again until 1958. Accordingly, Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) was the biggest celebration for Scots and still is for some.

Christmas celebrations eventually returned to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and this year is no exception. Throughout the Palace you can find beautiful decorations lighting up the dark Scottish nights. Scroll through the photos below to enjoy a virtual tour:

After your tour of the Palace, I highly recommend a wee break at the café where you can warm up with a hot beverage and sweet treat (or lunch if you are looking for something more substantial).

After enjoying the café, take the time to peruse the Palace’s beautifully decorated gift shop filled with an assortment of souvenirs as well as some lovely gift ideas.

If you are in Edinburgh, be sure to visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse as it is a must-see visitor attraction on its own, but it is especially lovely when decorated for the holidays. The decorations are on display now until the 6th of January 2022. Additionally, they have some fascinating talks and family activities scheduled for this holiday season. Please note as of the time of writing, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Therefore, be sure to go to their website for the most up-to-date information to best plan your visit. If you would like to learn more about Mary’s time at the Palace, be sure to check out our previous article on her life there.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

Mary Queen of Scots


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