Festive season marks 150 years since ‘Duns saved Christmas’

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Christmas is always a popular time in Berwickshire but 2019 holds special significance for the county town.

It is exactly a century and a half since Duns Parish Church hosted the first Christmas service in the modern Church of Scotland – after centuries when Christmas Day itself was ignored or even illegal.

Kenny McLean, vice-chairman of Dunse History Society and Session Clerk for Duns & District Parishes, outlined the background to the town’s forgotten claim to fame.

“Rev John Macleod came to Duns from Newton-on-Ayr in 1862 and proved a religious radical” he explained. “Worship in the mainstream Scottish churches was severely plain by modern standards – whitewashed walls, clear windows, no music, psalms instead of hymns, and certainly no festive services.

Easter week, Christmas and saints days were frowned upon after the Reformation as the Sabbath became the sole focus of worship. Christmas Day was forbidden by law from 1640 until 1712 and only became a public holiday in 1958. Workers have only been entitled to time off since 1971 and many older people will recall it being a normal working day – when it fell on a Saturday professional football was played as recently as 1976.

“Macleod wanted a richer form of worship more like the Episcopal and Roman Catholic denominations” McLean continued.

“He introduced internal decoration and new styles of Sunday services. Stained glass was fitted, and Duns became the first congregation in the Church of Scotland to install an organ after the General Assembly allowed them in 1866. Then in 1869 he held services on Good Friday and Saturday 25th December – marking Christmas Day”.

Many outsiders said humbug to Macleod shaking-up convention. There was national controversy and intense media coverage with newspapers dubbing them the ‘Dunse innovations’.

At the behest of the minister of Fogo he was accused of heresy – a charge later dropped – and the ‘Dunse ritualism case’ electrified religious affairs for months.

“Some ideas did not outlive his ministry” added Kenny, but Macleod’s 1901 biography highlights the significance Duns had in reviving Christmas – stating “of the five great days of the Christian year, it was his pride to recall he had been the first in Scotland to restore this venerable and beautiful custom [Christmas]”.

Duns trail-blazed a celebration which slowly spread, helped by banks closing on Christmas Day from 1871. Services first reached Dundee in 1874 then Aberdeen in 1875. Macleod himself left for Glasgow that year and continued his bold reforms, eventually becoming fondly nicknamed “Pope John of Govan”. On his departure Christmas observance in Berwickshire was promptly banned by Duns Presbytery – but in time the custom became widespread. Today they are often the best-attended occasions in the church year.

“Nowadays there can hardly be a parish in Scotland where people aren’t holding Christmas services, singing carols, staging nativities or simply opening their presents on Christmas morning” noted Kenny.

“Duns was in the vanguard of bringing Christmas in from the cold.

“So tell your family, friends or colleagues that 150 years ago – Duns saved Christmas.”