Christmas was banned in Scotland in 1560 when the country split from the Catholic Church. Even singing Christmas carols was a serious crime! It wasn’t until 1958 — nearly 400 years later — that Christmas became a public holiday.
But, the Scots are sure making up for lost time! Here are 15 magical ways to celebrate Christmas in Edinburgh:
1. Enjoy The Sparkle At The Botanic Garden’s Light Trail
The enchanting Christmas Light Trail at the Royal Botanic Garden (which is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year) is by far my favorite holiday event in Edinburgh. Now in its 4th year, this 1-mile trail uses more than a million lights to create several distinct luminous displays, which vary every year.
This year, I was struck by a stirring rendition of Ave Maria comingling with the soothing sounds of a waterfall that provided the backdrop for a romantically lit creek. A rhythmic light display that danced along the high windows of the garden’s greenhouse was mesmerizing. A whimsical laser garden that “snowed” green flakes and beamed green lines through mist created a particularly intriguing illusion. What I liked best, though, were the stunning Japanese lanterns hung in the Japanese Garden section, which gave a nod to how other cultures decorate for the holidays.
Pro Tips: The trail is uncovered, so prepare for changeable weather and possible rain; wear sturdy shoes and dress warmly. Some areas are dark, so you might want to bring a flashlight (although helpful and friendly staff are stationed to provide light and directions). The trail is mostly wheelchair accessible, with some parts of the experience on uneven, unpaved ground. Paths can be steep. Hot food, hot chocolate, and non-alcoholic mulled wine are offered for sale. Expect to spend about an hour.
2. Catch It’s A Wonderful Life At The Drive-In
During December, an old-fashioned drive-in takes over a parking lot at Edinburgh Airport to screen Christmas classics like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Bad Santa, Love Actually, and The Polar Express. On the weekends, four different movies are screened from as early as 10:30 a.m. Weeknights feature two shows (separate tickets required).
Pro Tips: Gourmet street food, as well as alcoholic beverages, are available for purchase, and all facilities are accessible. You do need a car (no walk-ins). Car engines are required to be off during the show, so dress warmly or bring blankets, as even in inclement weather, the show must go on!
3. Go Wild With The Edinburgh Zoo’s Penguins
Starting a new tradition this Christmas, the penguins of the Edinburgh Zoo are starring in an evening holiday light trail that features fairy lights, candy canes, and nutcrackers. Housing more than 100 penguins, the zoo’s Penguin Rock is Europe’s largest outdoor penguin pool.
Since darkness falls around 3:30 p.m. in December, the 2-hour experience starts bookings as early as 4:45. While the mile-long route is wheelchair accessible, it is on a hill. Dress warmly, wear comfortable shoes, and prepare for changeable weather and possible rain. Hot drinks, snacks, burgers, and pizza are available for purchase.
Pro Tip: The rest of the zoo is closed at night, but the evening light trail ticket can be combined with a daytime visit at a reduced entry price.
4. Celebrate At The Edinburgh Christmas Market
Although canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, the Edinburgh Christmas Market is one of Europe’s most festive markets. Featuring holiday street food, fireworks, ice sculptures, carolers, local crafts, and dizzying views of Edinburgh Castle from the 180-foot-high Sky Flyer, the market is a multi-street festival running from mid-November to early January.
Pro Tip: The market draws millions of people, so go early — early in the season and early in the morning.
5. Start Celebrating Early With Light Night
Kicking off the Edinburgh Christmas Market in mid-November, Light Night is a festive event when the market’s lights are first illuminated. It’s a whole afternoon of carols and choirs, culminating in a spectacular fireworks show. It’s free — and outdoors.
Pro Tip: Because the sun sets in the late afternoon, this event starts earlier than you might expect.
6. Tipple A Bit Of Aelder Elixer Or Edinburgh Christmas Gin
Blending wild foraged Scottish elderberries and whisky, Aelder Elixer is a locally crafted liqueur. Its rich, velvety texture makes the perfect Christmas addition to celebratory bubbly — or on its own after dinner.
Spiced with frankincense, myrrh, and nutmeg, Edinburgh Christmas Gin puts a little holiday twist on the classic G and T. Buy a bottle on-line or at major grocery stores — or, better yet, buy it at the source from the Edinburgh Gin Distillery after a tour!
Pro Tip: Scotland has very strict drinking and driving laws. So sip near where you sleep!
7. Marvel At The 40-Foot Tree At Jenners
For generations of Scots, the Christmas season kicks off with the lighting of the four-story Christmas tree in Jenners. Located in the gorgeous building across from the iconic Scott Monument, the 150-year-old department store auctions off the honor of illuminating the tree’s lights to help fund the Edinburgh Children’s Hospital Charity.
Delivered at night, the Norwegian Spruce is escorted by police and carried into the closed store through the revolving door (which gets removed) by more than a dozen kilt-wearing rugby players accompanied by live bagpipe music.
Then professionals abseil from the store’s rafters to lift the tree upright and spend the entire night stringing the 10,000 lights.
8. Peek Inside Edinburgh’s Closed Doors
Each day from December 1st to the 24th, one of Edinburgh’s iconic buildings opens its doors to the public, free of charge, for the 24 Doors of Advent. Venues range from the Scottish Storytelling Centre to the Scottish Parliament and the BT Murrayfield Stadium. Some venues offer special talks.
Pro Tip: Some venues require advance reservations.
9. Toast The Season At Bedecked Bars
Edinburgh is known for its storybook light, and Christmas is when the city shines! Especially spectacular are the light displays at The Dome and the Waldorf Astoria (formerly called The Caledonian), both architectural marvels. But to really get in the spirit, pop inside The Dome for a special holiday cocktail and marvel at their imposing Christmas tree perched on top of the bar.
10. Skate Away The Christmas Blahs
Last year, the popular outdoor holiday ice rink at St Andrew Square was ousted. But a new December skating patch is rumored to open next year on George St. In the meantime, skaters can get their figure-eight fix at Murrayfield Ice Rink during the daily windows when the public is invited.
11. Shop Til You Drop
Feel good about filling those Christmas stockings by shopping at the many charity shops that line Raeburn Street in Stockbridge, one of Edinburgh’s more posh neighborhoods. Treasures range from vintage clothing to vinyl records. But whatever you find, it’s sure to be a bargain!
12. Rejuvenate With A Seasonal Toastie
Scots love toasties so much that when the first Annual Cheese Toastie Festival was announced, tickets sold out in six minutes. Toasties are trussed-up grilled cheese sandwiches made with tasty cheeses (such as gruyere or stilton) and whatever the toastie-maker dreams up (leftover spaghetti bolognese or smoked haddock, for example). During the holidays, ingredients include festive cranberries or turkey — even stuffing!
13. Run With The Santas
Burn off all those extra calories by participating in the Santa Fun Run and Walk, a 1.5-mile course through Princes Street Gardens. This event strengthens your heart both physically and spiritually: It raises funds for When You Wish Upon A Star charity that grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses.
14. Get Silly At A Pantomime
Performed for more than a century, pantomimes are campy stage shows of well-known fairy tales … and are a special holiday tradition. There’s always a Villain, a Dame (played by a man), a Principal Boy (played by a girl), and Ugly Sisters (played by men). The audience gets involved by booing the villain and shouting warnings to the characters — and even by throwing custard pies! Pantos are such a British tradition that, as a schoolgirl, Queen Elizabeth II played the Principal Boy in Aladdin.
Start with traditional cock-a-leekie soup (chicken and leek with barley), toss in a few haggis bonbons, accompany the ham or turkey with clapshot (a turnip and potato concoction) or mushy peas, and end with aclootie dumpling(a pudding steamed in a cloot — or cloth — made with dried fruit) or cranachan (a soft cheese parfait adorned with Scottish raspberries, oats, honey and, of course, whisky!). Recipes here.
If by December 25th you’re not celebrated out, prepare for a week of feasting and festival-ing leading to Hogmanay, Scots’ New Year’s Eve celebration.
Final Tip: Stay on top of annual updates about Edinburgh’s Christmas events to make the most of your Scottish Christmas!