Settle down by the fire, pour yourself a dram and let Outlander’s Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish share their expertise on the Celtic traditions of the festive season. Photo: PR supplied
Outlander is a TV phenomenon with legions of devoted fans worldwide. Largely responsible is Sam Heughan, who plays highlander with a heart Jamie Fraser, and has single-handedly reminded the world what we here have always known – there’s nothing sexier than a Scotsman in a kilt.
Despite killing his co-star Graham McTavish’s character Dougal MacKenzie a few years ago, the pair became firm friends. Together they’ve made a travel show, Men in Kilts, and written the bestseller Clanlands.
As its follow-up is published and ahead of Outlander’s much-anticipated sixth season, they share their advice for celebrating Christmas Celtic-style.
THE BIG ISSUE: Firstly, as I am a non-fictional MacKenzie, I wanted to thank you for raising the profile of the clan through Outlander.
Graham McTavish: You’re very welcome. I am proud to be an, albeit fictional, war chief of one of the great clans. They get spoken about at length in the new book The Clanlands Almanac, so I don’t want to spoil anything. But suffice to say they are as bloodthirsty as every other clan I’ve researched!
Sam Heughan: Frasers are better…
What makes Scotland a special place to celebrate the holiday season?
Sam: Well, we have snow and darkness. I always enjoy the run-up to Christmas, mince pies, cosy pubs and roast dinners. Always feels more cosy here. I imagine Christmas on the beach isn’t as festive, though would be better for my tan. I’ve spent Christmas in Thailand before; strange to be away from family and friends.
Graham: I’d never had a southern hemisphere Christmas before I did The Hobbit. I’d always avoided them in Los Angeles when I lived there because it felt like there was no build-up to it. Most stores stay open on Christmas Day there, which is heresy as far as I’m concerned. I was nervous about it in New Zealand but actually I have grown to love it. I will be there again this Christmas celebrating with my partner and my two kids.
I love Christmas so ours is very traditional. I cook the lunch. I make a big effort with the tree, the decorations, making my mum’s Christmas pudding recipe. It has the advantage that at 3pm it’s not getting dark with people passed out in a food coma in front of the telly; it’s down to the beach for a post-lunch swim and sunset at 9pm. I love it.
What Celtic traditions has Scotland given the world?
Sam: Holly and ivy, mistletoe, gift-giving, ‘making merry’. Celts know how to party. But many festive traditions are based on pagan tradition. Halloween. Beltane, the spring and summer equinoxes. One of my favourites is Auld Lang Syne. The fact people around the world sing an old Scots poem by Robert Burns each year is incredible celebrating endings and new beginnings!
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Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
Graham: One of the great pleasures of getting older is the number of ‘auld’ friends you still have. People who have seen every stage of your life. I’ve fallen out of touch with some and would love to find them again.
At what point for you does it feel like Christmas is coming?
Sam: I dislike the fact that we see decorations up in November or even October. I think December is the time to start the countdown. And it’s bad luck to keep decorations up after Twelfth Night.
Graham: I have a habit that annoys and delights my kids in equal measure. On the 25th of every month I say, “Only x more months till Christmas!”
What are your tips for having an outlandish Outlander-themed Christmas?
Sam: Catch a haggis. Roast it. Open a bottle of The Sassenach. Repeat.
Sassenach is your own brand of whisky, Sam. Graham – how would you rate it?
Graham: It’s genuinely very good. Smooth, and great for a post-Christmas lunch dram. (Please send the cheque to the usual address, Sam. Thanks.)
Sam: And worth mentioning it’ll be available in the UK in December!
Are there any elements of how Christmas would be celebrated in Outlander times that you’ve introduced to your own festivities?
Sam: It hasn’t really changed. Two hundred years and we still have many of the same traditions. Family. Friends. A hearty meal. Gift giving and thankfulness. It’s also obviously a very religious time of the year but I think everyone enjoys the opportunity to stop work and spend time with loved ones.
Graham: Because of the darkness of a Celtic mid-winter festival, these pre-Christians knew how to bring light and joy to the darkest highland celebration. A Celtic mid-winter festival would have seen a dark landscape peppered with blazing points of light, the sound of loud singing and dancing, and the aromas of well-cooked food. It would’ve been a special time.
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If you could travel to any period in history to celebrate Christmas, when would you choose and why?
Graham: Travelling in time is fraught with risk. You would see the good but you would definitely see the bad too. A Victorian Christmas is often seen as an ideal but I’m pretty sure there would be a lot that would shock us about it. But if I had to pick a time I would be fascinated to experience an early-16th century Christmas. Be there at the first performance of Twelfth Night.
Sam: I always wanted to go back in time to ancient Egypt. I have been inside the great pyramid at Giza. I wonder what celebrations they had through the year…
Or maybe a better question, what age would you travel back to so you could relive a special Christmas memory?
Graham: I loved Christmas as a child. I think my Christmases in Canada when I was eight and nine would be great to revisit.
Sam: Childhood is always the most fun at Christmas. It’s amusing to see that adults basically lie to their children about Santa for years. It’s incredible the lengths we go to. I wonder what else we’ve been lied to about. The tooth fairy is real, at least.
Do you buy each other Christmas presents?
Graham: This year could be the first!
Sam: I’m excited to see. I think he will be very generous. Though I do note a resemblance to Ebenezer Scrooge…
Have you ever stolen something from the Outlander set to give as a present?
Sam: No. Though I have ‘acquired’ some props etc. which ‘somehow’ have ended up in my man cave. Lots of swords…
Graham: Everything I’ve stolen from sets I’ve kept for myself! Although I did give a coin from Smaug’s hoard in The Hobbit to a young fan once.
What’s the difference between Hogmanay in Scotland and New Year’s Eve celebrated everywhere else?
Graham: For a start you get an extra day’s holiday. When my father was growing up in Scotland they never had Christmas Day as a holiday; it was all about New Year. It’s also a time to be with your family. While other parts of the world are out in big gangs at midnight kissing strangers, the Scots prefer to be with their close family and friends at the bells. The best New Years are always in Scotland. But then I am biased.
Sam: Scots celebrate New Year bigger and better than most countries. Or traditionally we did. It’s always good fun and hopefully a warm welcome to everyone. Find a ceilidh. Bring a hip flask and be prepared to make friends with strangers.
Christmas and New Year is a time when people come together – or perhaps feel more alone. How can we make sure we think of everybody, loved ones near or far, or those who are isolated and vulnerable, the whole year round?
Sam: Let’s carry on the ancient traditions, think of others and be generous with our time, friendship, love. I’ll even promise to be kinder to Graham. New Year’s resolution right there.
Graham: I think it’s a time to take stock, to count your blessings, and to make an effort to check on those around you. Reconnect with loved ones but also your neighbour. It is a time where we need to look around us and see our world, involve ourselves in it, celebrate our common humanity and remember that kindness begets kindness. Sometimes just a smile. That’s why I always love to shake hands with strangers at New Year. Embrace those you know, but also those you have yet to know.
The Clanlands Almanac by Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99) is out now.