St. Andrew's Day celebrations

Traditions | 23 November 2020

In exactly one week Scots and Scots-at-heart around the world will be starting their St Andrew’s Day celebrations on the Scottish National Holiday. Ever wondered how a Middle Eastern fisherman became the patron saint of a north-European nation, why his symbol ended up on our flag and what to do on St Andrew’s Day? We got you all the answers!

There wouldn’t be any St Andrew’s Day celebrations without the actual historical person. Saint Andrew the Apostle was said to be one of the original followers of Christ. Called to be an apostle together with his brother Simon Peter, he stayed close to his teacher until his crucifixion. He continued to preach the gospel across the ancient Mediterranean region, for which he himself was sentenced to be crucified. Feeling unworthy of the same death as Jesus, he asked to be tied to an X-shaped cross – now widely named after the martyr saint.

St Andrew's Day Celebrations - saltire

The legend

As one of the twelve apostles and father figure for the Byzantine church, St Andrew is the patron of Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Russia and Ukraine. But how come Scottish kings started to keep faith in him? According to legend, Óengus II, king of Picts and Scots in the early 9th c., led an army against the Angles. With his forces heavily outnumbered, Óengus prayed to St. Andrew, vowing to make him the patron saint of Scotland if they won. On the day of the battle, white clouds formed an “X” in the sky. Scots and Picts took it as a sign of St Andrew’s intervention and fought on for victory despite overwhelming odds. King Óengus fulfilled his promise and officially named St. Andrew the patron saint of Scotland.

The heritage

The ripples of that early medieval act of divine homage can be felt throughout Scottish history up to this day. The most recognisable one is of course the Scottish national flag, known commonly as the saltire. The sign of white cross over a blue background became one of the heraldic symbols of Scotland. Around 16th c. it was established as one of the official flags of the kingdom (the other being the king’s Royal Banner of red lion rampant on golden field). Badges with the cross would traditionally be worn during St Andrew’s feast in late November, but a certain town on the east coast of Scotland took the patron’s celebration to another level. 

The great wee town we now know and love as St Andrews started off centuries ago as Kilrymont. It only acquired the holy name after St Regulus brought the relics of the apostle to a newly built Pictish monastery. Knowing that St Andrew’s temple was funded by Óengus I, it makes sense that his descendant sought the saint’s help in the time of need half a century later. With the establishment of bishopric at the beginning of 10th c. and building of the monumental cathedral, renamed St Andrews became a destination for pious pilgrims from around Europe. The cosmopolitan town gained further renown thanks to the university funded in 1410 and even now local St Andrew’s day celebrations are the longest, with a week-long festival and a well-earned day-off for all the students.

St Andrew's Day Celebrations - Beach
St Andrew's Day Celebrations - Cathedral

The holiday

Even though the Feast of St Andrew was always an important date in the Christian calendar, 30th of November when it’s celebrated only became an official holiday in 2006. With the passing of the appropriate bill by the Scottish Parliament, it’s now the official National Day in Scotland. It’s not a day off work like some other major holidays, but many Scots and people who call Scotland home make a special effort to celebrate their pride by hanging out a saltire flag and enjoying a dinner of traditional Scottish dishes. 

What to do on St Andrews Day you ask? Take inspiration from many Scots abroad who celebrate their heritage with a ceilidh (social gathering with music, dancing and storytelling) or a festive supper. In many places you can find Pipe Bands and Clan Societies organising charity balls with a Scottish twist. One such event takes place every year in Warsaw, Poland, where the local St Andrew’s Foundation organises the Caledonian Ball. Last year the great occasion with Scotland-inspired menu and live music was special for us personally, as a tour with Brambling Bus was the big Braveheart Prize in their charity raffle.

No matter if you’re in Scotland or far far away, you can celebrate the Scottish National Day in style: have a go at one of the Scottish recipes, get some good folk to join you and raise a glass of whisky to St Andrew and all that carry Scotland in their hearts!