Broadcaster Sally Magnusson talks about festive family traditions

29 November 2016
St_Mary' St Mary's Haddington
As she prepares to host a special Christmas Eve show to bring in the festive season with well-loved Christmas carols and readings, broadcaster Sally Magnusson talks to us about how she makes family festivities special.

As she prepares to host a special Christmas Eve show to bring in the festive season with well-loved Christmas carols and readings, broadcaster Sally Magnusson talks to us about how she makes family festivities special.

Broadcaster and author Sally Magnusson has covered everything from the general election results to the funeral of Princess Diana, but few roles bring her more joy than presenting the annual Christmas Celebration TV show which is screened on the run up to midnight on Christmas Eve.

We caught up with Sally ahead of filming, to find out what makes Christmas and New Year special for her; and how her Icelandic roots (as the daughter of Mastermind presenter Magnus Magnusson) have influenced the family’s festive celebrations for generations.

Sally’s earliest memories of the Christmas season reflect her heritage, as she explains: ‘My very first festive memory is of Christmas Eve. We always celebrated Christmas Eve as the special day rather than Christmas Day, as in the Icelandic tradition. On Christmas Eve we used to travel to my father’s sister in Edinburgh for our Christmas celebrations.

‘At the house there would be a huge Christmas tree and a long table with glittering candles. I can remember, and I must have been very young at the time, holding hands with the family as we sang the Icelandic version of Silent Night. The men smoked cigars and wore black tie and the women of the family would be in their long dresses. And I can remember smelling all these different scents, it was a very special experience as a child.’

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Beforehand, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, us children would have been sent up to bed to save up our sleep for a few hours before the special evening began. Of course, we didn’t actually sleep but I imagine it gave my mum and dad time to wrap the last of the presents. The evening itself would begin at 6pm and there’d be a special meal which we’d enjoy with the candles flickering against the dark.’


Celebrations and songs are still very much part of the Magnusson family Christmas, and the celebrations continue into the New Year party which Sally enjoys with her husband and five grown-up children, who all come back to the family home for the occasion. ‘It’s every bit as big as Christmas!’ laughs Sally. ‘We have a big family gathering around the piano, with musical instruments and everyone doing a party piece.

‘The children are all in their twenties now and they invite their friends along and these youngsters have, over the years, got used to the idea that Hogmanay is not just about going to a party and getting smashed, they love getting involved with the songs and games.’

Sharing songs doesn’t just apply to the Magnusson family and friends; a cause dear to Sally’s heart is the Playlist for Life charity which she founded and chairs. The inspiration came about after Sally became impressed by the effect of personally meaningful music on her late mother’s dementia.


Sharing music can have an extremely positive impact on a dementia patient, and it’s something in which all the family can get involved, as Sally explains: ‘Playlist for Life is all about encouraging people to make a playlist of the music which is the most meaningful to the person concerned, and then taking the time to share that music.

‘Christmas carols are a great example of the sort of music that nearly everyone has embedded deep in their brains. And these songs can give someone in a care home a great boost.

‘But it’s not just a case of bunging a few Christmas carols onto an ipod. Instead, I’d encourage families to get together and make the music as personal as possible. Really thing about what songs would be most meaningful to the person, then get an ipod and upload the music. All you need then are a couple of pairs of headphones so that you can listen together, as it’s the sharing which is important. Music is a great tool of communication and breaks down barriers.’

Christmas Celebration will be shown on BBC One Scotland on 24 December at 11.45pm. Sally will be joined at St Mary’s Church in Haddington by Edinburgh-born soprano Susan Hamilton, the Edinburgh Academy Chamber Choir and St Mary’s choristers. The programme will be available to view on BBC iPlayer after transmission.

For tips on making a playlist to share with a dementia sufferer, visit the Playlist for Life website.



(church image copyright Alastair Seagrott; Sally Magnusson copyright Tern TV)