Christmas Eve in North Notts Fifty Years Ago (1830s) | Ancient English Christmas Traditions

This excerpt from the anthology Christmas Notes and Queries (A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc. – 1886) entitled CHRISTMAS EVE IN NORTH NOTTS FIFTY YEARS AGO describe an English Christmas in the 1830s.


None keep Christmas nowadays as was the fashion fifty to a hundred years ago in this part of the country. Here and there are to be met the customs, or bits of the customs, which were then observed ; but as a rule the old ways have given place to new ones.

Here, in North Notts, every house is more or less decked in the few days before Christmas Day with holly, ivy, and other evergreens, nor is mistletoe forgotten, which would scarcely be likely by any one living within a dozen miles of Sherwood Forest, where mistletoe grows in rare profusion on thorn bushes, the oak, and other trees, and under certain conditions may be had for the asking.

Fifty years ago, at any rate, in all the villages and towns of North Notts the preparations among farmers, tradesmen, and poor folk for keeping Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were always on a bountiful scale. Fat pigs were killed a week or so previously, portions of which were made into Christmas pies of various kinds. Plum puddings were made, and the mince-meat, cunningly prepared some weeks beforehand, was made into mince pies of all sorts, sizes, and shapes. Yule ” clogs,” as they are here called, were sawn or chopped in readiness, and a stock laid in sufficient to last the whole of one or two evenings.

In well-regulated houses it was usual to have all the preparations and the housework completed by early in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and after an early tea in parlour and kitchen the servants, clean and neat, piled up the yule clogs in the rooms, getting the large ones well alight and keeping them going by smaller knots of wood.

Long, large, white Christmas candles were lighted, set in old-fashioned time-honoured brass candlesticks, accompanied with equally old and honoured brass snuffers and trays, all bright and shining. Of candles there was no lack, and when all were fairly going parlour and kitchen presented a blaze of warm, ruddy light, only been once in the year.

In both rooms the Christmas Eve tables were laid with snowy linen, and set for the feasting with all the good things provided. On each table would be a large piece of beef and a ham, flanked by the pies and other good things, including a Christmas cheese.

About six in the evening the chief item of the feast was prepared. This was the hot spiced ale, usually of a special brew. This was prepared by the gallon in a large kettle or iron pot, which stood for the purpose on the hob. The ale was poured in, made quite hot, but not allowed to boil, and then sugar and spice were added according to taste, some women having a special mode of making the brew. When ready the hot ale was ladled into bowls, the large earthenware ones now so rare. A white one with blue decorations was used in the parlour (two of these are now before me), a commoner one, of the yellowish earthenware kind, with rough blue or other coloured bands for ornamentation, being for the kitchen. These, nearly full of the steaming brew, were carried to the tables.

Whoever then dropped in, and usually there were many, to see parlour or kitchen company, had to drink from these bowls, lifting the bowl to the lips with both hands, expressing a good seasonable wish, and taking a hearty drink. The visitors then partook of anything on the table they liked, and one and all were treated bountifully.

Soon, as company arrived, the fun increased in parlour and kitchen, particularly in the latter, as the womenkind went through the old-fashioned ceremony under the mistletoe, which hung aloft from a highly-decorated “kissing bunch.” All sorts of games and fun went on till about ten o’clock as a rule, about which time the master, mistress, and family, with the rest of the parlour company, visited the kitchen. Then the steaming ale bowl was refilled, and all, beginning with the master and mistress, in turn drank from the bowl. This over, the parlour company remained, and entered into the games for a time. There was always some one who could sing a suitable song, and one, if song it may be called, was  –  The “Folia’ Song.

When me an’ ray folks  –  Come to see jou an’ your folks,

Let you an’ your folks  –  Treat me an’ my folks

As kind, as me an’ my folks  –  Treated you an’ your folks,

When you an’ your folks –  Came to see me an’ my folks !

Sure then ! never were such folks,  –  Since folks were folks!

This was sung several times over, with the last two lines as a chorus. The proceedings in the kitchen closed with another general sup from the replenished bowl, the parlour folks returning to the parlour.

During the evening the proceedings were varied by visits from Christmas singers and the mummers, all of whom were well entertained.

Usually, if the weather was fit, the kitchen folks wound up the night with a stroll, dropping in to see friends at other houses.

As a rule, soon after midnight the feastings were over, but most folks never thought of retiring till they bad heard the bands of singers in the distance singing the morning hymn, ” Christians awake !”

THOMAS RATCLIFFE.

(Full text available at Google Books)

Old Fashioned Holidays – Christmas Indexes

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