Old English Christmas Traditions

In 1873 the American magazine Harper’s published a long essay entitled “Christmas throughout Christendom”. This is the section that detailed many of the ancient  Christmas traditions of England.

Christmas in England is scarcely the shadow of its former merry, brilliant self, when all classes of society, united around a common banquet – table, indulged in the most unrestrained joviality and merriment.

The wassail bowl, that once played so conspicuous a part at the Christmas banquet, has become obsolete, while the old-time toasts of ” Drine toil,” or ” Was hail,” from which the bowl derives its name, has given place to the modern “Come, here’s to yon,” or “I’ll pledge yon.”

Then, too, the singing of Christmas carols, which was once  so popular even at court, has greatly fallen into disuse, and is now principally confined to the lower classes. Even the traditional mistletoe, around which gathers so much of poesy and romance, and under which coy maidens coquettishly courted the kiss of their present or prospective lovers, now excluded from the churches as a relic of paganism, has been banished by slow degrees from its high post of favor; while the Yule-block, or log, with its warm welcome, extending even to the poor and the stranger as they gathered around the hospitable board, is being gradually supplanted by the Christmas-tree, whose introduction into England is comparatively of recent date.

But if the Lord of Misrule has been the loser, Christian civilization has been the gainer, in a more rational observance of the Christmas festivities in England. The Christmas-tree sheds its mellow radiance over a more quiet but not less enjoyable scene.

Churches and home sanctuaries robe themselves in evergreen holly, ivy, and laurel. Generous rations of beef and bread are distributed to the parish poor on Christmase ve by jeweled hands, while the Christmas bells still ring out their silvery chimes on the crisp morning air joyfully and cheerfully. Nor is there wanting a spicy flavor of the old-time feasting and frolic, when there

“was brought in the lnety brawn

By old blue-coated serving man;

Then the grim boar’s head frowned on high,

Crested with bays and rosemary,

While round the merry wassail bowl,

Garnished with ribbons, blithe did trowl.”

To say nothing of the roast beef and plumpudding, Christmas pies, furmity,(a kind of thick andhighly flavored barley-water)) and snapdragons, the Yule-log and the mistletoe have not finally abdicated, while the boar’s head, decorated with rosemary or prickly holly, maintains its place at the English Christmas dinner, and is still served up in great state at the royal Christmas table.

The ” bringing in of the boar’s head” was formerly attended with no little ceremony. At Oxford it was carried in by the strongest of the guardsmen, singing a Christmas carol, and preceded by a forester, a huntsman, and a couple of pages dressed in silk and carrying the indispensable mustard, which at that time was regarded not only as a great luxury, but an infallible digester. The following celebrated carol of the “Boar’s Head” may be found in the book of ” Christmasse Carolles” published in 1521 by Wynkyn de Warde:

“Caput apri defero,

Reddens landes Domino.

The bore’s head In hande bring I,

With garlandcs gay and rosemary,

I pray yon all synge merely,

Qui estis in convivio.

“The bore’s head, I nnderstande,

Is the chefe servyce in this lande.

Loke wherever it be fande,

Servlte cum cantico.

“Be gladde, lordes, both more and lassc,

For this hath ordayned onr stewarde,

To chere you all this Christmasse,

The bore’s head with mustarde.”

A somewhat similar custom appears to have prevailed in Genoa in the times of the Dorias, since we learn from Carbone that a boar decorated with branches of laurel, and accompanied by trumpeters, was annually presented to the Doria family by the Abbot of San Antonio  at mid-day of the 24th of December.

Formerly the Yule-log, a huge section of the birch, was cut from a tree selected on Candlemas-day, which so late as the time of Queen Elizabeth was the last day of the Christmas holidays. On the following Christmas-eve it was dragged in and placed upon the hearth with great ceremony, the merry-makers pulling with a will, and singing the while the modernized Christmas carol commencing,

“Come, bring with a noise,

My merrie, merrie boys,

The Christmas-log to the firing.”

It was then kindled with a brand from last year’s Christmas fire, which, if it was not thus kept continually burning, still linked the merry-making of one Christmas-time to that of another.

In Ramsgate, Kent, and the Isle of Thanet, the custom styled “hodening” is still in vogue. The ” hoden,” which appears to be a cross between the ” white horse” and the Klapperbock of the Germans, is accompanied by a number of youths in fantastic dress, who go round from door to door ringing bells and singing Christmas carols.

Tho Christmas mummers, that carry us back to the old Morality Plays, the origin of the modern English drama, may yet be found in Cornwall and Gloucestershire. The players are for the most part plow-boys or country “bumpkins,” variously masked and grotesquely dressed, who, tricked out with swords and gilt paper hats, go about on Christmas-eve from house to house, and, wherever received, giving a rude dramatic .performance styled a Mystery.

Until the time of Charles I. it was customary in England to proceed in solemn state and present the king and queen with a branch of the celebrated Glastonbury thorn, which was said to bud on Christmaseve and blossom on Christmas morning. A popular legend relates that this thorn-bush, which once flourished in the church-yard of Glastonbury Abbey, but was subsequentcut down during the time of the civil wars, was a shoot of the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, stuck into the ground with his own hands; that it immediately took root and put forth leaves, and the day following was covered all over with snow-white blossoms, and that it thus continued to bloom for a long series of years, great numbers of people visiting it annually to witness the miracle.

When, however, in 1753, a shoot of the Glastonbury thorn in Buckinghamshire refused to blossom, though thousands of spectators with lights and lanterns had assembled as usual to see it, the people declared thereupon that the 25th of December, new style, was not the true Christmas, and refused to observe it as such, most of all as the whitethorn continued to blossom on the 5th of January as usual. To put an end to the dispute, the clergy of the neighborhood issued an order that both days, old style and new, were to be similarly kept.


Old Fashioned Holidays – Christmas Indexes

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One Response to Old English Christmas Traditions

  1. ceec says:


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