Old English Christmas Traditions (1823) With Anglo-Saxon Roots

Pagan roots of Christmas CHRISTMAS.

Amidst the wintry desolation of the present month, the remembrance of a season once anticipated in joyous hope by all ranks of people, recurs to the lovers of ” Auld lang syne”—to those who remember with what pleasure they once welcomed its chill atmosphere and snow storms with the vivid rapture of youth.

Even in the metropolis the memory of its festivities is not yet wholly extinguished. But in the remote parts of the island it is still hailed as the period of enjoyment—it is still marked by genial appearances; and round the social hearth on Christmas eve, the less artificial inhabitants of the country will be found as Burns describes them:—

” The lasses feat, an’ cleanly neat,

More braw than when they’re fine; Their faces blythe, fu’ sweetly kythe,

Hearts leal, an’ warm, an’ kin’ : The lads sae trig, wi’ wooer-babs,

Weel knotted on their garten. Some unco blate, and some wi’ gabs

Gar lasses hearts gang startin,

Whiles fast at night.”

In London, as in all great cities, particularly in those which are commercial, where strangers continually arrive, and new customs are daily introduced, observances of a nature similar to those formerly kept at Christmas must soon be lost.

That season is accordingly marked here by a few of the pleasantries and simple enjoyments with which it is even now characterised in the country, where we must look for what remains of the customs practised by our ancestors of that season.

These relics of old and ridiculous observances deprived of all their objectionable parts by the improving spirit of successive years, are hallowed in our memories, and always recall the vernal season of life and its regretted pleasures.

In the North they have yet their ” fool’s plough,” and in Cornwall their goose-dancers. The latter still exhibit an old hunch-backed man, called the ” King of Christmas,” and sometimes the “Father”: like customs may be traced in other countries.

The wassail bowl was regularly carried from door to door in Cornwall 40 or SO years ago; and even now a measure of flip, ale, porter, and sugar, or some such beverage, is handed round while the yule-log is burning, or stock, as denominated in the western counties. The wassail-bowl is of Saxon origin, and merits notice on an historical account. Vortigerri, Prince of the Silures, fell in Ct/ning,” which signified, ” Be of health,’ Lord King.” Vortigern married her, and thus his kingdom fell to the Saxons. Waes-heil thus became the name of the drinking cup of the AngloSaxons, and those cups were afterwards constantly used at public entertainments.

In parts of the country remote from the metropolis, the singing of Christmas carols yet usher in the morning.

After breakfast the busy housewife prepares her plum-puddings, mince-pies, and confectionary, which she decorates with the emblems of the time; a scratch in the dough in the shape of a hay-rack, denoting the manger of the infant Saviour, is one of those emblems most commonly in use.

The younger part of the household hunt the garden for evergreens to decorate the interior of the apartments: and the woods are sought to bring home the mistletoe, which is to be suspended in the room where the pleasures of the evening are to take place, and beneath which the ” sighing lips,” as Moore calls them, of many a lovely girl still continue to be pressed, despite of that coy resistance and those blushes that so much heighten the charms of beauty.

They also paint candles of different colours to be lighted up in the evening; a custom, perhaps, borrowed from ancient’ Romish practice; though some imagine that lighting up houses formed a part of the worship of the Teutonic god, Thor, being one of the ceremonies observed at Junltide, or the feast of Thor, from which it was introduced into the Christian feast of Christinas. Thus, if some part of our Christmas ceremonies was derived from the Saturnalia, another was evidently of Northern, origin.

The mistletoe was a plant held sacred by the Druids.— The Christmas carols also were, it is probable, Juul’ or Ule-songs first sung m honour of the heathen deity; and the use of the evergreens may be ascribed to the same origin.

In the evening, the Ule-log, or Christmas-stock, as at present denominated, is placed on the fire , in the principal apartments of the house. The company seat themselves round it, and the cheerful cup is yet handed about, which often contains nothing more than ale in the cottages of the peasantry.

What remains to modern times of Christmas gambors then commences, and ancient Christian plays are even still plainly to be traced among them.

…..  hunt the slipper, (be game of the goose, snap-dragon, pushpin, and dancing, form the amusements of the younger part of the assemblage, and cards the elder; though among the more substantial people, as they are’ denominated in the language of the country-folks, the simpler amusements’ begin to lose their value. But their very simplicity recalls the memory ot past-times; they have a certain charm about them worth all that is artificial, and they would not be bereft of attraction to minds of sensibility, if they were wholly abandoned to the lowly: for they have that in them which is far more endearing than the sordid heartlessness of fashionable entertainments, and the formality of high life.

Bereft of superstition, Christmas is then a season of innocent mirth—a pleasing interlude to lighten and beguile the horrors of our inclement winters. It affords a period for the exhibition of hospitable greetings, and the pleasing interchange-‘ of good offices, of Which; in the country, opportunities are rare.

How many innocent hearts rejoice there at anticipating the season and its festivities, whose feelings have never been chilled by” the artificial, circulating, and calculating civilities of Metropolitan intercourse. But the humbler ranks have been accused of superstition because’ the stocking is still thrown, the -pod with nine peas hid over the door, nnd all the little ceremonies so admirably depicted by Burns in his Hallowe’en still’ practised.

These, however, are now generally looked upon as a diversion, and few have faith in their efficacy; for in our days the poor have as good comi mon sense as their superiors. These’ diversions come to them but once a year, and’ it is to be hoped that they may long continue to practise them. There is not, perhaps, any part of’ Great Britain in which Christmas is kept so splendidly as in Yorkshire.

The diri of preparation commences for come weeks before, and its sports and ‘ festivities continue beyond the first month of the new year. The first intimation of Christmas, in Yorkshire, is by what are there ‘called the vessel-cup singers, generally poor old women, who, about three weeks before Christmas, go from house to house, with a.waxen or wooden doll fantastically dressed, and sometimes adorned with- an oratige, or a fine rosytinged apple. With this in their hands, they sing or chaunt an old carol, of which the following homely stanza forms a part:—

God bless the master of this house.

The mistress also.

And all the little children

That round the table go.

The image of the child is, no doubt, intended to represent the infant Saviour; and the vessel-cup, is, most probably, the remains of the wassail-bowl, which anciently formed a part of the festivities of this season of the year.

Another custom, which commences at the same time as the vessel-cup singing, is that of the poor of the parish visiting all the neighbouring farmers to beg corn, which is invariably given to them, in the quantity of a full pint, at least to each. This is called mumping, as is the custom which exists in Bedfordshire, of the poor begging the broken victuals the day after Christmas-day.

Christmas-eve is, in Yorkshire, celebrated in a peculiar manner: at eight o’clock in the evening the bells greet ” old father Christmas” with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, or perhaps, in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire; the yule candle is lighted, and

Supper is served, of which one dish, trom the lordly mansion to the humblest shed, is, invariably, furmety*; yule cake, one of which is always made for each individual in the family, and other more substantial viands, are also added. Poor Robin, in his Almanack for the year 1676 (speaking of the winter quarter), says,” and lastly, who would but praise it, because of Christmas, when good cheer doth so abound, as if all the world were made of mincepies, plum-pudding, and fermety.”—

And Brand says, ” on the night of this eve our ancestors were wont to light candles of an enormous size, called Christmas candles.”

To enumerate all the good cheer which is prepared at this festival, is by no means necessary. In Yorkshire, the Christmas pie, is still a regular dish, and is regularly served to the higher class of visitants, while the more humble ones are tendered yule cake, or bread and cheese, in every house they enter during the twelve days of Christmas.

The Christmas pie is one of the good old dishes still retained at a Yorkshire table; it is not of modern invention. Allan Ramsay, in his Poems, tells us, that among other baits by which the good ale-wife drew customers to her house, that she never failed to tempt them—

Ay at yule whene’er they came,

A bra* ffoose-pie. . ,

The Christmas pie of the present day is like that described by Allan Ramsay, and generally consists of a goose, sometimes two, and that with the. addition of half a dozen fowls.— Such is the existing celebration of Christmas in Yorkshire, and, we believe, in some other parts of England ; but these venerable customs are becoming every year less common: the sending of presents also, from friends in the country to friends in town at this once cheerful season, is, in a great measure, obsolete: ” Nothing is to be had for nothing” now; and, without the customary bribe of a barrel of oysters, or a basket of fish, we may look in vain for arrivals by the York Fly, or the Norwich Expedition :—

Few presents now to friends are sent. Few hours in merry-making spent; Old-fashioned folks there are, indeed, Whose hogs and pigs at Christmas bleed, Whose honest hearts no modes refine, They send their puddings and their chine. No Norfolk turkeys load the waggon. Which once the horses scarce could drag on; And, to increase the weight with these. Came their attendant sausages. Should we not then, as men of taste. Revive our customs gone and past i And (fie, for shame!) without reproach. Stuff, as we ought, the Bury coach t With strange old kindness, send up presents, Of partridges and dainty pheasants,

Source: The Mirror of literature, amusement, and instruction

Old Fashioned Holidays | Christmas Indexes

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