Month: December 2017

Celebrating Yuletide

Scandinavia has many ancient traditions, especially at Yule, which are rich in history and folklore. If you would like to add a little magic to your Yuletide, then here are some easy customs that you can integrate into this holiday season.

According to Norwegian tradition one should bake seven types of pastry at Yule. These include, gingerbread biscuits(pepperkaker), waffles (goro), ginger nuts (ingefaernotter), Berlin wreath butter biscuits (berlinerkranser), sand cakes (sandkaks), doughnut rings (smultringer) and syrup snaps (sirupsnipper). Just baking one of these would be a fun activity to do with friends or children. I can just imagine the delicious aroma.

Many Scandinavians today still believe in the tomten or fjosnisse; gnome like creatures that look after the home and surrounding land. So at Yule or Christmas, people leave out a bowl of porridge with plenty of butter on the top or left over food from the Christmas dinner. By leaving gifts of appreciation for these little folk, who work hard at keeping the land and home safe and happy, the tomten in return will bring good luck to the household.  If you offend one of them, then beware, as you risk bringing terrible misfortune. The tomten are shape shifters and are very hard to see, so an empty bowl of porridge is the only sign that will let you know that they are around. Leaving out a bowl of porridge is something that I will be doing over the next couple of days as part of my Yuletide celebrations.

Lille Julaften or Little Christmas Eve takes place on the 23rd of December and in Norway, while making final Christmas preparations including the decorating of the tree, bowls of rice porridge called risgrot (risengrysgrot) with an almond hidden inside are served to members of the family. Lots of this porridge is eaten, as you can imagine, as everyone wants to find the lucky almond in their bowl. The lucky person wins a marzipan pig and in Germany these are given out in the New Year for good luck and are called glucksschwein.

On Mothers’ Night, the eve of Yule, it was traditional to honour the mothers of our ancestral line and the female spirits that looked over our families, as well as the Goddesses Freyja and Frigg. This can be done anytime throughout the year, but Yuletide is an extra special time as the veil between our worlds is at its thinnest, making it easier for them to hear and talk to us. Just lighting a small candle and conveying our gratitude to them is a meaningful gesture; for without their sacrifices and love we wouldn’t be here today.

The ancient symbol of the sun wheel or cross, used in sympathetic fire magic to invoke the return of the sun, can be easily crafted with small branches and evergreens. Thrown onto a Yule fire as an offering to the Gods or just simply hung up as a decorative wreath, the sun cross is a powerful image that brought hope to our ancestors during the long harsh winters of the north. Small ones can also be crafted and put on the Yule or Christmas tree.

The Yule Goat is a Yuletide figure from Scandinavian mythology, going back to the myths of Thor and his magical goats who pulled his wagon across the skies. Modern day versions are crafted out of straw and decorated with red ribbon and used as Yule ornaments. Yule Goats made out of felt or clay would also be a great craft to do.

If you are wanting to build a relationship with the Gods and Goddesses of the north, then those who have a connection with winter and the dark half of the year are Skadi the Goddess (and giantess) of winter, hunting and mountains, Ullr the God of hunting, skiing and sledding (these two did not get married after Skadi’s failed marriage to Njord the God of the sea), Nott the Goddess of night, Freyr the God of fertility and agriculture and Odinn, the all father of many names including  God of death and the Wild Hunt. Two of his names are actually Jolnir and Ylir which associate him with Yule. Thor would have been honoured at this time as well, as he is the protector of mankind. And last but not least, Sunna or Sol the goddess of the sun. I won’t add Hel (the goddess of Helheim, the world of the dead) to this list because just like Loki she was never honoured by our ancestors.

There is much debate as to whether the figure of Odin eventually morphed into the Father Christmas that we know of today. Earlier depictions of Father Christmas were of an older man, dressed in blue and green, much thinner than the Coca Cola version and much more Odin like. The eventual story of the eight reindeer could possibly be descended from the eight legs of Odin’s horse Sleipnir and the reindeer names Donner (German) and Blitzen (Old English) which mean thunder and lightning might be a connection to Thor the god of thunder. Whatever the truth, many children in Scandinavia leave straw in their boots or stockings as a treat for the reindeer or Sleipnir. Much better than a carrot!

Without doubt, food plays an important role at this time of year, so if we want to feast like a viking what do we need to serve up for the Julebord (Jule feast)? Ham, sausage, meatballs, pork ribs, mutton ribs, dumplings, pickled herrings, salmon, red beet salad with pickled vegetables and potato salad are some of the many delicacies eaten. Quite often there are dishes of moose and reindeer too.

The Scandinavians love Yuletide so much that there is an extended period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve called Romjul or Julefred which means Christmas peace. This is a quiet time where many of the shops are closed and people spend this week with family, enjoying some downtime or winter sports. All hunting is prohibited at this time as well. This period is a perfect excuse to reflect on the past year and to think ahead to the next twelve months; learning from past lessons and setting future goals. Then perhaps swearing an oath to the Gods on Nyttar (New Year’s Eve). At your peril of course 😉

Wishing you all a lovely Christmas, God Jul and a wonderful New Year,

Brightest Blessings,







Ancient Winter Rites

Yule as a twelve day celebration is a modern concept inspired by the Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. In fact, this midwinter celebration only spanned three nights, most likely during the three nights of the full moon, much like other ancient Scandinavian festivals such as Winter Nights.

The word Yule has Indo European roots that are still visible in northern Europe today. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden it is called Jul and in Iceland and the Faroe Islands it is Jol. The proto Germanic word for Yule was Jehwla and the old English word used by the Anglo Saxons was Giuli and the whole season which roughly corresponded to the months of December and January was called Geola. December, in Anglo Saxon England was referred to as aerra Geola meaning the time before Yule and January was called fterra Geola meaning the time following Yule. In Bede’s ‘The Reckoning of Time’, he wrote that Giuli was the day that the sun turned back before increasing in light again. The Anglo Saxons made this day the first of their new year and began their celebrations with Modranecht (Modraniht). Bede explained that these old festivities were celebrated at the same time as Christmas because back when the Julian calendar was used, the 25th of December was the time of the winter solstice.  Bede, being a Christian monk, does not go into any details about how these rites were celebrated.

Modranecht took place on the eve of the midwinter festival. Mothers’ Night was spent honouring all mothers and also the disir (female spirits that looked over the family). Mothers, who through both their suffering and joy enabled their children to grow and thrive; life giving like the sun. There is a lot of evidence of there once being a Germanic Mother cult, but we are not sure whether this cult had anything to do with Mothers’ Night. There is no evidence of Modranecht ever being observed in Scandinavia, but that doesn’t mean that it never was.

The word Jol in Swedish means wheel; the seasonal wheel that turns and represents the cycle of life. Goddess Frigg, the wife of Odin while in her palace spun clouds that floated down to the human world of Midgard. Perhaps this wheel is reminiscent of Frigg’s own spinning wheel.

Yule is rarely mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas, but from what little is written we do know that this time of year was celebrated with much feasting, singing and drinking. However, nothing is said about the rituals or prayers that were performed, due mainly to the fact that the authors of these ancient texts were Christian.

In the Saga of Hakon the Good, the Norwegian Christian king Hakon passed a law that all Pagan and Christian festivities were to be celebrated at the same time. He also stipulated that during this period four gallons of ale were to be drunk by every man.This was known as ‘drinking jol’. King Hakon was extremely tolerant of his Pagan subjects and did not force his own faith upon them and they were very accepting of their Christian king too.

Animals would have been sacrificed for the Yule feasts and were also offerings to the Gods, especially horses. King Hakon was once invited to a pagan Yule feast where he refused to eat the horse meat that was being served because the act of doing so was pagan. In the end, to keep the peace, he compromised and just smelt the aromas of the cooked meat. At another Yule feast, things didn’t go as smoothly and it is said that Hakon was forced to eat some horse liver without being able to make the sign of the cross beforehand.

In Svarfdaela Saga, there is mention of a warrior who postpones a fight until after Yule and there is a detailed account of a Yule feast in Egil’s Saga Skallagrimssonar. In the Saga of Grettir, two Norwegian farmers drink ‘Yule’ together and in the Saga of the Greenlanders, Eric the Red is worried that he will not be ready to host a Yule feast. However, he is saved when Thorfinnar brings malt with him to make ale. Lastly there is a funny story about a farmer called Ingjaldur who pushes aside his dislike of foreigners so he can buy some decorative Yule evergreens for his feast from a Norwegian merchant. Being a good host was seen as extremely important, so the food, drink and even the décor was seriously undertaken.

The swearing of oaths was seen as extremely grave and important during the Viking age. Oaths were ironclad and if broken could be punished by death if they were not fulfilled. Oaths made at Yule were even more seriously undertaken and some appear to have been marriage related, such as in Hervarar saga ok Heidreks and Sturlaugs saga starfsama. The oaths were made by swearing on a boar’s head like Helgi did in Helgakvida Hjorvardssonar.

There used to be a ritual where men would toast to their future deeds; much like New Year’s resolutions, but more meaningful and serious. Again hands were laid on a boar’s head and the sacrificial animal was offered up to the Gods with the sworn oath. A sacred oath to Freyr perhaps because the boar was associated with him.

One of the oldest symbols of this time of year is the Yulebukk or the Yule Goat, which is believed to have its roots in Indo European folklore. In Scandinavia today the Yule Goat is an ornament made out of straw and decorated with red ribbon. It is traditional for some people to burn the straw Yulebukk as an offering to the Gods on their Yule fire. The Yulebukk has an ancient connection to the God Thor and his magical goats, Tanngrisni (Gap Tooth) and Tanngnost (Tooth Grinder) who pull his wagon across the sky. Large versions of the Yule Goat can be found in towns and cities all over Scandinavia at this time of year. The best known one is the Gavle Goat which is erected at the beginning of Advent.

It was traditional to sacrifice a goat as well as cattle and horses during the long dark winter months, but with the arrival of Christianity, animal sacrifice was forbidden. Pagans, therefore, began to dress themselves up in goat skins and wear masks, going from door to door, singing, dancing and offering blessings to the household in exchange for food, drink or money. Even today children in Scandinavia dress up in masks and go knocking on people’s doors, singing and receiving sweets.

In Finland children are visited by the Joulupukki, the Yule goat, and this is very similar to an ancient Finnish tradition where people called the Nuutipukkis used to dress up in goat hides and dance around singing.

The Joulupukki goes from house to house on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, knocking on doors and asking if there are any good children living there. If so, then presents are given and opened. The Joulupukki wears a red coat and walks with a wooden walking stick. His workshop is in Korvatunturi, Lapland and he is married to Joulumuori (Mother Yule).

Another Yule character was the Yule Cat and in the 19th century good children used to receive new clothes at Yule while naughty children were taken away by the Yule Cat.

One of the most ancient symbols of all is the sun cross that goes back as far as the Neolithic and Bronze age periods. The sun cross looks like a circle with a cross inside of it and can also resemble a wagon wheel with spokes. Also known as Odin’s wheel it was often made with evergreens and tree branches (like a wreath) and thrown onto the Yule fire to invoke the sun’s return. Other folk would set a large sun wheel on fire and roll it down a hill, with the same intention of invoking the sun that blessed the earth with life and abundance.

There was an old Scandinavian custom that used the last ear of corn reaped at the last harvest to bake a loaf of bread in the shape of a boar.

A tomte (Sweden), nisse (Norway and Denmark) or tonttu (Finland) is a little creature from Scandinavian folklore that is associated with Yule. He has a long white beard, a tall pointy red hat and is a mischievous gnome who looks after the farm and its inhabitants including the livestock. His name means ‘homestead man’.

A tomte doesn’t ask for much in return for his hard work, just a bowl of porridge at Yule/Christmas with plenty of butter on top. A well looked after farm is one that has a happy tomte living there. Tomten are even prepared to steal from neighbouring farms to keep things running smoothly. A solitary figure, the tomte does not take kindly to interference or foolery and can resort to nastiness if he isn’t pleased; from small pranks to killing livestock. In Sweden, the Yule Tomte accompanies the Yule Goat who pulls a sleigh full of gifts for all the children. The tomte was also known as the haugkall which translates to ‘mound farmer’. As the ancestors were buried in mounds and were believed to live there, it is more than likely that this figure from folklore has roots in an ancestral cult. If a farm was doing much better than its neighbours, then a farmer could be accused of having a tomte that was carrying out ungodly work and stealing from other farms. At the time this was seen to be as terrible as witchcraft.

If you know of any European folklore or customs that are associated with Yule then I would love to hear about them.

Lastly, I have had to anglicise some of the Scandinavian names as I am typing on an English keyboard.

Wishing you a beautiful Yuletide,

Brightest Blessings,







Old English Christmas Part 3

The 26th of December commemorates the death by stoning of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. On this day there used to be bird shooting, as well as wren and squirrel hunting (hunting for squirrels was a very ancient sport that was practised for many centuries in England especially in the New Forest). The 26th of December is called ‘Boxing Day’ and in Norfolk it was called ‘Offering Day’, from an ancient custom of giving and receiving gifts, usually money, clothes and food. Those who usually received a Christmas Box were servants and workers such as errand boys and postmen.

The Christmas box in question was an earthenware box with a slot in the side or top which was large enough for coins to be pushed through it. To access the money, the box had to be smashed. As the years progressed, the Christmas box became books, gloves, chocolate or similar.

Hunting the wren was a very old custom which is steeped in oral tradition. Young boys would carry a cage of dead wrens, going from door to door asking for money. A wren’s feather was then given in return. It appears that a feather from a wren killed on St Stephen’s Day averted the danger of a shipwreck. St Stephen’s Day was also known as Wrenning Day.

In Brighten there was a custom of bowling with oranges along the high streets. The one who hit another players orange with his own won that orange.

It used to be a common practice to bleed horses and cattle on St Stephen’s Day as it was believed that periodical bleeding was good for the health of hard working animal (Naturalists’ Field Club, 1877). ” If you bleed your nag on St Stephen’s Day, he’ll work your ‘wark’ for ever and A.”

The wish to end the Old Year and begin the New Year joyously has been achieved for hundreds of years by celebrating ancient customs passed down from generation to generation. Happy gatherings in the home and street, drinking from the wassail bowl and the pealing of the church bells all signalled the start of another twelve months.

It was customary in the 16th and 17th centuries to have late evening parties at home or to join merry crowds in the streets, where young boys and girls went freely among the gatherers disguised as mummers. Many kept up the old tradition of sitting up until about half an hour after midnight to listen to the ringing of the bells and to exchange new year’s wishes with their family and friends.

In Northumberland it was customary to decorate the last ‘corf’ of coal brought up from the coal mine with lighted candles in anticipation of the coming new year.

In the north of England and Scotland the last day of the old year is and was called ‘Hogmanay’ and so was the gift of an oatmeal cake, for which children went around begging on that day. Spice bread and cheese were also eaten. The oldest forms of the name were ‘Hogmena’ and Hagmena’. The Scandinavian celebration was called Hoggo-nott’ and it is most likely that the Vikings brought this tradition with them when they landed in the Orkney Islands. The church disapproved unsurprisingly of these celebrations, “It is ordinary among some Plebians, in the south of Scotland, to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane.” ( Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, 1693).

It was customary in Yorkshire for the keeper of the pinfold (an Anglo Saxon word for an area where stray farm animals were rounded up) to knock on people’s doors singing. He was followed by a group of adults and children who would shout “Hagman Heigh” at the end of every verse.

In many parts of England the most popular form of divination at midnight on New Year’s Eve was to simply open the bible by chance and to glean any message about the good and bad luck of the coming year from that page. The text on which the fore-finger of the right hand rested was suppose to foretell the future. A pin was sometimes used as well. This was something mainly practiced by older women.

Young women who wanted to know the first letter of their future husband’s name turned to the bible and key divination. A large key was inserted into the pages of the bible, exactly over the 6th and 7th verses of the last chapter of Solomon’s Song. The girl who was wanting an answer then tied the bible with the garter from her right leg and with a female friend placed each a finger under the bow of the key. The girl then repeated the two verses for each letter of the alphabet. It was believed that when she reached the letter of his first name the bible moved. If the bible didn’t move then she was to remain unmarried (The Vocabulary of East Anglia 1830).

There were many ways that young women used divination to discover the identity of a likely husband. A table might be laid for herself and her future husband or a fresh egg was pricked with a needle and three drops of the white were allowed to fall into a bowl of water. The fantastic shapes that appeared were then read for omens. Some young women washed their sark (a Scottish word for a night shirt or chemise) and left it to dry on the back of a chair. They would lie awake waiting and hoping to see the form of their future husband appear and turn over their sark.

In Suffolk it was known for four girls to prepare dinner for five and then for each of them to sit in a corner of the room until midnight and wait for one of their future husbands. (Country, vol. 1 by Lady Eveline Camilla Gurdon 1893).

To know of any warnings for the coming year, there were divinations by the means of the ashes and the midnight watch in or near a church porch.

These are some popular sayings and beliefs of the time.

“It is very unlucky to let the fire go out on the night of New Year’s Eve.”

“It is unlucky to give fire or a light out of the house on New Year’s Eve.”

To take a silver coin out of the house during the night of New Year’s Eve, to hide it and then to bring it back into the house the following morning was believed to insure a supply of money during the coming year ( In Cornwall).

“It is unlucky to continue the knitting of a stocking into the New Year.” (Household Tales, Sidney Oldall Addy, 1895).

It was seen as unlucky to start a journey or venture on New Year’s Eve because of the assumption that there was a connection with Judas.

The well of St Euny in Cornwall was believed to be at its most powerful healing capacity on the last day of the year (The History of Cornwall, Rev. R. Polwhele 1816).

I am sad to say that this is the final part of my Old English Christmas Customs Series. I must say that I have learnt a lot from my research. Some of these traditions are fantastical, while others I can actually see myself using.

If you know of any European Traditions pertaining to this time of year, for example La Befana, the Christmas witch from Italy, then I would love to hear about them.

Brightest Blessings,




Old English Christmas Part 2

One of the most popular customs of this season for our Christian ancestors was the Christmas decorations. Long before the arrival of Christianity evergreens were used to decorate sacred places such as groves and holy wells and the early Christians later adopted this tradition for both their churches and their homes. The holly, one of the most common evergreens was used in the Roman festival of Saturnalia which took place about the third week in December and it seems that the Roman Catholics brought this custom with them to England. Rosemary, laurel, bay, holly and box were used frequently where as fir, yew and mistletoe, were not used that much in churches. Perhaps their connection to pagan spirituality was the reason for this. However, all of these evergreens were used to decorate homes, market crosses and other public places.

“Now with bright holly all your temples strow, with laurel green and sacred mistletoe”. John Gray’s book ‘Trivia’ 1716.

Over the centuries rosemary has been a symbol of love, death and remembrance. One legend describes how the virgin Mary once rested by a rosemary bush while travelling and her cloak that touched the flowers turned them from white to blue. And that is where the herb’s name comes from; the Rose of Mary. Rosemary garlands used to be hung around church pillars and sprigs were placed on the floor and altar. Roman priests used it as an incense and it was also burned in homes where someone had died. It was thought to protect against witches too.

Like many of the evergreens, bay laurel was thought to protect against thunder and lightning. Sacred to the sun it was used to expel household smells.

Druids performed rituals in yew groves as well as oak groves. Connected to sacred wells and springs the yew’s symbolism of death clung to it more than its symbolism of eternity.

It was recorded in Derbyshire that at least one of the leaded diamond shaped windows of a cottage should have a sprig of holly, yew and box in it. However, the yew was not be taken from a church yard tree and the box had to be cut from a garden. In many parts of England it was seen as unlucky to bring holly and mistletoe into the house before Christmas Day and everyone had a different opinion as to when all of these decorations should be taken down. Ranging from Old Christmas day (5th or 6th January) to Candlemas day, the reason for their choice of date was always tempting ill luck or death if one didn’t follow what they saw as the customary day.

Some people used to burn the old evergreens while others believed this to be unlucky. (Folk-lore, vol. 2 ). In Staffordshire, people were known to keep some of their Christmas evergreens all year so as to prevent their house being struck by lightning (Folk-lore, vol. 7, 1896). In old farm houses a mistletoe bush hung from the kitchen ceiling until the following Christmas Eve, when it was burned and a fresh one was put up.

Leaves that stay green all year round have always been seen as a symbol of eternal life. They are usually the only greenery available in the middle of winter and the only trees and shrubs to bear berries.

In Medieval times, holly was believed to possess special healing powers and was used to treat fevers, rheumatism and colds. A lost traveller would have always looked to shelter under a holly bush so as to stay safe from evil spirits and a sprig of holly taken from a church decoration and hung at home would bring happiness and holiness to the household for the whole year.

Mistletoe was a sacred plant in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. It was used in Druid rituals to thank the Gods for the end of the winter and the coming of spring. Just like holly, mistletoe was supposed to have healing powers too that could heal anything from toothache to epilepsy. It was also seen as a powerful protector from witchcraft.

In the northern counties of England, mistletoe was not easy to come by, so as a substitute people would have the ‘kissing bush’ instead. The Kissing Bough, as it was also known as, was a circle of evergreen on a framework of either iron, wood or willow shoots.  There was a ring of candles above it and a ring of red apples below it. Sometimes small toys, dolls, oranges, nuts and trinkets were hung from it on ribbons. It was hung like a crown from the ceiling and was just high enough for two people to kiss underneath it.

The custom of decorating a tree at this time of year originates from northern Germany, in the valley of the Upper Rhine. There is a legend about St Boniface who is said to have offered the pagans he was trying to convert a young fir tree to replace their sacred oak. The fir tree was a symbol of the new faith he was preaching. During the Middle Ages, a play called The Paradise Play was performed around a fir tree decorated with apples inside a ring of lighted candles. After the play was no longer popular, the fir tree continued to be decorated at Christmas and people eventually brought it in to their homes. At first it was decorated with small white wafers that represented the body of Christ and eventually these were replaced with stars, angels, hearts, flowers and bells made out of pastry.  In Strasbourg, at the beginning of the 17th century people decorated their fir trees with apples, sweets and paper roses. And by the middle of the century, candles and glittery decorations were added.

It is widely believed that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband introduced the Christmas tree to England when he brought one back from his native Germany  in 1841 to Windsor Castle. But actually, it was a member of Queen Caroline’s household who brought one over from Germany twenty years previously for a children’s party. In some regions it was traditional to fasten a large yew branch to a table and decorate it with taper candles and tissue paper. The children would then leave presents that they had made themselves for their parents underneath it on Christmas Eve. Then on Christmas day the parents would lay out the children’s presents on the table itself.

We all know about the tradition of ‘letting in the new year’, but long before this there was the custom of letting in Christmas day which was generally celebrated in the northern counties of England. A dark haired man would be paid to come into the house on Christmas morning before any other person was allowed to enter. The man usually walked in the front door and then walked straight out the back door. The concept of ‘first footing’ was to bring good luck to the household. Women were excluded from this custom and were quite often not allowed to enter the house at all on Christmas day as it was feared unlucky.  It is thought that the reason why no red haired man was ever given this important role was due to the fact that many Viking raiders probably had red hair and over the centuries this dark memory grew into a superstitious tradition. After the conversion of Christianity the man with the red hair morphed into Judas Iscariot (British Calendar Customs vol. III)

Before the conversion of the Germanic peoples to Christianity it is believed that they decorated their trees outside at this time of year. As it was a pagan custom, it was viewed with disdain, so for those pagans who wished to continue to practice the old ways, they brought the trees inside their homes to avoid persecution.

In Cornwall, there was a children’s game that had them dancing around a basket filled with sand and lighted candles. The girls would dance around first and then the boys, all singing in a circle. This is more than likely a remnant of an ancient fire rite that was once performed at the winter solstice.

I will again end this Christmas post with some popular sayings of the time.

“If the sun shines on the apple trees on Christmas day, there will be a good crop next season.”

“If the sun shines through the church windows on Christmas morning, the next year will be a good one for fruit.”

“A windy Christmas day is followed by a good year for fruit.”

“A cricket chirruping at Christmas is a sign of good luck during the coming year.”

“A person born on Christmas day will be able to see spirits.”

“It is unlucky not to have both holly and mistletoe in the house at Christmas; they should be taken in together and part of the holly should be of the smooth and the remaining part of the prickly kind.”

If you bring yew into the house at Christmas among the other evergreens, you will have a death in the family before the end of the year.”

“No fire, in any form, must be given out of the house on Christmas day, nor some say, on any following day until Old Twelfth day is gone.”

“Christmas day is a lucky day on which to be born.”

“You will have a lucky month for each different person’s pudding you taste at Christmas.”

“To keep Christmas cakes or parts of them for a year will bring luck.”

“Hours of sun on Christmas day, so many frosts in the month of May.”

“If it rains much during the twelve days after Christmas day, the country people say that the following year will be wet.”

“If Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we will see.”

“If Christmas day fall on a Monday, the winter will be severe and windy and tempests will be experienced in the summer.”

“If Christmas fall upon a Thursday, the year shall be temperate and healthy, but the summer will be rainy.”

“A Saturday’s Christmas is supposed to bring about a foggy winter and a cold summer.”

Well, there you have it, the second part of my Old English Christmas Customs series. This was another fun blog post to research and I hope that you enjoy reading it. If you want to find out more about holly, ivy and mistletoe or about the origins of Yule you can find other posts about those on my blog. Part 3 of this series will be coming soon.

Brightest Blessings,











Old English Christmas Part 1

Christmas Eve, since the time of the conversion of Christianity, used to be and still is the last day of preparations for the most important Christian festival of the year besides Easter. The Yule log was brought home and traditional food was served such as bread and cheese ( the latter had crosses cut into it before it was eaten), ale, hot elderberry wine and also frumenty; a kind of porridge made from wheat that was boiled in milk with added sugar and spices. There was Yule cake too which was not to be cut before this day.

In many parts of the country carol singing was in full swing, especially in the evening and church bells were rung at different times of the day and night. Mummer’s plays and wassailing were popular too, taking place on either Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or St Stephen’s Day.

The Yule log was traditionally brought to the kitchen hearth or fireplace where it was lit at dusk on Christmas Eve and left to burn for at least twelve hours so as to avert bad luck. Sometimes the Yule log was even a root of a tree. It was seen as unlucky for the log to be lit before then and even more unlucky if the fire went out before the log was fully burned. Where these customs and superstitions originate from is not known exactly, but they are clearly steeped in ancient pagan spiritual beliefs and it is funny to think that Christian folk unknowingly celebrated the birth of Christ by continuing  their ancestors’ traditions. The custom of burning the Yule log continued up until the early 20th century , where the log was called the Christmas Braun (Christmas Brand). In other parts of England it was called the mock or clog.

Into the fire with the Yule log was thrown a fragment of the previous year’s log as it was believed that the house would burn down if this was not done. People sat around the fire and told each other stories, played music and cards, sang songs and danced. The larger the log the better, as the smouldering ash could be re-ignited at any time during the following twelve days, which suggests much merriment and hospitality was enjoyed. After the Yule log had finished burning, a remnant was saved and put under the bed for the following Christmas.

In Devonshire (Devon) an ashen faggot (a bundle of sticks) was generally used instead of a Yule log. On Christmas Eve, 1836, in the old Torwood Manor House, Torquay, the bundle was bound together by as many binds of withe (willow or hazel)  as possible and when it was held by two chains, the ashen faggot was taken to the house by four oxen. One ox would have been enough, but four were customary. The ash tree which burns very well was venerated in these parts and was also used for charms. Gipsies were known to burn an ash tree at Christmas too. The bundle of ash sticks was placed on the blazing hearth and while the young folk played cards and the elders talked of old times, their gazes would have been locked on the fate of the binds as they burned. These were used for divination. Before the faggot was lit each young person would choose a binding. It was believed that the binding that burnt through first indicated the first to marry.  (Trans. Devon Assoc, vol. 6, Plymouth 1873).

The Yule candle which was usually about 18 inches high was lit at the same time as the Yule log  and set in the centre of the table. To avoid bad luck the candle was not moved during the meal, nor blown out. If the candle had to be extinguished then it was done with a pair of tongs that carefully squeezed the wick. Sometimes the Yule candle was coloured red, blue or green and decorated with evergreens. Again a piece of wax may have been kept for good luck.

In the Middle Ages the lord of the Manor, sitting on a raised platform at the end of his hall would have watched as the boar’s head was brought in for the feast. Sprigs of rosemary would be sticking out of its ears and an apple or orange in its mouth. The rosemary represented the return of the sun and the symbol of the boar was associated in ancient times with the Norse God Frey, the God of fertility. The feast would have had other delicacies such as peacock and swan. Turkeys were unknown until the 16th century when they were brought over from Mexico.

In the 17th century, a Christmas pie was served in some households with a wonderful filling of beef’s tongue, wild bird, game, poultry, goose  eggs, sugar, raisins, lemon and orange peel and a variety of spices. Hopefully not all in the same pie! Christmas cake in Cornwall consisted of saffron and currants and in Durham and Northumberland currant filled Yule dough made of flour, barm (old English word for yeast), lemon peel and nutmeg or gingerbread was given to children in the shape of a doll or Yule baby. There were also currants for the eyes, mouth, nose and buttons for down the front. The Yule cake was sometimes as large as a dinner plate and three inches thick.

Some households baked a large apple pie on Christmas Eve which was served with a posset of ale and milk mixed together. A large spoon was placed in the posset pot which was then passed around the table for everyone to drink from the spoon. The apple pie was passed around in the same way. Ale posset was the last thing people drank on Christmas Eve and frumenty was the first thing eaten on Christmas Day (Household Tales, Sidney Oldall Addy 1895).

Mince pies were eaten in England long before they became associated with Christmas. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought with them many spices including cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg. These were mixed with minced meat, seasoned and covered with pastry. Before the Reformation the mince pie was oblong in shape to represent a manger and often had a little figure of Jesus on the top. When the Puritans abolished Christmas festivities, the mince pies were eaten in secret. By the end of the 1700’s  the meat part of the pie had disappeared and in its place was just a sweet filling and it was now circular in shape. Plum porridge was also popular at this time and it too morphed into something else and by 1670 became the Christmas pudding that we know today. The custom of stirring the pudding and making a wish is a very old one and some people put a silver coin, a thimble and a ring into the mixture as well. Good fortune for the person who found the coin, a wedding for the ring finder and a happy, but unmarried life for the person who came across the thimble.

It was customary to give cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and birds an extra supply of food on Christmas Eve because it was believed that the animals knew that it was a holy time. In Cornwall the last sheaf of corn that was cut at the harvest was taken down from the farm house kitchen ceiling and taken down to the cattle (The Dialect of Hartland, Richard Pearce Chope, 1891)

The old custom of wassailing apple trees and other trees with the view to insure a good fruit harvest in the autumn was celebrated on different days between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night which is 5th January (Old Twelfth Night was 17th January). In Warleggan, Cornwall it was the custom to pour some cider into the fire and then take the rest with a gun out to the orchard. Putting a small branch in the cider they said, “Here’s to thee, old apple tree, hats full, sacks full, great bushel bags full. Hurrah!” And then the gun was fired. In Tavistock, Devonshire, farmers and their men would take a large bowl of cider out to the orchard and toast the trees; saluting them first before sprinkling the cider on the roots and the branches.  Forming a circle they would sing,” Health to thee, good apple tree, well to bear, pocket fulls, hat fulls, peek fulls, bushel bags full. ( Western Antiquity, vol. 3 Plymouth 1883) (Old Church Life 1900 William Andrews).

For almost one thousand years a regular fixture of Christmas was mumming. Young men and women would dress up, wear masks and dance and play hoping for money or food in return. However, these performances were meant for the common folk and not for the stage. The words for these plays were never written down, but were passed on from generation to generation, so in time there were many variations in dialogue and action. Despite these changes the central theme stayed the same; good defeats evil. St George kills the dragon or the Turkish knight. However, the play is so old, like many customs, that its roots cannot be traced, but we can be sure that the mummers’ play stems from pagan rites most certainly  connected to the Winter Solstice as well as the Vernal Equinox.

The play usually began with a sword dance which showed a mock death and resurrection. The victim stood or knelt in the centre of a ring and the rest of the dancers locked their swords around his neck. The swords were drawn and the victim fell ‘dead’. So died the spirit of life or the old year. A dance of rejoicing followed when the victim came back to life and the year was renewed. During the 15th century the dance became an acted play with rhyming couplets and it has hardly changed since.

Only in Stourton in Wiltshire was there the Christmas Bull. A strange tradition where the head of a bull which was crafted with large bottle eyes, large horns and a lolling tongue was supported and manipulated by a man stooping over a broomstick and covered by a sack. The head of the bull was attached to one end of the broomstick and the other end had a tail made of a piece of rope. It was very much like riding a hobby horse in fact. The bull’s head was used to knock on people’s doors and if entry was allowed the bull would chase any children around the house. Apparently this bull was kept by the same family for over 100 years and was last used around the 1890’s(The Antiquary, vol. 44, 1908).

In various newspapers and church records it was noted that mistletoe was blessed and put on the altar, after which it was handed out to those who needed its medicinal properties, especially in cases of fever ( The Midland Weekly News, 30th December 1893). In York, after the mistletoe had been placed on the altar of York Minster, amnesty was granted to all men with little merit, loitering about the gates of the city (Yorkshire in Olden Times, William Andrews 1890). It was also recorded that some churches actually decorated with holly and mistletoe (Bilston Church 1672).

Christmas Eve was a popular time for divination especially for young women wishing to know when they would wed. In Devonshire, when an unmarried girl went to the door of the chicken coop and knocked loudly, if she heard a hen first it was not promising, but if she heard the rooster, then it was believed that she would marry within the year (Nummits and Crummits, Sarah Hewett 1900).

In Northamptonshire, if a young girl went out into the garden at midnight and picked twelve sage leaves it was believed that she would see the shadowy form of her future husband. She had to be careful though not to break or bruise the stems (Dialect and Folklore of Northamptonshire, Thomas Sternberg, 1851).

In Oxfordshire, if a young girl baked a dough cake in silence and pricked her initials on it, then her future husband would walk in through the open door at midnight, prick his own initials next to the girl’s and walk straight out again ( Folk-Lore, vol. 24, 1913).

If a girl walked backwards towards a pear tree on Christmas Eve and walk around it three times then it was believed that she would see an image of her future husband (Household Tales, Sidney Oldall Addy, 1895).

To end my blog post about Christmas Eve in times gone by, here are some popular sayings and beliefs.

“It is very unlucky to give out fire or a light from the house on Christmas Eve”.

“It is unlucky to cut into the Christmas cheese before supper”.

“It is unlucky to have any soap suds or wet ashes in the house during the time between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night”.

“It is unlucky to cut the Yule cake before Christmas Eve”.

“It is unlucky to take down the mistletoe before the following Christmas Eve”.

“A piece of mistletoe tied in a small bag  and hung around the neck is a certain safeguard against witchcraft”.

“On Christmas Eve, when the clock strikes the midnight hour, open all the doors to let out all the bad spirits”.

“On Christmas Eve, the fairies meet at the bottom of the mine and perform a mass in celebration of the birth of Christ” (Cornwall).

It was believed in Bury St Edmunds that on Christmas Eve, at midnight, a spectral coach drawn by four headless horses and driven by a headless coachman used to appear.

Many of these customs, beliefs and superstitions must have been preserved for thousands of years by people who gradually through time sadly lost their true meanings and origins.

Considering how it was frowned upon to be superstitious if you were a Christian, I am surprised how many Christians actually were.

I hope you enjoyed reading this blog post as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. To think that the traditions that we follow today go much farther back than we could imagine.

Part 2 coming soon.

Brightest Blessings











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