Christmas Eve, since the time of the conversion of Christianity, was and still is the last day of preparations for the second most important Christian festival of the year. The Yule log was brought into the 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 had 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, when 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, 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 was 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. Sometimes the Yule candle was red, blue or green in colour 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 associated with 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. 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 of 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 extra feed 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 of insuring 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 down 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 arrival of summer.
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. The bull’s head was used to knock on people’s doors and if entry was permitted 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 worth, loitering about the gates of the city (Yorkshire in Olden Times, William Andrews 1890).
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 walked around it three times then it was believed that she would see an image of her future husband (Household Tales, Sidney Oldall Addy, 1895).
I will end this post about bygone times, with some popular Christmas Eve 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 these old English traditions as much as I enjoyed researching and writing about them. To think that the traditions we follow today go back much farther than we could ever imagine.
British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright 1936
A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978