The 26th December commemorates the death by stoning of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. On this day there was bird shooting, as well as wren and squirrel hunting. Hunting squirrels was a very ancient sport that was practised for many centuries in England especially in the New Forest. This day is still 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 normally received a Christmas Box were servants and workers such as errand boys and postmen.
The Christmas box 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 broken. As the years passed, the Christmas box turned into gifts such as books, gloves and chocolate.
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 player’s orange with his own won that orange.
It used to be a common practice to bleed horses and cattle on St Stephen’s Day because it was believed that periodical bleeding was good for the health of hard working animals. “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 has been a tradition for hundreds of years. Joyous 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 half past midnight to listen to the ringing of the bells and to exchange New Year’s wishes with 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 in Scotland, the last day of the old year was and is still 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 and read the bible at a random page to glean any message, good or bad for the coming year. The text on which the fore-finger of the right hand rested was suppose to foretell the future. A pin was sometimes used for this. It was normally older women who practised this.
Young women who wanted to know the first letter of their future husband’s name turned to 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 unusual 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 means of reading 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 An Old English Christmas. I must say that I have learnt so much. Some of these traditions are fantastical, while others I can actually see myself adding to my own practice.
British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936
A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978