Wytch Hazel Cottage

Reclaiming Our Ancestral Folkways

Category: An Old English Winter

An Old English Christmas (3)

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.

Sources:

British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936

A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978

An Old English Christmas (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 homes and sacred spaces such as groves. The early Christians later adopted this tradition for their churches.

The holly, one of the most common evergreens, was used in the Roman festival of Saturnalia which took place around the third week of December and it seems that the Roman Catholics brought this custom with them to England. Rosemary, laurel, bay, holly and box were frequently used where as fir, yew and mistletoe were avoided in churches decorations. Perhaps their connection to the old traditions 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 touched the flowers turning them from white to blue. This is where the herb’s name comes from, the ‘Rose of Mary’. Rosemary garlands were wrapped around church pillars and sprigs were placed on the floor and altar. Roman priests used rosemary as an incense and it was also burned in homes where someone had died. It was also thought to protect against witches.

Like many evergreens, bay laurel was thought to protect against thunder and lightning. Sacred to the sun it was used to get rid of 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 churchyard 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. In Staffordshire, people were known to keep some of their Christmas evergreens all year to prevent their house being struck by lightning. 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 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 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 those 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 also 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 men were 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.

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 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 An Old English Christmas. This was another fun one to research and I hope that you enjoyed reading it. If you want to find out more about holly, ivy and mistletoe or about the origins of Yule you can find those posts under the category entitled ‘An Old English Winter’.

Sources:

British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936

A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978

An Old English Christmas (1)

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.

Sources:

British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright 1936

A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978

Wassailing Traditions

Wassailing has been associated with Yuletide for hundreds of years. The word wassail comes from the Anglo Saxon “waes hael” meaning to be of good health. This old custom took place at the beginning of the New Year when good wishes could be passed between family and friends.

Wassail is an ale which is seasoned with spices and honey and was served in huge bowls made of pewter or silver with perhaps an egg or two. The huge bowl was passed around with the greeting of “wassail” and was often taken to other people’s homes as well. This has now become the tradition of carol singing. The lord of the manor would often shout “waes hael” and the assembled crowd would reply “drinc hael” which means drink and be healthy. He would then give food and drink to them in exchange for their blessings and good will. ” Love and joy come to you and to your wassail too. And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year”.

Apple Tree Wassails are songs that were sung to the health of the apple trees. In some places this tradition took place on Christmas Eve and in others it was on twelfth night ( 6th January or 17th January before the calendar changed in England in 1752). For others, New Year’s Day morning had young boys “Apple Howling”, where they would beat the trees with willow sticks and sing rhymes.

It was tradition to sprinkle wassail ale around the base of the apple trees and to pour it on the roots of the largest and most beautiful tree, after which it was dressed with ribbons or strips of cloth. Pieces of toast soaked in ale were also placed in between the tree’s branches.

The villagers would then gather around the orchard, banging on pots and pans, making a tremendous noise to wake up the spirit of the trees and to frighten away any bad spirits.

Wassail songs were sung or chanted as a blessing to bring a good apple harvest the following autumn. Part of the labourers’ wages would have been paid in ale, so the owner of the orchard needed healthy abundant apple crops to attract good workers.

“Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sacks fills…”

In parts of the UK there are still places that practice wassailing, so keep your eyes open for these and join in the fun. If not you could perhaps buy a small fruit tree and adapt this tradition to suit you.

Ivy In European Folklore

Ivy is a climbing vine that attaches itself to stone, brick and other surfaces, including trees. It climbs by way of small tendrils that grow from the vine which can become large as each tendril sends out another branch. It does not take very long for ivy to completely grow up a wall and cover it. Although it is not likely to damage a brick wall, it can become extremely invasive. Ivy leaves are heart shaped and can be green with white or cream accents. Unlike other plants, ivy flowers in the autumn and sets seeds in the spring.

Ivy has a fascinating history full of tradition and folklore and like holly and mistletoe stays green throughout the year. This fact led to the belief that it had magical and protective qualities and was therefore used to decorate homes during the winter months. Ivy has become a symbol of eternal life because it is often found growing on dead or decaying trees, as well as being found growing over headstones in cemeteries. However, at the same time because it is often found in cemeteries it was also viewed as a symbol of death. It used to be said that if ivy was found growing abundantly on a young girl’s grave it meant that she had died of a broken heart.

In other traditions, ivy was a symbol of marriage, fidelity, luck and love. This was perhaps due to its tendency to bind. Brides and grooms in Greece wore crowns of ivy as a symbol of fidelity.

Some versions of the Medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, refer to ivy’s ability to bind. Tristan was a Cornish knight and Isolde was an Irish princess. Tristan went to Ireland to bring her back as a bride for King Mark. However, Tristan and Isolde fell in love before they reached Cornwall after drinking a love potion.

In ancient Rome, ivy was associated with Bacchus also known as Dionysus in Greek mythology, the God of wine and revelry. It was said that a handful of bruised ivy leaves steeped in wine would make it less intoxicating to the drinker, but at the same time more potent! For this reason, taverns used to display an ivy bush over their door as a sign that they were serving the best brew.

The Greeks and Romans held the plant in high esteem as it was seen as a protection against evil and Roman poets were crowned with a wreath of ivy so they could think more clearly. Perhaps it was the Druids who influenced the Romans, as they too wore crowns of ivy for clarity of thought. Virgil, a Roman poet, once spoke of a golden ivy that grew yellow berries. Sadly this ivy is now extinct.

Women carried ivy with them to promote fertility and wands were decorated with ivy or made from ivy wood for use in spells and fertility rites.
Ivy was also used in love divination especially at Samhain, as this following verse shows:
 

Holly In European Folklore

Holly has been traditionally connected to this time of year for thousands of years. Just like mistletoe, its origins can be traced back to northern Europe and was of great importance to our ancestors. Its leaves are dark shiny green with sharp jagged edges and its red berries were associated with blood. Druids wore holly in ceremonial head dress when they went into the forest to gather mistletoe.

Druids regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life and it was believed to have magical powers. In Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck, but hanging holly sprigs up in the home was believed to bring good luck and protection. Holly was also thought to protect homes against lightning strikes.

The holly tree is one of the trees that can be found in the Ogham (pronounced oh-am), an ancient script that can be seen on certain standing stones in Ireland and Wales. Our ancestors respected and honoured trees which were often the focal point of celebrations. Similar to runes, the Ogham can be engraved onto wooden sticks and used in divination and magic. In the Ogham the holly symbolises protection, balance and compassion.

The Ogham letter for holly is ‘Tinne’ and this word means fire. Holly has been associated with fire for many hundreds of years and was used in fires that were lit during the Winter Solstice. Charcoal made from holly was seen as extremely potent and smiths used it for making swords. Smiths were seen as almost godlike with their powers of transformation, creating weapons and tools from molten metal. The use of holly during this process made the act even more magical.

Holly was also offered up to the Roman god Saturn during the festival of Saturnalia. It was said that the holly was the sacred plant of this god and was therefore highly valued by the Romans. It was also seen as an extremely symbolic gift to offer a person.

In the north of Britain, young women who wanted to know who their future husbands would be, placed three sprigs of smooth holly leaves wrapped in a cloth tied with nine knots under their pillows at night. They hoped that theywould see him in their dreams.

It was believed that if you wore a sprig of holly then you would be protected from the faeries and a holly wreath on the door would certainly make sure nothing evil passed over the threshold.

In Scotland, it was said that holly was both feminine and masculine. Smooth leaves were feminine and the prickly ones were masculine. The type of leaves that were brought into the home at Yule indicated whether it would be the husband or the wife of the household that governed over the coming year.

Throughout Europe, holly was used to ward off evil spirits and was seen as a protective barrier, especially during the winter months when the Wild Hunt was taking place. So it would be hung over doorways and windows to stop wandering bad spirits from entering the home.

Mistletoe In European Folklore

illustration_viscum_album0Kissing under the mistletoe is an age old Christmas tradition, but have you ever actually asked yourself why we do it? Thinking about it, it all seems very strange, but there is much more to this Yuletide plant than meets the eye.

The mistletoe of northern Europe can definitely be called the original mistletoe. Viscum Album is the mistletoe that can be found in all of our ancient European traditions and legends.

The familiar white berried plant is parasitic and relies on its tree host to survive, taking the tree’s own water and nutrients. Being a parasite, mistletoe can seriously damage the tree, but fortunately this is not a problem if only one or two branches are covered. However, if it does establish itself on every branch, then it is not good news. The tree will not be able to have enough foliage of its own, nor water and nutrients and will eventually die. Thankfully, mistletoe can be managed properly if pruned.

The use of mistletoe in herbal remedies has its roots in prehistory.  According to Pliny the Elder, the Druids of Britain used to harvest mistletoe from their sacred oaks to use in rituals and medicine. It is actually very rare for mistletoe to grow on an oak tree.

A special ceremony would take place a few days after the Winter Solstice once the Druids had prepared for their sacrificial feast. Under the chosen oak they would bring two white bulls whose horns had never been bound. A Druid dressed in a white robe would then climb the oak and with a golden sickle cut the mistletoe, which they caught in a white cloak. It was important to them that the mistletoe did not touch the ground and become contaminated. The Druids divided up the boughs into sprigs and distributed them among the people, believing that the mistletoe would protect them from fire and storms as well as evil spirits. It has never been clear exactly how they used mistletoe in their herbal cures, but it has had a reputation ever since as a “Heal All” and can be used to enhance fertility, cure nervous disorders and relieve high blood pressure. (Please consult a qualified herbalist first before using any herbal remedy).

The earliest archaeological evidence of mistletoe is from the Lindow Man; a bog body found preserved in Cheshire, England from the time of the Roman occupation. Analysis of his stomach contents revealed a few grains of mistletoe pollen and this has been interpreted as evidence that he drank some sort of mistletoe drink before his death. Some people believe that the mistletoe remains are proof that he was perhaps a Druid or even a sacrificial victim of the Druids, as mistletoe is poisonous in large amounts.

Mistletoe was so sacred in the eyes of the Celts that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms and exchange a friendly greeting, keeping the truce until the following day. From this ancient custom came the practice of hanging mistletoe over a doorway as a token of good will and peace to all who entered. By the 18th century in Britain, this evolved into the kissing tradition we have today. At this time, it became popular to create a ball of mistletoe that would be hung as a Christmas decoration. If a couple was found standing under the mistletoe, they had to kiss if the mistletoe ball still had berries. For each kiss, one berry would be taken from the ball. Once all the berries were gone, all the “luck” in love and marriage was considered to be drained out of the mistletoe and it was now bad luck to kiss beneath it.

According to Norse legend, when the Goddess Frigg and her son Baldur both had dreams concerning his death, Frigg made all of the things on Earth, both living and dead, take an oath to never harm Baldur. All took an oath not to harm Baldur except the mistletoe, who Frigga considered far too young. Read the rest of this story here on one of my favourite Norse mythology pages.

The Death of Baldur

The last fact about mistletoe is that it was banned from being used in church decorations when Christianity took root in northern Europe, most likely due to its connection with the old folkways. This ban is still widely observed today.

Yule Log Traditions

The Yule log was traditionally set alight in honour of the Norse God Thor; protector of mankind and the Aesir. Usually cut from an oak tree or sometimes an ash, the log was burnt in sympathetic magic to encourage the return of the sun.

The log would have been lit with a charred remain from last year’s Yule log, symbolising the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Sprigs of holly and other evergreens were thrown onto the burning wood to encourage a year of good fortune, health and protection. The log was never left to burn completely because pieces were needed to craft into charms that would protect the wearer over the coming year.

In some parts of Scotland a similar tradition was observed, but instead of a log, a figure of an old woman was carved from an old tree trunk. The Cailleach Nolliach which means ‘Old Winter’s Wife’ was brought into the house and laid onto a burning fire. The household would then gather and watch the figure be consumed by the flames. The Cailleach did not represent new life; she represented death. To avoid death and misfortune the carving was burnt to ashes.

Traditionally, those who followed the Old Germanic folkways brought the Yule log into the home on 20th December, which they called Mothers’ Night. Before the log entered the longhouse, a procession took place through the village with the decorated tree trunk decked out in ribbons and greenery. This was seen as a joyous occasion and after being lit, the huge tree trunk was expected to burn for twelve nights; not an issue when you lived in a longhouse. The log was seen as sacred symbol and no one was allowed to walk barefoot near it or even squint!

In Yorkshire, England, it was customary for children to beg and sing from house to house as the Yule log was carried in. This tradition was called Mumping or Gooding.

Nowadays sadly, the only Yule logs we see are chocolate ones found in the frozen section of supermarkets, but we can change this and start our own Yuletide tradition. For those of you who do not have an open fire or even a fire pit outside why not buy or make candle holders out of small branches and after lighting them blow out the candle and make a wish for the new year.