Ole English Traditions

The Christmas season is filled with many traditional, if not fascinating and amusing, customs. We describe a few below for your enjoyment.

The Glastonbury Thorn
Every year the Mayor of Glastonbury, Somerset and the vicar from the church of St John the Baptist cuts sprays from the world famous Glastonbury Thorn. This is sent to the Queen for the Royal Table on Christmas Day. It is said that St Joseph of Arimathaea visited Glastonbury soon after Jesus' crucifixion in an attempt to bring Christianity to the locals and while there, founded the abbey. He also took the time to plant his thorn staff, which immediately took root and flowered. The current tree is supposedly a descendant of the original staff.

Wassailing the apple tree was another custom that is still used, to an extent, in Herefordshire and other parts of the West Country. The word wassail is from the Angol-Saxon word, wes hal, meaning `be whole`. It generally takes place on the Twelfth Night, or sometimes on 17th January, known as the Old Twelfth Night. Farmers and their families would feast on hot cakes and cider, then they would go into the orchard with more 'supplies'. I take this to mean that scrumpy is in full abundance on that night!

A cider-soaked cake is laid in the fork of a tree and then more cider is splashed on it. The menfolk fire their guns into the tree and bang on pots and pans while the rest of the people bow their heads and sing the special `Wassail Song`. This custom is said to ward off bad spirits from the orchard and encourage the good spirits to provide a bountiful crop for the following year. Even if this doesn`t work, it sure sounds like a good night out to me!

The Yule Log
Sadly, the Yule Log has all but disappeared from the scene as of late - except in the form of cakes ;-) It was thought to have been a Scandinavian custom, brought over the North Sea by invading forces. It was a big event to go out and choose the Yule Log. The specially selected log was covered with ribbons and dragged home with pride.

Anyone meeting the procession had to raise his hat in salute, for it was a good omen. The log was then burnt for the Twelve Days of Christmas and the charred remains saved to use as kindling for the following year's fire. And the charred remains served a double purpose, for it was also thought to have been a good luck charm which protected the house from lightning and fire.

But of course, even the Yule Log had certain rules that had to be followed: no squinting person or any flatfooted or barefooted woman could enter the room where the log burned. Sounds reasonable to us...

In Cornwall, the Yule Log was called The Mock. It was a great time of year for the children, for not only was it Christmas, but they were allowed to stay up until midnight to 'drink to the Mock'.

In Devon, a similar custom is still practiced called the Ashen Faggot. A faggot is cut and bound with nine bands of green ash, preferably from the same tree. It is then burned on an open fire which itself is lit by a piece of last year`s faggot. The unmarried women of the household must each choose a band. The girl whose band is the first to burst into flames is the next one to be married.

In Yorkshire a custom called gooding, doleing or mumping took place. The children of the village would go 'begging' and singing while carrying a Christmas tree. I`ll bet that made them sing even louder!

Devil's Knell
Another Yorkshire Christmas Eve custom is the tolling of the `Devil`s Knell`. It has been rung every year for the past 700 years. The knell is rung once for each year that has past since the birth of Jesus. It is rung in celebration of the Devil`s departure from earth. NB: knell rhymes with bell... ;-)

Sounds like...
In Chitterne the mummers visited all of the chief houses in the village. They wore headdresses made like mitres with tinsel and coloured paper. Their coats were covered with ribbons made of calico or coloured paper and they were armed with wooden swords. Does anyone know the meaning of this custom? Strikes us that it may be related to those Wise Men of olde.

The Hunting of the Wren
The hunting of the wren was a Celtic custom in the western and southwestern parts of the British Isles. The hunt took place on St Stephen`s Day (Boxing Day). The men and boys of the village would kill a wren, hang it on a pole and carry it in a procession. It was borne to its funeral by the Wren Boys or Droluns. Plus, everyone who gave money was presented with a feather for good luck. What do you reckon that all means?

Christmas Cards
The first known Christmas card was made by JC Horsley, RA in 1843 but was not printed until 1846. The idea finally caught on and became popular in the 1860s.

Christmas Stockings
The Christmas stocking full of presents also came from America and was first mentioned in the Oxford Dictionary in 1854. The sleigh and reindeer arrived around the same period.

Throughout much of recorded history, the English New Year was observed on the 25th of March, hence, the date used by our all time favourite - the Inland Revenue! On that occasion, you would attend a midnight service, which included the ringing of the bells. The first peal was solemn for the old year. The second was a triumphant peal to welcome in the New Year.

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