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Saturday, December 13, 2014


As we are nearing the time of good cheer I thought I would take a quick look at some of the Christmas and New Year traditions that we celebrate, or have celebrated, here in the regions of the United Kingdom.
Christmas in the UK really began in AD 596, when St Augustine landed on her shores with monks who wanted to bring Christianity to the Anglo Saxons. 
The word Christmas comes from the Old English ‘Cristes Maesse’ – (Christs Mass) and is the celebrations of the birth of Jesus. The first recorded observance of the day was in Rome in AD360, but it was only in AD 440 that the Christian Church fixed the date for the celebration to 25th December.
By the Middle Ages, it had become an important holiday, with pageantry, customs, music and feasting. Customs from pre Christian days were incorporated into the Celebrations and many still remain.
The Christmas crib originated in Medieval times. In 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have used a crib to explain the Christmas story to the people of Assisi. It seems that the part played by animals in the Christmas story also comes from the early 13th century.
In England, the only thing people ate on the day before the feast was Frumenty, a porridge made from corn and considered a real treat. Over the years, the recipe changed. Currants, dried fruit and lumps of meat were added. The whole mixture was wrapped in a cloth and boiled. The yolks of eggs were sometimes added, and if available, spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. The mixture was left to cool and set before being served. This is how plum pudding began.

What was eaten on Christmas Day in Britain? Certainly not turkey. Turkeys originate from America, and only got to Europe after the discovery of that country. The rich of England would have eaten goose, and with the king’s permission, swan. If they could be caught, woodcock would be eaten, or there was always a chicken from the yard.
To make a roast bird look more tasty, medieval cooks used to cover it with butter and saffron. This would give it a golden colour by the time it was served. For those who could afford it, the Church set a fixed price of 7 pence for a cooked goose. An uncooked one would cost 6 pence - about a day’s wages.
Venison would also be on the menu for the rich, the poor were not allowed to eat the best parts of a deer, but in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, a decent lord might let the poor have what was left. The heart, liver, tongue, feet, ears and brains were known as the ‘umbles’. Mixed with whatever else a cook could get, they were made into a pie. Therefore, the poor would eat ‘umble pie’. Nowadays, we ‘eat humble pie’.
Mince pies are now a huge tradition for Christmas. In Medieval England a large ‘minced meat’ pie was baked, filled with all sorts of shredded meat, along with spices and fruit. This recipe changed in Victorian times when the shredded meat was left out. It was believed that if you made a wish with the first bite of your first mince pie, your wish would come true. If you refused the first mince pie offered to you over Christmas, you would suffer bad luck.

Boxing Day has traditionally been associated with the rich giving gifts to the poor in boxes. Its origins possibly go back to when the rich, or the Lord and Lady of the Castle or Estate, would gather their staff together on the day Christmas and organised the distribution of gifts according to the status of the worker and the size of the family.
On Boxing Day, the poor did sometimes receive money from their masters, often in hollow clay pots with a slit in the top. These had to be broken to get the money out. These small clay pots were nicknamed "piggies". Hence, piggy banks for collecting money in.
The name YULE comes from the Scandinavians, for whom 'Yultide' was the festival celebrated at the twelfth month, being the twelfth name of Odin, who was supposed to come to earth in December, disguised in a hooded cloak. He would sit awhile at firesides listening to the people, and where there was need, he left a gift of bread or coins. Sound a bit familiar?
ENGLAND. ‘Quarter days’ have been observed since the Middle Ages, they are - Lady Day, 25th March. Midsummer Day, 24th June. Michaelmas, 29th September, and of course – Christmas day. On those days, it was the custom for servants to be hired, bills to be paid and school terms to be started. They are not as common today, although land rents are still often due on these days. Christmas Day being a "quarter day" meant that the poor had to pay their rent on this day!
At many schools, the fall term would start in September 29, and continued be called Michaelmas term well into the 21st century. Rod Stewart sang about this in his song ‘Maggie May’ "It's late September and I really should be back at school."
In 1647, the English parliament passed a law to make Christmas illegal, festivities were banned by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell, who considered feasting and revelry on a holy day to be immoral. The ban was lifted when Cromwell lost power in 1660.
In Britain, the Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551 (which has not yet been repealed) states that every citizen must attend a Christian church service on Christmas Day and must not use any kind of vehicle to get to the service. There are a large number of Brits who break this law every year! The law may have been intended to encourage humility by forcing even the wealthy to attend church on foot, or perhaps it was to avoid the traffic and parking crush that would otherwise have ocurred.
One of England's old customs is ‘mummering’. In the Middle Ages, people called ‘mummers’ put on masks and acted out Christmas plays. These plays are still performed in some towns and villages today. Mystery plays were also performed in which the story of Christ was told. King Herod would be in a mystery play as the equivalent of a ‘baddie’ in a modern pantomime.
In England many of the symbolisms and earlier religious elements were lost, and it took Victorian historians to gather together the remnants and re-establish Christmas, an effort helped by the strongly Christmas orientated Royal family with its German Prince Consort. The Reformation in Germany had hardly touched Christmas at all, and Prince Albert brought it all back to the public eye. In Queen Victoria's reign, Christmas became the time for gift giving and a special season for children.
In many places in UK, it still is the custom that a dark-haired man should let in the New Year. The man leaves the house by the back door just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, walks around, and on the strike of midnight knocks on the front door. The householder opens the door and receives the gifts of salt, for seasoning, silver for wealth, coal for warmth, a match for kindling and bread for sustenance.
In Ireland, prior to its Christianisation, Celtic quarter days were observed, which were -    Lughnasadh (1 August), Samhain (1 November), Imbolc (1 February), Beltaine (1 May)
These are called cross-quarter days, as they fall about halfway into each of the English quarters.
The Candle in the window.
The placing of a lighted candle in a window on Christmas Eve is still practised today, and has a number of purposes, primarily a symbol of welcome to Mary and Joseph as they travelled looking for shelter. It used to also indicate a safe place for priests to perform Mass, as during Penal times, this was banned. A further part of the tradition is that the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the family, and only extinguished by a girl named ‘Mary’.
The Laden Table.
After the evening meal on Christmas Eve the table was set again, with a loaf of bread filled with caraway seeds and raisins, a pitcher of milk and a lit candle. The door to the house was left unlatched so Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveller would be welcomed.
In Scots (a Scottish dialect) ‘Happy Christmas’ is ‘Blithe Yule’, in Gaelic it is ‘Nollaig Chridheil’ In Scotland, the "Old Scottish term days" corresponded approximately to the old Celtic quarter days: - Candlemas = (2 February). Whitsunday (legislatively fixed for this purpose on 15 May). Lammas = (1 August). Martinmas = (11 November).  These were also the dates of the Quarter Days observed in northern England until the 18th century.
A 1640 Act of the Parliament of Scotland made the celebration of “Yule vacations” illegal. England, under Oliver Cromwell, imposed a ban on Christmas at the same time. In 1638 the General Assembly in Edinburgh tried to abolish Yuletide completely, while the same things were going on south of the border. Only the High Church and the Catholics kept the old traditions going. Despite the repealing of the Act in 1686, the suppression of Christmas in Scotland effectively lasted 400 years, with December 25 only becoming a public holiday in 1958. Boxing Day was not recognised as a holiday until 1974.

English custom was not particularly accepted by Scotland. The need to celebrate came out in Scotland as a great revival of the New Year celebrations. Church services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were followed by a day of Charity on the Feast of Stephen, which we now call Boxing Day. No-one would have thought much about parties and frolics until after these days were over. Then the solemnity gave way to joyous and often rowdy celebration under the name of Hogmanay. The French often called Christmas, 'Homme est né' (Man is Born) which is thought by some scholars to be the origin of the word, 'Hogmanay', stemming from the time of the 'Auld Alliance'.
Christmas being intended by the reformed church as a day of prayer, the puritanical elements gradually closed in on all those who defied the new laws and continued their festivities. In their attempts to stamp out frivolity, they prescribed that Christmas would be a working day. It became the custom to work over Christmas. This prevailed throughout the whole of Britain, especially in the working classes. Until 40 years ago postmen, bakers, transport workers, and medical staff were expected to work, but because of the Victorian revival of Christmas in England, many other establishments closed, while in Scotland shops and many offices stayed open.
It was, and still is, the custom in Scotland for a stranger to enter the house after midnight on New Year’s Eve/Day. There were taboos about the luck such a stranger would bring, especially in the days of hospitality to travelling strangers. A fair-haired visitor was considered bad luck, partly due to the infighting between the dark haired Scots and fair-haired Norse invaders. However, in Christian times, a fair-haired man was considered lucky, providing his name was Andrew, as Andrew is the Patron Saint of Scotland! A woman first footer is still taboo in many areas!
The First footer must make an offering, a ‘handsel’. This can be food, drink or fuel for the fire. The rituals around this custom are many. An offering of food or drink must be shared with everyone present, including the visitor. Fuel should be placed on the fire by the visitor, with the words - 'A Good New Year to one and all and many may you see'. In today’s often fireless society the fuel is usually presented as a polished piece of coal or wood.
An old saying is -   ‘Is blianach Nollaid gun sneachd’ – ‘Christmas without snow is poor fare’.
The custom in many parts of Wales was to attend a church service known as "Plygain" (daybreak), between 3am and 6am. Men gathered in churches to sing, mainly unaccompanied, three or four part harmony carols in a service that went on for three hours or so. The custom managed to survive in many country areas, and because of its simplicity and beauty it is now being revived in many areas. After the service, a day of feasting and drinking would begin.
GWYL SAN STEFFAN. (St. Stephens Day; Boxing Day - December 26th):
The day after Christmas Day was celebrated in a way unique to Wales and included the tradition of "holly-beating" or "holming." Young men and boys would beat the unprotected arms of young females with holly branches until they bled! (Ouch!) In some areas it was the legs that were beaten, in others, it was the custom for the last person out of bed in the morning to be beaten. These customs died out before the end of the 19th century (luckily for young girls and those who like to lie-in!)

NOS GALAN (New Years Eve):
Many countries have a custom for letting in the New Year that involves the letting out of the Old Year and welcoming in the New, often with gifts for luck for the coming year. In Wales the custom of letting in the New Year was slightly different, in that if the first visitor in the New Year was a woman and the male householder opened the door, that was considered bad luck. If the first man to cross the threshold in the New Year was red haired, that was also bad luck.

Some other Welsh customs associated with the New Year were - all existing debts were to be paid, never lend anything to anyone on New Year’s Day, or you would have bad luck, and the behaviour of an individual on this day was an indication of how they would behave all year!  
The most popular New Year's custom carried out in Wales was the ‘Calennig’ (small gift). On January 1st, from dawn until noon, groups of boys would visit the houses in the village carrying evergreen twigs and a cup of water from the well. The boys would use the twigs to splash people with water. In return, they would receive the ‘Calennig’, usually copper coins. The custom, in various forms, survived in some areas well after World War II, at least in the form of the chanting of a verse or two in exchange for small coins.

So, there you have a potted history of some of the UK’s favourite Christmas traditions. I would be interested to know if you have any unusual customs there that we might not have over here?

I hope you all have a great time over Christmas and New Year. See you in 2015!


  1. Your blog was chocked full of interesting history regarding Christmas in the UK. Looks like Cromwell was the first representative of Scrooge there with those austere observances of an otherwise happy holiday.
    Those mince tarts look sorta like Texas. Love the stars. My mother always made mincemeat pies for Christmas (without the meat part). I liked them and I haven't had any since she died. Maybe I should tray to make some mince tarts.
    I liked the Boxing Day history and how it evolved over time. I really don't understand the whole peasants vs nobles, royalty, and land owners thing. I'm still trying to understand the difference between royalty and nobles. I guess you can see why I don't write Regency. No sense in showing all my ignorance.
    I hope you have a wonderful Christmas season, Jill. This was a terrific blog, and now I feel the need for tea and tarts.

    1. Hello Sarah. Glad you liked it. I had to laugh at your idea of Cromwell being the first Scrooge, you might be right there! He was a horrible man! Mince tarts are so easy to make Sarah, I think you should start a new Christmas tradition and make some for the celebrations this year! Enjoy them. Thanks for coming.

  2. Great post, Jill. I always wondered where the name mincemeat came from when the few mincemeat pies I ate didn't have any meat in them.

    I've always known that many of the Christmas customs we have originated in some of the old pagan practices, but you introduced some new customs I have never heard of. Most of my linage came from England. My first English ancestor arrived in the U.S. in 1850. So, it was interesting to learn about the customs my English ancestors would have observed.

    As for Boxing Day, I never heard of it until I met a couple from Australia whose baby was born the day after Christmas. Thus, I was given the lesson on why they had a "Boxing Day" baby.

    Robyn Echols writing as Zina Abbott

    1. Robyn, hi, thanks for coming.I don't know why we still call them 'mince pies' you know, but we Brits don't find it easy to let go of our traditions. Boxing Day being one of them. Its another public holiday here but we don't give 'boxes' of any kind, its just a day when we laze about, eat cold cuts and watch our Christmas present films!
      Nice to see you here, enjoy your Christmas.

  3. As usual, you have brought some really interesting pieces of history to our consciousness. I for one will now need to find out more...which I don't mind. What an enjoyable and educational post. Thank You. Wishing you the best of all the Holiday Traditions. Doris

    1. Hi Doris thanks for dropping by. and all the best for Christmas to you and yours.

  4. Jill,

    Wow! That was a lot of good information packed into a tidy research package. Thanks! Every time you share information about the UK and the customs there, I pick up little tidbits to add to a story I've been writing on for a few years that has several scenes set in Scotland.

    1. Hello there Kaye. Thanks for the lovely comments. If there is ever anything I can help you with in regard to Scotland (as it is my spiritual home and I love it!) Please do get in touch and I will tell you what I can. Now hurry up, I want to read that story! Have a great Christmas!