1st – Christians celebrate the start of Advent.
On this day in 1797 the seven shilling piece was issued.
First searches his pockets, then looks very funny,
But his horrid perplexities suddenly cease
Should there lurk in his fob a seven shilling piece.’
3rd – St Birinus Day
He became the first Bishop of Dorchester. In 650 he was bitten by an adder and died. Before expiring Birinus declared that all people of Dorchester would be forever protected from snake-bite as long as they stayed within earshot of the church bells. Ever since locals have been able to drink vast quantities of mixed cider and lager without fear of falling over!
4th – St Barbara’s Day. St Barbara is invoked by artillerymen and miners to ward off explosions.
This is said to be because St Barbara was saved from execution by her father when he was struck by a bolt of lightning just as he was about to chop off her head. St Barbara became associated with the power to control thunderstorms.
When a thick band of cloud blankets the western sky with smaller cloud bands above and below, this is referred to as Barbara and her barns (bairns, children).
St Osmund’s Day.
St Osmund was Bishop of Salisbury. He died in 1099. St Osmund can be invoked for curing toothache, rupture, madness and paralysis.
5th – St Justinian’s Day. He was a Breton hermit. St Justinian’s Spring used to be on Ramsey Island, near St Davids.
6th – St Nicholas’ Day. He was known for his kindness and generosity to children. He is patron saint of children, single women, pawn brokers, apothecaries, bankers, clerks, captives, perfumers, and sailors.
He was Bishop of 4th century Myra in Turkey. He died on this day in AD 328.
According to one legend he gave away three bags of gold for the dowries of three poor sisters. This is remembered in the pawnbrokers’ sign of three gold balls.
By tradition he visits homes to see if children have been good, and if so leaves small gifts. He is accompanied by Black Peter, a mischievous imp, who carries a bundle of canes for use on naughty children.
After the Reformation the feast of St Nicholas was amalgamated with Christmas Day. Santa Claus is a corruption of the Dutch name for St Nicholas.
Cathedral towns used to elect a Boy Bishop on this day, who served until Holy Innocents Day (28th December). The Boy Bishop undertook all duties except taking Mass.
Three weeks before Christmas the curfew bells at Scarcliffe Church near Chesterfield in Derbyshire traditionally begin their nightly peal, which lasted until three weeks after the 25th.
The beginning of the Halcyon Days of December, a spell of traditionally fine weather. Halcyon is another name for the Kingfisher. They were supposed to build their nests on the sea at this time of year, calming the waves with their song.
12th St Finnian’s Night
Anyone who goes to bed supperless on this night is likely to be carried over the housetop by the fairies.
13th – St Lucy’s Day
Patron saint of blind people, St Lucy was a devout virgin who gave all her worldly goods to the poor (thereby, in true Christian fashion, joining the ranks of the poor herself).
Lucy light, the shortest day and longest night.
Lucy can be invoked by people suffering from poor eyesight. She is regarded as the bringer of light.
14th – St Tibba’s Day
Tibba and her cousin Eabba, lived in Rutland in the seventh century. They were both devout hermits who became saints after their deaths.
St Tibba is the patron saint of falconers and wild fowlers. In Ryhall in Rutland there is a well named after her.
On this day in 1542 one of Scotland’s best loved monarchs, King James V, died.
16th – the official start of the mince pie season.
December 16th is known as a sapientia, after the anthem traditionally sung today.
17th – Saturnalia
The seventeenth was the start of the seven day Roman festival, Saturnalia, in honour of the god of agriculture, ancestor of modern Christmas.
The 17th is known as Sow Day. Pigs were killed and eaten. No banquet was complete without the boar’s head until well into the 17th century. The orange or apple stuffed into its mouth is a piece of solar imagery.
In Nottinghamshire mince pigs made out of pastry (stuffed with mincemeat) and shaped like pigs with currants for eyes were made for the festive season.
Pigs are said to be able to see the wind.
20th – St Thomas’s Eve
Take an onion, peel it, stick pins in it, and retire to bed with the words –
Send me my true love tonight.
21st – St Thomas’s Day. The Winter Solstice. When the hours of darkness are at their longest and daylight at their shortest.
On this day people went ‘Thomasing’ or gooding. Poor women tramped around their neighbourhood calling at farms and houses of their better off neighbours, expecting to receive doles of money or food in order to ‘keep a good Christmas’, singing as they went,
‘Please we’ve come a Thomasing, remember St Thomas’s Day.’
The longest night and the shortest day.’
Today marks the end of autumn and the beginning of winter. In pagan times bonfires were lit to frighten away evil spirits, and other activities were held, some of which were absorbed into the festivities of Christmas and the New Year.
St Thomas Divine.
Brewing, baking and killing of fat swine.
Please spare a penny for the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t a penny, a ha’penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you.
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse
Clement Moore, The Night Before Christmas (1822)
Christmas Eve is a traditional time for Nativity Plays and for mummers’ plays. The latter often included the legend of St George and the Dragon. Other characters included The Grand Turk, The Gallant Knight, The Doctor, The Fool or Jester, and Old Father Christmas.
Underlying all mumming plays is the seasonal theme of the conflict between good and evil, darkness and light.
Would make us all merry and sing;
And money in our pockets is
A very fine thing . . .’
In comes I, Old Father Christmas,
Am I welcome or am I not?
I hope Old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot.
Village lads they may have been, well known to everyone in their audience, but a shadow of the old fear and magic remained as they clattered in disguised, from the frosty lanes, and even in the nineteenth century at was felt unwise to name them.
If a girl walks backwards to a pear tree on Christmas Eve, and walks around the tree three times, she will see an image of her future husband.
For those who keep bees, failure to tell them of any important news such as marriage and death can result in substandard honey, the death of the bees or their desertion of the hive.
In some parts of the country keys were rattled at the hive and then the rhyme
Your master, X, has passed away.
But his wife now begs you weely stay,
And still gather honey for many a day.
Bonny bees, bonny bees, hear what I say.’
‘Twas said that on Christmas Eve at midnight all the cattle would kneel in their stalls.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
The most important event of Christmas Eve was the hauling in of the Yule log. Once inside, it was rolled on to the fire and had to be kept burning throughout Christmas until Twelfth Night.
My merrie, merrie boyes,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free;
And drink to your heart’s desiring.’
The arrival of the Yule log inside the house on Christmas Eve was always an opportunity for a celebration.
Soak toasted crabs in ale;
And while they sip, their homely mirth
Is joyous as if all the earth
For man were void of bale.
Thomas Cooper 1846
An essential part of the run-up to Christmas was the evening visits by musicians, called the Waits. A number of medieval towns maintained bodies of Waits, York, Leicester and Norwich among them.
Their duties included providing music at public events, as night watchmen patrolling the streets at night and playing softly and announcing time, to reassure that all was well.
It was customary on this night for single girls to make a dumb-cake, which had to be baked in complete silence. The name of the maker pricked her initials on the top of the cake. When baked, it was placed on the hearthstone. At midnight her future husband would walk in and prick his initials next to her. Then one would eat the cake.
Stockings are hung up at the end of children’s beds or by the chimney, and a glass of sherry and a mince pie left for Father Christmas and a carrot for Rudolph.
While the clock on the mantelpiece is ticking?
An orange, a penny,
Some sweets, not too many,
A handful of love,
Another of fun,
And it’s very nearly done.’
But when it comes it brings good cheer.
Anyone born on Christmas Day is able to see spirits and immune to hanging or drowning.
A time for playing games
After lunch games were played. Most of these are long forgotten, and remembered in name only. Cross and Pyle, Hot Cockles Hot, The Parson Has Lost His Cloak, Feed The Dove, Hawld Hard, Turn Trencher, Round About Our Coal Fire, whilst others such as Hunt The Slipper, Puss In The Corner, and Blind Man’s Buff live on as children’s games.
A traditional Christmas game is Snapdragon. Raisins are put in a flat dish and set alight with brandy. All try to pluck out and eat a raisin without burning themselves.
Many of you will be stung.
Snip! Snap! Dragon!’
Posset was made and drunk – a drink made with warm milk, brandy and spices. This was passed around among the family and friends as they sang carols, told stories and listened to readings around the fire.
And bless the mistress too,
And call the little children
That round the table go.
And all your kin and kinsfolk
That dwell both far and near.
I wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy New Year.
Wassailing comes in two forms: the visiting wassail and the wassailing of objects such as the apple trees in January. The word means hale/cheery. The visiting wassail bowl was carried from house to house full of drink, the smell of the cider, cinnamon and roasted apples wafting in the cold dark air. Later the empty bowl was used for the alms. The company sang, as they went door to door, the old wassailing songs.
Our toast is white, our ale is brown.
Our bowl is made of a maplin tree;
We be good fellows all – I drink to thee.
We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door,
But we are neighbours’ children who you have seen before.
We know by the moon that we are not too soon,
And we know by the sky that we are not to high.
He’s a fool to marry at Yule, for when the bairns near, the corns to shear.
26th – St Stephens Day
Blessed be St Stephen, there is no fast upon his even (traditional saying).
His name is perhaps best known from the Christmas carol –
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.
. . .
Therefore Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.
J M Neale, ‘Good King Wenceslas (1853)
This slightly odd name is probably derived from the time when alms-boxes in churches were opened and the contents distributed to the poor of the parish. At one time children toured the neighbourhood singing:
And a happy New Year,
A pocket full of money,
And a cellar full of beer;
A good fat pig
That will last you all year;
I wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy New Year.
The cock flew in the yew tree,
The hen came clucking by;
If you haven’t got any money,
Please to give me a mince pie –
A mince pie this New Year.
The roads are very dirty,
My shoes are very thin.
I’ve got a little pocket
I can pop a penny in.
May God bless all friends dear.
I wish you a merry Christmas,
And a happy New Year,
A lump of cake
And a barrel of beer.
Christmas comes but once a year.
When it comes it brings good cheer.
Cheer up, cheer up, this New Year.
Hunting the Wren was a widespread custom that took place any time over the Christmas season, but mostly on 26th December. Parties of men and boys paraded the village, singing, dancing and playing musical instruments as they went, and carrying a special box decorated with ribbons and garlands and which contained a wren.
St Stephen’s Day, was killed in the furze.
Although he be little, his honour is great
And so, good people, pray give us a treat.
27th – St John’s Day
John was the son of Zebedee and Salome, like his brother, James The Greater, he was a fisherman. ‘St Johns to borrow’ – money used to be borrowed by farmers on this day to enable them to buy new seed for the coming crops.
In the Cotswold village of Marshfield, Gloucestershire, a team of men still perform the old mummers play every Christmas. They call themselves the old-time paper boys, after the costumes that they wear, made out of newspaper cut into strips. The characters are Father Christmas, King William, Little man John, Doctor Phoenix, Saucy Jack, Tenpenny Nit and Father Beelzebub, preceded by a top hatted town crier with hand bell. As with all ‘hero-combat’ mumming plays, one character kills another and the Doctor is summoned to revive him.
‘I can cure the itch, the stitch, the palsy and the gout, all pains within and none without. Bring me an old woman seven years dead, seven years laid in her grave, take a pill from me, and this gallant boy will rise again. What’s the fee, doctor? Ten pounds is my fee, but fifteen I’ll take of thee, to set this man free.’
28th – Holy Innocents Day, also known as Childermas, it commemorates King Herod’s massacres of all the male infants in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Christ (according to the New Testament).
29th – St Thomas Becket’s Day, commemorating the date in 1170, when he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. His shrine became one of the most important destinations for medieval pilgrims.
Of England to Canterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyr for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales.
31st – New Year’s Eve. Hogmany in Scotland.
And never brought to mind?
. . .
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
Robert Burns (1788)
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow!
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1850)
Any wind tonight will foretell the wind in the New Year.
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If west, much milk and fish in the sea;
If north, much cold and storms there will be,
If east, the trees will bear much fruit;
If north-east, flee it, man and brute.
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Christina Rossetti, ‘Mid-Winter’ (1875)