We tend to treat things such as Christmas trees and holiday gift giving as if they’ve been with us forever. While these are old traditions, they were once far more localized. In this world of media everywhere, we tend to forget that customs were once far more specific to the area.
In England, many areas held to older customs, dating back to Saxon days (and sometimes earlier). The word Yule meant mid-winter and came to use from the Saxons. It was converted to mean Jesus’ birthday, and Christmas (or Christ’s mass) was not used until the Eleventh century.
In England, Advent was the day that began the celebrations leading up to Christmas.
The Feast of St. Martin, or Martinmas, fell on November 11, and St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, had his day on November 30. St. Andrew’s day also marked the beginning of Advent to celebrate the four weeks before Christmas.
In late fall and November, the landed gentry still dined on wild foul as well as domestic poultry—which was now getting a bit old and aged (meaning tough and needing sauces to make the meat palatable). They also had beef, venison and pork with their meals. Fish could still be caught and served, and winter vegetables graced the dining room, including: carrots, turnips, parsnips, potatoes, leeks, cabbage, celery and lettuces. With November, walnuts and chestnuts came into season.
Feasting over the holidays might include game—both wild and tame birds—seasonal fish such as flounder, plaice, smelts, whiting, prawns, oysters and crab. Broccoli made a welcome change from the other winter vegetables, as did cress, herbs, cucumbers, beets and spinach. Preserved fruits would be running low in all but houses with large orchards, and stored apples and pears would have to serve guests. Roasts were popular Christmas fare, usually of beef if it could be afforded, or possibly goose.
Many decorations came from ancient times: Druids, Celts, and even the Romans used evergreen branches made into wreaths in winter solstice celebrations. Holly and ivy were also pagan symbols which remained green (a promise of life to return in dead of winter) and were adopted by the Church. Holly–prized for its ability to bear fruit in winter and its healing uses–became a said to be the thorns Christ wore on the crucifix and the berries were stained red by his drops of blood. From the Norse and the Druids, Mistletoe (which was often found growing on the sacred oaks and featured in several old myths) was held to be sacred and associated with fertility, which led to kissing boughs. There are several local variations on the kissing bough custom. One holds that a woman who refused the kiss would have bad luck, and another is that with each kiss a berry was to be plucked, and the kissing must stop after all the berries were gone.
Strict Methodists might scorn such customs as smacking not of the pagan, but of the Catholic Church. During Cromwell’s rule, Christmas was even banned. Charles II restored the holiday in England. However, the Parliament of Scotland officially abolished the observance of Christmas in 1640, to purge the church “of all superstitious observation of days”, and it was not restored as a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.
On Christmas Day, and Boxing Day on December 26, which was St. Stephen’s Day. Boxing Day did not get its name from gift boxes, for the exchange of gifts was a German custom still new to Regency England (and only practiced by a few families). Instead, Boxing Day got its name from the older tradition of it being a day in which pleadings could be placed in a box for a judge to privately review. (It’s also said that Boxing Day’s name comes from the boxes given to the poor, or from boxes of goods given to servants–so there are several stories about this day’s name.)
In December, besides beef and mutton to eat, pork and venison were served. Goose was cooked for more than just the Christmas meal, and there would be turkey, pigeons, chicken, snipes, woodcock, larks, guinea-foul, widgeons and grouse to eat. Cod, turbot, soul, sturgeon and eels joined the list of fish in season. Forced asparagus added a delicacy to the usual winter vegetables. Stored apples, pears and preserved summer fruit appeared on the better, richer tables. Mince pies made from mincemeat, which has no meat in it, were another traditional fare, with the tradition being that everyone in the household should stir, for luck, the mix of dried fruit and spices before it was baked.
But households also celebrated not just according to the season, but also to the customs of the area. In the Regency, while some traditions were widespread such as caroling and church bells ringing (or ringing the changes), local customs in the countryside might well hold to the old ways and be more individual.
In Cornish, Christmas is Nadelik, and the Cornish custom of mummers and the “lord of misrule” was very popular, as was caroling, Morris dancing, and the lighting of the Mock or Block. The Cornish tradition was to draw a chalk man on the Christmas or Yule log to symbolize the death of the old year and then set it on fire.
In Devonshire, instead of a Yule log, the tradition was to burn the ashton fago, a bundle of nine ash-sticks bound with bands of ash. Devonshire traditions also hold with eating hot cakes that are dipped into cider (hard cider).
Like most of England, Wales had the traditional caroling but y Nadolic (Christmas) would be celebrated with an early church service held between three and six in the morning known as plygain or daybreak.
Yorkshire held to many old Norse customs, including the lighting of the Christmas candle by the head of the house (which was also to be extinguished by him, but never fully bunt), and the frumety (a dish of soaked wheat, milk, sugar, nutmeg or other spices). Along with this would be peberkage or pepper-cake or gingerbread or Yule cake and the wassail-cup. In a Yorkshire village, even today, the Morris men might be longsword dancing in celebration.
For one of my books, Under the Kissing Bough, I needed a Christmas wedding and customs that suited the countryside around London. In ancient days, a Christmas wedding would have been impossible for the English Church held a “closed season” on marriages from Advent in late November until St. Hilary’s Day in January. The Church of England gave up such a ban during Cromwell’s era, even though the Roman Catholic Church continued its enforcement. Oddly enough a custom I expected to be ancient—that of the bride having “something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe”—turned out to be a Victorian invention.
For Christmas customs, I relied on those that have carried down through the ages: the Yule log from Saxon winter solstice celebrations (which gives us Yule Tide celebrations), the ancient Saxon decorations of holy and ivy, and the Celtic use of mistletoe on holy days, which transformed itself into the kissing bough. Carolers might well travel from house to house, offering song in exchange for a wassail bowl—a hot, spiced or mulled drink, another tradition left over from the Norse Vikings.
The holidays were a time of games as well, and the game of Snapdragon is a very old one. It’s played by placing raisins in a broad, shallow bowl, pouring brandy over them and setting the brandy on fire. Players then must show their courage by reaching through the spirit-flames to snatch up raisins. And the game even comes with its own song:
Here comes the flaming bowl,
Don’t he mean to take his toll,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Take care you don’t take too much,
Be not greedy in your clutch,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Celebrations continued to mix tradition and religion when the Twelfth Night feast arrived on January 5, which mixed the Roman Saturnalia with the Feast of the Epiphany (a much bigger celebration in the Middle Ages than was Christmas), when the three wise men were said to have paid tribute to the Baby Jesus.
Beside family gatherings, the Christmas hunt might well meet up for December is the height of fox hunting season. Large house parties would be held, and of course, attending church was almost required of everyone. If local ponds or rivers froze, there would be ice skating and with snow on the ground, the sleigh could be taken out.
For those less fond of the cold, there would be indoor games as well as amusements, which was one reason why young ladies were meant to have accomplishments such as singing or playing a musical instrument, which might pass the time.