Home Stories Christmas History


Christmas Eve--herrick Thereon

All the festivals of the Church are preceded by a vigil, or eve, and,
considering the magnitude of the festival of Christmas, it is no
wonder that the ceremonial attaching to the eve of the Nativity
outvies all others. What sings old Herrick of it?

Come, bring with a noise,
My merrie, merrie boyes,
The Christmas Log to the firing;
While my good Dame, she
Bids ye all be free;
And drink to your hearts' desiring.

With the last yeere's brand,
Light the new block, And
For good successe in his spending,
On your Psalterie play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the Log is teending.[36]

Drink now the strong Beere,
Cut the white loafe heere,
The while the meat is a shredding;
For the rare Mince pie,
And the Plums stand by
To fill the Paste that's a-kneading.

Bringing in the Yule log, clog, or block--for it is indifferently
called by any of these names, was a great function on Christmas
eve--and much superstitious reverence was paid to it, in order to
insure good luck for the coming year. It had to be lit with the last
yeere's brand, and Herrick gives the following instructions in The
Ceremonies for Candlemasse day.

Kindle the Christmas Brand, and then
Till Sunne-set, let it burne;
Which quencht, then lay it up agen,
Till Christmas next returne.

Part must be kept, wherewith to teend
The Christmas Log next yeare;
And, where 'tis safely kept, the Fiend
Can do no mischief there.

But, even if lit with the remains of last year's log, it seems to be
insufficient, unless the advice to the maids who light it be followed.

Wash your hands, or else the fire
Will not teend to your desire;
Unwasht hands, ye Maidens, know,
Dead the Fire, though ye blow.

In some parts of Devonshire a curious custom in connection with the
Yule log is still kept up, that of burning the Ashton or ashen faggot.
It is well described by a writer in Notes and Queries.[37]

Of the olden customs, so many of which are dying out, that of burning
an 'ashen faggot' on Christmas Eve, still holds its own, and is kept
up at many farm houses.

Among the various gleanings of the Devon Association Folk-Lore
Committee is recorded a notice of this custom. We are there informed
that, on Christmas eve, 1878, the customary faggot was burned at
thirty-two farms and cottages in the Ashburton postal district

The details of the observance vary in different families; but some,
being common to all, may be considered as held necessary to the due
performance of the rite. For example, the faggot must contain as
large a log of ash as possible, usually the trunk of a tree, remnants
of which are supposed to continue smouldering on the hearth the whole
of the twelve days of Christmas. This is the Yule dog of our
forefathers, from which a fire can be raised by the aid of a pair of
bellows, at any moment day or night, in token of the ancient custom of
open hospitality at such a season. Then the faggot must be bound
together with as many binders of twisted hazel as possible.
Remembering that the Ash and Hazel were sacred trees with the
Scandinavians, their combined presence in forming the faggot may once
have contained some mystic signification. Also, as each binder is
burned through, a quart of cider is claimed by the Company. By this,
some hidden connexion between the pleasures of the party and the
loosening bands of the faggot is typified. While the fire lasts, all
sorts of amusements are indulged in--all distinction between master
and servant, neighbour and visitor, is for the time set aside.

The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose;
The lord, underogating, share
The vulgar game of 'post and pair.'
All hailed, with uncontrolled delight,
And general voice, the happy night,
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of Salvation down.

In some houses, when the faggot begins to burn up, a young child is
placed on it, and his future pluck foretold by his nerve or timidity.
May not this be a remnant of the dedication of children to the Deity
by passing them through the sacred fire?

Different reasons are given for burning Ash. By some, it is said that
when our Saviour was born, Joseph cut a bundle of Ash, which, every
one knows, burns very well when green; that, by this, was lighted a
fire, by which He was first dressed in swaddling clothes.

The gipsies have a legend that our Saviour was born out in a field
like themselves, and brought up by an Ash fire. The holly, ivy, and
pine, they say, hid him, and so, now, are always green, whilst the ash
and the oak showed where He was hiding, and they remain dead all the
winter. Therefore the gipsies burn Ash at Christmas.

We can well understand how the pleasures of the ashen faggot are
looked forward to with delight by the hard-working agricultural
labourer, for whom few social enjoyments are provided. The harvest
home, in these days of machinery, seems lost in the usual routine of
work, and the shearing feast, when held, is confined to the farmer's
family, or shepherd staff, and is not a general gathering. Moreover,
these take place in the long busy days of summer, when extra hands and
strangers are about the farm doing job work. But, with Christmas,
things are different. Work is scarce; only the regular hands are on
the farm, and there is nothing to prevent following out the good old
custom of our ancestors, of feasting, for once, those among whom one's
lot is cast.

England was Merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
'Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale;
'Twas Christmas told the merriest tale:
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man's heart through half the year.

To add to the festivity and light, large candles are burnt, the bigger
the better; but, as the custom of keeping Christmas descended from
Children of a larger growth to those of lesser, so did the size of
the candles decrease in proportion, until they reached the minimum at
which we now know them. In the Isle of Man they had a custom which
has, probably, dropped into desuetude, of all going to church on
Christmas eve, each bearing the largest candle procurable. The
churches were well decorated with holly, and the service, in
commemoration of the Nativity, was called Oiel Verry. Waldron, in
his Description of the Isle of Man, says, On the 24th of December,
towards evening, all the servants in general have a holiday; they go
not to bed all night, but ramble about till the bells ring in all the
churches, which is at twelve o'clock: prayers being over, they go to
hunt the wren; and, after having found one of these poor birds, they
kill her and lay her on a bier, with the utmost solemnity, bringing
her to the parish church, and burying her with a whimsical kind of
solemnity, singing dirges over her in the Manks language, which they
call her knell; after which Christmas begins.

There are many peculiar customs appertaining to Christmas eve. Burton,
in his Anatomy of Melancholy, says, 'Tis their only desire, if it
may be done by art, to see their husband's picture in a glass; they'll
give anything to know when they shall be married; how many husbands
they shall have, by Cromnyomantia, a kind of divination, with onions
laid on the altar at Christmas eve. This seems to be something like
that which we have seen practised on St. Thomas's day--or that
described in Googe's Popish Kingdome.

In these same days, young wanton gyrles that meet for marriage be,
Doe search to know the names of them that shall their husbands be;
Four onyons, five, or eight, they take, and make in every one
Such names as they doe fancie most, and best to think upon.
Then near the chimney them they set, and that same onyon then
That firste doth sproute doth surely beare the name of their good man.

In Northamptonshire another kind of divination, with the same object,
used to be practised: the girl who was anxious to ascertain her lot in
the married state, went into the garden and plucked twelve sage
leaves, under the firm conviction that she would be favoured with a
glimpse of the shadowy form of her future husband as he approached her
from the opposite end of the ground; but she had to take great care
not to damage or break the sage stock, otherwise the consequences
would be fearful. But then, in this county, the ghosts of people who
had been buried at cross roads had liberty to walk about and show
themselves on Christmas eve, so that the country folk did not care to
stir out more than necessary on the vigil. At Walton-le-Dale, in
Lancashire, the inmates of most of the houses sat up on Christmas eve,
with their doors open, whilst one of the party read the narrative of
St. Luke, the saint himself being supposed to pass through the house.

A contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine, 7th February 1795, gives
the following account of a custom which took place annually on the
24th of December, at the house of a gentleman residing at Aston, near
Birmingham. As soon as supper is over, a table is set in the hall. On
it is placed a brown loaf, with twenty silver threepences stuck on
the top of it, a tankard of ale, with pipes and tobacco; and the two
oldest servants have chairs behind it, to sit as judges, if they
please. The steward brings the servants, both men and women, by one at
a time, covered with a winnow sheet, and lays their right hand on the
loaf, exposing no other part of the body. The oldest of the two judges
guesses at the person, by naming a name, then the younger judge, and,
lastly, the oldest again. If they hit upon the right person, the
steward leads the person back again; but, if they do not, he takes off
the winnow sheet, and the person receives a threepence, makes a low
obeisance to the judges, but speaks not a word. When the second
servant was brought, the younger judge guessed first and third; and
this they did alternately, till all the money was given away. Whatever
servant had not slept in the house the preceding night forfeited his
right to the money. No account is given of the origin of this strange
custom, but it has been practised ever since the family lived there.
When the money is gone, the servants have full liberty to drink,
dance, sing, and go to bed when they please.

In Cornwall, in many villages, Christmas merriment begins on the
vigil, when the mock or Yule log is lighted by a portion saved from
last year's fire. The family gather round the blaze, and amuse
themselves with various games; and even the younger children are
allowed, as a special favour, to sit up till a late hour to see the
fun, and afterwards to drink to the mock. In the course of the
evening the merriment is increased by the entry of the goosey
dancers (guised dancers), the boys and girls of the village, who have
rifled their parents' wardrobes of old coats and gowns and, thus
disguised, dance and sing, and beg money to make merry with. They are
allowed, and are not slow to take, a large amount of license in
consideration of the season. It is considered to be out of character
with the time, and a mark of an ill-natured churlish disposition, to
take offence at anything they do or say. This mumming is kept up
during the week.

A very graphic description of Christmas eve in a Derbyshire cottage is
given in Notes and Queries.[38] For several weeks before Christmas
the cottager's household is much busier than usual in making
preparations for the great holiday. The fatted pig has been killed, as
a matter of course, and Christmas pies, mince pies, and many other
good things made from it in readiness for the feast. The house has
been thoroughly cleaned, and all made 'spick and span.' The lads of
the house, with those of their neighbours, have been learning their
parts, and getting ready their dresses for the 'Christmas guising,'
and the household daily talk is full flavoured of Christmas.

The lasses have made their own special preparations, and for two or
three days before Christmas Eve have been getting ready the accustomed
house decorations--short garlands of holly and other evergreens for
the tops of cupboards, pictures, and other furniture--and making up
the most important decoration of all, 'the kissing-bunch.'

This 'kissing-bunch' is always an elaborate affair. The size depends
upon the couple of hoops--one thrust through the other--which form its
skeleton. Each of the ribs is garlanded with holly, ivy, and sprigs of
other greens, with bits of coloured ribbons and paper roses, rosy
cheeked apples, specially reserved for this occasion, and oranges.
Three small dolls are also prepared, often with much taste, and these
represent our Saviour, the mother of Jesus, and Joseph. These dolls
generally hang within the kissing-bunch by strings from the top, and
are surrounded by apples, oranges tied to strings, and various
brightly coloured ornaments. Occasionally, however, the dolls are
arranged in the kissing-bunch to represent a manger scene.

When the preparations are completed, the house is decorated during
the day of Christmas eve. Every leaded window-pane holds its sprig of
holly, ivy, or box; the ornaments on and over the mantel-shelf receive
like attention, and every ledge and corner is loaded with green stuff.
Mistletoe is not very plentiful in Derbyshire; but, generally, a bit
is obtainable, and this is carefully tied to the bottom of the
kissing-bunch, which is then hung in the middle of the house-place,
the centre of attraction during Christmas-tide.

While all this is going on, the housewife is very busy. 'Black-ball'
has to be made; the 'elderberry wine' to be got out; 'sugar, spice,
and all that's nice' and needful placed handy. The shop has to be
visited, and the usual yearly gift of one, two, or three Christmas
candles received. With these last, as every one knows, the house is
lit up at dusk on Christmas Eve.

Without the 'black-ball' just mentioned, the Christmas rejoicings in
a cottage would not be complete. 'Black-ball' is a delicacy compounded
of black treacle and sugar boiled together in a pan, to which, when
boiling, is added a little flour, grated ginger, and spices. When it
is boiled enough, it is poured into a large shallow dish, and, when
partially cooled, is cut into squares and lengths, then rolled or
moulded into various shapes. When quite cool, it is very hard, and
very toothsome to young Derbyshire.

After an early tea-meal, the fire is made up with a huge Yule-log;
all the candles, oil and fat lamps lit, and everything is bright and
merry-looking. The head of the family sits in the chimney corner with
pipe and glass of ale, or mulled elder wine. The best table is set
out, and fairly loaded with Christmas and mince pies, oranges, apples,
nuts, 'black-baw,' wine, cakes, and green cheese, and the whole
family, with the guests, if any, set about enjoying themselves.
Romping games are the order of the eve, broken only when the
'guisers'--of whom there are always several sets--or waits arrive. The
'guisers' are admitted indoors, and go through the several acts of
their play. At the conclusion 'Betsy Belzebub' collects coppers from
the company, and glasses of ale and wine are given to the players. The
Waits, or 'Christmas Singers' as they are mostly called, sing their
carols and hymns outside the house, and during the performance cakes
and ale, wine, and other cheer are carried out to them. So the Eve
passes on.

At nine or ten o'clock is brewed a large bowl of 'poor man's
punch'--ale posset! This is the event of the night. Ale posset, or
milk and ale posset as some call it, is made in this wise. Set a quart
of milk on the fire. While it boils, crumble a twopenny loaf into a
deep bowl, upon which pour the boiling milk. Next, set two quarts of
good ale to boil, into which grate ginger and nutmeg, adding a
quantity of sugar. When the ale nearly boils, add it to the milk and
bread in the bowl, stirring it while it is being poured in.

The bowl of ale posset is then placed in the centre of the table. All
the single folks gather round, each provided with a spoon. Then
follows an interesting ceremony. A wedding ring, a bone button, and a
fourpenny piece are thrown into the bowl, and all begin to eat, each
dipping to the bottom of the bowl. He or she who brings up the ring
will be the first married; whoever brings up the button will be an old
maid or an old bachelor; and he or she who brings out the coin will
become the richest. As may be imagined, this creates great fun. When
seven shilling gold pieces were in circulation, this was the coin
always thrown into the posset.

The games are resumed when the posset is eaten, or possibly all
gather round the fire, and sing or tell stories, whiling away the
hours till the stroke of twelve, when all go outside the house to
listen, whilst the singers, who have gathered at some point in the
village, sing 'Christians, awake!' or 'Hark! the Herald Angels Sing';
and so comes to an end the cottager's one hearth-stone holiday of the
whole year.

Next: Christmas Eve In North Notts

Previous: Christ-tide Carols

Add to Informational Site Network

Viewed: 11196