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Commencement Of Christ-tide

We take it for granted that in the old times, when Christ-tide was
considered so great a festival as to be accorded a Novena--that it
began on the 16th December, when, according to the use of Sarum, the
antiphon O Sapientia, is sung. This, as before stated, is pointed
out plainly in our English Church Calendar, which led to a curious
mistake on the part of Dr. Ellicott, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol,
who on one occasion described it as the Festival of O Sapientia.
The other antiphons which are sung between the 16th December and
Christmas Eve are O Adonai, O Radix Jesu, O Clavis David, O
Oriens Splendor, O Rex Gentium, and O Emmanuel, and they are
commonly called the O's.

But, beyond its being lawful to eat mince pies on the 16th December, I
know of nothing noteworthy on the days intervening between that date
and the festival of St. Thomas on the 21st December, which is, or was,
celebrated in different parts of the country, with some very curious
customs. The earliest I can find of these is noted by Drake in his
Eboracum,[16] and he says he took the account from a MS. which came
into his possession.

William the Conqueror, on the third year of his reign (on St.
Thomas's Day), laid siege to the City of York; but, finding himself
unable, either by policy or strength, to gain it, raised the siege,
which he had no sooner done but by accident he met with two fryers at
a place called Skelton, not far from York, and had been to seek
reliefe for their fellows and themselves against Christmas: the one
having a wallet full of victualls and a shoulder of mutton in his
hand, with two great cakes hanging about his neck; the other having
bottles of ale, with provisions, likewise of beife and mutton in his

The King, knowing their poverty and condition, thought they might be
serviceable to him towards the attaining York, wherefore (being
accompanied with Sir John Fothergill, general of the field, a Norman
born), he gave them money, and withall a promise that, if they would
lett him and his soldiers into their priory at a time appointed, he
would not only rebuild their priory, but indowe it likewise with large
revenues and ample privileges. The fryers easily consented, and the
Conqueror as soon sent back his army, which, that night, according to
agreement, were let into the priory by the two fryers, by which they
immediately made themselves masters of all York; after which Sir
Robert Clifford, who was governor thereof, was so far from being
blamed by the Conqueror for his stout defence made the preceding days,
that he was highly esteemed and rewarded for his valour, being created
Lord Clifford, and there knighted, with the four magistrates then in
office--viz., Horongate, Talbot (who after came to be Lord Talbott),
Lassells, and Erringham.

The Arms of the City of York at that time was, argent, a cross,
gules, viz. St. George's Cross. The Conqueror charged the cross with
five lyons, passant gardant, or, in memory of the five worthy
captains, magistrates, who governed the city so well, that he
afterwards made Sir Robert Clifford governour thereof, and the other
four to aid him in counsell; and, the better to keep the City in
obedience, he built two castles, and double-moated them about; and, to
shew the confidence and trust he put in these old but new-made
officers by him, he offered them freely to ask whatsoever they would
of him before he went, and he would grant their request; wherefore
they (abominating the treachery of the two fryers to their eternal
infamy), desired that, on St. Thomas's Day, for ever, they might have
a fryer of the priory of St. Peter's to ride through the city on
horseback, with his face to the horse's tayle: and that, in his hand,
instead of a bridle, he should have a rope, and in the other a
shoulder of mutton, with one cake hanging on his back and another on
his breast, with his face painted like a Jew; and the youth of the
City to ride with him, and to cry and shout 'Youl, Youl!' with the
officers of the City riding before and making proclamation, that on
this day the City was betrayed; and their request was granted them;
which custom continued till the dissolution of the said fryory; and
afterwards, in imitation of the same, the young men and artizans of
the City, on the aforesaid St. Thomas's day, used to dress up one of
their own companions like a fryer, and call him Youl, which custom
continued till within these threescore years, there being many now
living which can testify the same. But upon what occasion since
discontinued, I cannot learn; this being done in memory of betraying
the City by the said fryers to William the Conqueror.

St. Thomas's day used to be utilised in laying in store of food at
Christ-tide for the purpose of properly keeping the feast of the
Nativity. In the Isle of Man it was the custom for the people to go on
that day to the mountains in order to capture deer and sheep for the
feast; and at night bonfires blazed on the summit of every fingan,
or cliff, to provide for which, at the time of casting peats, every
person put aside a large one, saying, Faaid mooar moaney son oie'l
fingan--that is, A large turf for Fingan's Eve.

Beef was sometimes left to the parish by deceased benefactors, as in
the case of Boteler's Bull Charity at Biddenham, Bedfordshire, of
which Edwards says:[17] This is an ancient annual payment of L5 out
of an estate at Biddenham, formerly belonging to the family of
Boteler, and now the property of Lord Viscount Hampden, which is due
and regularly paid on St. Thomas's Day to the overseers of the poor,
and is applicable by the terms of the original gift (of which no
written memorial is to be found), or by long-established usage, to the
purchase of a bull, which is killed and the flesh thereof given among
the poor persons of the parish.

For many years past, the annual fund being insufficient to purchase a
bull, the deficiency has been made good out of other charities
belonging to the parish. It was proposed some years ago by the vicar
that the L5 a year should be laid out in buying meat, but the poor
insisted on the customary purchase of a bull being continued, and the
usage is, accordingly, kept up. The price of the bull has varied of
late years from L9 to L14. The Churchwardens, Overseers, and principal
inhabitants assist at the distribution of the meat.

He gives another instance[18] of a gift of beef and barley at Nevern,
Pembrokeshire: William Rogers, by will, June 1806, gave to the
Minister and Churchwardens of Nevern and their successors L800 three
per cent. Consols, to be transferred by his executors within six
months after his decease; and it was his will that the dividends
should be laid out annually, one moiety thereof in good beef, the
other moiety in good barley, the same to be distributed on every St.
Thomas's Day in every year by the Minister and Churchwardens, to and
among the poor of the said parish of Nevern.

After the payment of L1 to a solicitor in London, and a small amount
for a stamp and postage, the dividends (L24) are expended in the
purchase of beef and barley, which is distributed by the Churchwarden
on 21st December to all the poor of the parish, in shares of between
two and three gallons of barley, and between two and three pounds of

Yet another example of Christmas beef for the poor--this time rather
an unpleasant one:[19] The cruel practice of bull-baiting was
continued annually on St. Thomas's Day in the quaint old town of
Wokingham, Berks, so lately as 1821. In 1822, upon the passing of the
Act against cruelty to Animals, the Corporation resolved on abolishing
the custom. The alderman (as the chief Magistrate is called there)
went with his officers in procession and solemnly pulled up the
bull-ring, which had, from immemorial time been fixed in the
market-place. The bull-baiting was regarded with no ordinary
attachment by 'the masses'; for, besides the love of 'sport,' however
barbarous, it was here connected with something more solid--the
Christmas dinner.

In 1661, George Staverton gave by will, out of his Staines house,
four pounds to buy a bull for the use of the poor of Wokingham parish,
to be increased to six pounds after the death of his wife and her
daughter; the bull to be baited, and then cut up, 'one poor's piece
not exceeding another's in bigness.' Staverton must have been an
amateur of the bull-bait; for he exhorts his wife, if she can spare
her four pounds a-year, to let the poor have the bull at Christmas
next after his decease, and so forward.

Great was the wrath of the populace in 1822 at the loss, not of the
beef--for the corporation duly distributed the meat--but of the
baiting. They vented their rage for successive years in occasional
breaches of the peace. They found out--often informed by the
sympathising farmer or butcher--where the devoted animal was
domiciled; proceeded at night to liberate him from stall or meadow,
and to chase him across the country with all the noisy accompaniments
imaginable. So long was this feeling kept alive, that thirteen years
afterwards--viz. in 1835--the mob broke into the place where one of
the two animals to be divided was abiding, and baited him, in defiance
of the authorities, in the market-place; one enthusiastic amateur,
tradition relates, actually lying on the ground and seizing the
miserable brute by the nostril, more canino, with his own human
teeth! This was not to be endured, and a sentence of imprisonment in
Reading Gaol gave the coup de grace to the sport. The bequest of
Staverton now yields an income of L20, and has for several years past
been appropriated to the purchase of two bulls. The flesh is divided,
and distributed annually on St. Thomas's Day, by the alderman,
churchwardens, and overseers to nearly every poor family (between 200
and 300), without regard to their receiving parochial relief. The
produce of the offal and hides is laid out in the purchase of shoes
and stockings for the poor women and children. The bulls' tongues are
recognised by courtesy as the perquisites of the alderman and

But there were other kindly gifts to the poor, vide one at
Farnsfield, Nottinghamshire, where Samuel Higgs,[20] by his will dated
May 11, 1820 (as appears from the church tablet), gave L50 to the
vicar and churchwardens of this parish, and directed that the interest
should be given every year on 21st December, in equal proportions, to
ten poor men and women who could repeat the Lord's Prayer, the Creed,
and the Ten Commandments before the vicar or such other person as he
should appoint to hear them. The interest is applied according to the
donor's orders, and the poor persons appointed to partake of the
charity continue to receive it during their lives.

Take another case, at Tainton, Oxfordshire,[21] where a quarter of
barley meal is provided annually at the expense of Lord Dynevor, the
lord of the manor, and made into loaves called cobbs. These used to be
given away in Tainton Church to such of the poor children of Burford
as attended. A sermon is preached on St. Thomas's Day, according to
directions supposed to be contained in the will of Edmund Harman, 6s.
8d. being also paid out of Lord Dynevor's estate to the preacher. The
children used to make so much riot and disturbance in the church, that
about 1809 it was thought better to distribute the cobbs in a stable
belonging to one of the churchwardens, and this course has been
pursued ever since.

At Slindon, Sussex,[22] a sum of L15 was placed in the Arundel Savings
Bank, in the year 1824, the interest of which is distributed on St.
Thomas's Day. It is said that this money was found many years since on
the person of a beggar, who died by the roadside, and the interest of
it has always been appropriated by the parish officers for the use of
the poor.

Where these gifts were not distributed, as a rule, the poor country
folk went round begging for something wherewith to keep the festival
of Christ-tide; and for this they can scarcely be blamed, for
agricultural wages were very low, and mostly paid in kind, so that the
labourer could never lay by for a rainy day, much less have spare cash
to spend in festivity. Feudality was not wholly extinct, and they
naturally leaned upon their richer neighbours for help--especially at
this season of rejoicing throughout all England--a time of feasting
ever since the Saxon rule. So, following the rule of using St.
Thomas's Day as the day for providing the necessaries for the
Christmas feast, they went about from farm-house to mansion soliciting
gifts of food. In some parts, as in Derbyshire, this was called going
a-Thomassing, and the old and young folks would come home laden with
gifts of milk, cheese, wheat, with which to make furmity or furmenty,
oatmeal, flour, potatoes, mince pies, pigs' puddings, or pork pies,
and other goodies. This collection went by the same name in Cheshire
and neighbouring counties, where the poor generally carried a bag and
a can into which they might put the flour, meal, or corn that might be
given them.

In other places, such as Northamptonshire, Kent, Sussex,
Herefordshire, Worcestershire, it went under the name of Going a
Gooding, and in some cases the benefactions were acknowledged by a
return present of a sprig of holly or mistletoe or a bunch of
primroses. In some parts of Herefordshire they called a spade a
spade, and called this day Mumping, or begging day; and in
Warwickshire, where they principally received presents of corn, it was
termed going-a-corning; and in that home of orchards Worcestershire,
this rhyme used to be sung--

Wissal, wassail through the town,
If you've got any apples throw them down;
Up with the stocking, and down with the shoe,
If you've got no apples money will do.
The jug is white, and the ale is brown,
This is the best house in the town.

Cuthbert Bede (the Rev. Edward Bradley) writes[23]--In the
Staffordshire parish whence I write, S. Thomas's Day is observed
thus:--Not only do the old women and widows, but representatives also
from each poorer family in the parish, come round for alms. The
clergyman is expected to give one shilling to each person, and, as no
'reduction is made on taking a quantity' of recipients, he finds the
celebration of the day attended with no small expense. Some of the
parishioners give alms in money, others in kind. Thus, some of the
farmers give corn, which the miller grinds gratis. The day's custom
is termed 'Gooding.' In neighbouring parishes no corn is given, the
farmers giving money instead; and in some places the money collected
is placed in the hands of the clergyman and churchwardens, who, on the
Sunday nearest to S. Thomas's Day, distribute it at the vestry. The
fund is called S. Thomas's Dole, and the day itself is termed Doleing

There is very little folk-lore about this day. Halliwell says that
girls used to have a method of divination with a S. Thomas's Onion,
for the purpose of finding their future husbands. The onion was
peeled, wrapped in a clean handkerchief, and then being placed under
their heads, the following lines were said:

Good S. Thomas, do me right,
And see my true love come to-night,
That I may see him in the face,
And him in my kind arms embrace.

A writer in Notes and Queries[24] says, A Nottinghamshire
maid-servant tells me:--'One of my mistresses was brought up at
Ranskill, or not far from there. She used to say that when she and her
sister were children they always hid under the nurse's cloak if they
went out to a party on S. Thomas's Day. They were told that S. Thomas
came down at that time and sat on the steeple of the church.'

Next: Chapter Vii

Previous: The Popular Love Of Christmas

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