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.'

Christmas Gifts Forbidden In The City Of London Commencement Of Christ-tide facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail