Withholding Light





There was a curious tradition in the north of England, which is

practically done away with in these days of lucifer matches. In the

old days of tinder boxes, if any one failed to get a light, it was of

no use his going round to the neighbours to get one, for even his

dearest friends would refuse him, it being considered most unlucky

to allow any light to leave the house between Christmas eve and New

Year's day, both inclusive. No reason has been found for this singular

and somewhat churlish custom.



Another north country custom, especially at Leeds, was for the

children to go from house to house carrying a Wessel (or Wesley)

bob, a kind of bower made of evergreens, inside which were placed a

couple of dolls, representing the Virgin and Infant Christ. This was

covered with a cloth until they came to a house door, when it was

uncovered. At Huddersfield, a wessel bob was carried about,

gorgeously ornamented with apples, oranges, and ribbons, and when they

reached a house door they sung the following carol:



Here we come a wassailing

Among the leaves so green,

Here we come a wandering

So fair to be seen.



Chorus.



For it is in Christmas time

Strangers travel far and near,

So God bless you, and send you a happy New Year.



We are not daily beggars,

That beg from door to door,

But we are neighbours' children,

Whom you have seen before.



Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring,

Let him bring us a glass of beer,

And the better we shall sing.



We have got a little purse

Made of stretching leather skin,

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.



Bring us out a Table,

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring out a mouldy cheese,

Also your Christmas loaf.



God bless the Master of the house,

Likewise the Mistress too,

And all the little children

That round the table go.



Good master and mistress,

While you're sitting by the fire,

Pray think of us poor children

Who are wand'ring in the mire.[62]



At Aberford, near Leeds, two dolls were carried about in boxes in a

similar manner, and they were called wesley (wassail) boxes.



Whilst on the subject of Yorkshire Christmas customs, I may mention

that a correspondent of the Gentleman's Magazine (1790, vol. 60, p.

719), says that at Ripon the singing boys came into the church with

large baskets of red apples, with a sprig of rosemary stuck in each,

which they present to all the congregation, and generally have a

return made to them of 2d., 4d., or 6d., according to the quality of

the lady or gentleman.



In the History of Yorkshire (1814, p. 296) it tells how, during the

Christmas holidays, the Sword or Morisco Dance used to be practised at

Richmond by young men dressed in shirts ornamented with ribbons folded

into roses, having swords, or wood cut in the form of that weapon.

They exhibited various feats of activity, attended by an old fiddler,

by Bessy, in the grotesque habit of an old woman, and by the fool,

almost covered with skins, a hairy cap on his head, and the tail of a

fox hanging from his head. These led the festive throng, and diverted

the crowd with their droll antic buffoonery. The office of one of

these characters was to go about rattling a box, and soliciting money

from door to door to defray the expenses of a feast, and a dance in

the evening.[63]



In Sheffield the custom of first-foot is kept up on Christmas day

and New Year's day, but there is no distinction as to complexion or

colour of hair of the male who first enters the house.



A correspondent in Notes and Queries (3rd series, i. 223), writes:

The object of desire is that the first person who enters a house on

the morning of Christmas day or that of New Year's day, should have

black or dark hair. Many make arrangements by special invitation that

some man or boy of dark hair, and otherwise approved, should present

himself at an early hour to wish the compliments of the season, and

the door is not opened to let any one else in until the arrival of the

favoured person. He is regaled with spice cake and cheese, and with

ale or spirits, as the case may be. All the 'ill luck'--that is, the

untoward circumstances of the year, would be ascribed to the accident

of a person with light hair having been the first to enter a dwelling

on the mornings referred to. I have known instances where such

persons, innocently presenting themselves, have met with anything but

a Christmas welcome. The great object of dread is a red-haired man or

boy (women or girls of any coloured hair or complexion are not

admissible as the first visitors at all), and all light shades are

objectionable.



I have not been able to trace the origin of the custom, nor do I

remember having read any explanation of its meaning. I once heard an

aged woman, who was a most stern observer of all customs of the

neighbourhood, especially those which had an air of mystery or a

superstition attached to them, attempt to connect the observance with

the disciple who sold the Saviour. In her mind all the observances of

Christmas were associated with the birth or death of Christ, and she

made no distinction whatever between the events which attended the

Nativity, and those which preceded and followed the Crucifixion. She

told me that Judas had red hair, and it was in vain to argue with her

that he had no connection whatever with the events which our Christmas

solemnities and festivities were intended to commemorate. It satisfied

her mind, and that was enough. After many inquiries, I was not able to

obtain any answer more reasonable.



More than twenty-two years after the above, another correspondent

writing on the subject to the same periodical (6th series, x. 482)

says (speaking of Yorkshire): The first person to enter the house on

a Christmas morning must be a male, and the first thing brought in

must be green. Some folks used to lay a bunch of holly on the doorstep

on Christmas Eve, so as to be ready. Some say you must not admit a

strange woman on Christmas day; but I have heard of one old

gentleman near York who would never permit any woman to enter his

house on a Christmas Day.



It was formerly the custom of the city of Gloucester to present a

lamprey pie to the king at Christmas. This custom was kept up until

early in this century, when it fell into desuetude. It was revived in

1893, not at Christmas, but in May, when a beautiful pie, with finely

moulded paste, and enamelled silver skewers, which also served as

spoons, was presented to Her Majesty.



There was, or is, a curious custom in Kent at Christ-tide called

Hodening, the best account of which that I have seen is in the

Church Times of January 23, 1891: Hodening was observed on

Christmas Eve at Walmer in 1886, which was the last time I spent the

festival there, writes one antiquary. Another writes: When I was a

lad, about forty-five years since, it was always the custom, on

Christmas Eve, with the male farm servants from every farm in our

parish of Hoath (Borough of Reculver), and neighbouring parishes of

Herne and Chislet, to go round in the evening from house to house with

the hoodining horse, which consisted of the imitation of a horse's

head made of wood, life size, fixed on a stick about the length of a

broom handle, the lower jaw of the head was made to open with hinges,

a hole was made through the roof of the mouth, then another through

the forehead, coming out by the throat; through this was passed a cord

attached to the lower jaw, which, when pulled by the cord at the

throat, caused it to close and open; on the lower jaw large-headed

hobnails were driven in to form the teeth. The strongest of the lads

was selected for the horse; he stooped, and made as long a back as he

could, supporting himself by the stick carrying the head; then he was

covered with a horsecloth, and one of his companions mounted his

back. The horse had a bridle and reins. Then commenced the kicking,

rearing, jumping, etc., and the banging together of the teeth. As soon

as the doors were opened the 'horse' would pull his string

incessantly, and the noise made can be better imagined than described.

I confess that, in my very young days, I was horrified at the approach

of the hoodining horse, but, as I grew older, I used to go round with

them. I was at Hoath on Thursday last, and asked if the custom was

still kept up. It appears it is now three or four years since it has

taken place. I never heard of it in the Isle of Thanet. There was no

singing going on with the hoodining horse, and the party was strictly

confined to the young men who went with the horses on the farms. I

have seen some of the wooden heads carved out quite hollow in the

throat part, and two holes bored through the forehead to form the

eyes. The lad who played the horse would hold a lighted candle in the

hollow, and you can imagine how horrible it was to any one who opened

the door to see such a thing close to his eyes. Carollers in those

days were called hoodiners in the parishes I have named.



And the following communication is interesting and valuable: Some

such custom prevailed in the seventh century. In the Penitential of

Archbishop Theodore (d. 690) penances are ordained for 'any who, on

the Kalends of January, clothe themselves with the skins of cattle and

carry heads of animals.' The practice is condemned as being

daemoniacum (see Kemble's Saxons, vol. i., p. 525). The custom

would, therefore, seem to be of pagan origin, and the date is

practically synchronous with Christmas, when, according to the rites

of Scandinavian mythology, one of the three great annual festivals

commenced. At the sacrifices which formed part of these festivals, the

horse was a frequent victim in the offerings to Odin for martial

success, just as in the offerings to Frey for a fruitful year the hog

was the chosen animal. I venture, therefore, to suggest that

hodening (or probably Odening) is a relic of the Scandinavian

mythology of our forefathers.



Brand says: It has been satisfactorily shown that the Mari Lhoyd,

or horse's skull decked with ribbons, which used to be carried about

at Christmas in Wales, was not exclusively a Welsh custom, but was

known and practised in the border counties. It was undoubtedly a form

of the old English Hobby Horse, one universally prevalent as a popular

sport, and conducted, as the readers of Strutt, Douce, and others are

already well aware, with all kinds of grotesque and whimsical

mummery.





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