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.