Curious Gambling Customs In Church

In 1570 was published The Popish Kingdome, or, Reigne of Antichrist,

written in Latin Verse by Thomas Naogeorgus (Kirchmayer) and englished

by Barnabe Googe, and in it we have some curious Christmas customs

and folk-lore.

Then comes the day wherein the Lorde did bring his birth to passe;

Whereas at midnight up they rise, and every man to Masse.

This time so holy counted is, that divers earn

Do thinke the waters all to wine are chaunged sodainly;

In that same houre that Christ himselfe was borne, and came to light,

And unto water streight againe transformde and altred quight.

There are beside that mindfully the money still do watch,

That first to aultar commes, which then they privily do snatch.

The priestes, least other should it have, takes oft the same away,

Whereby they thinke, throughout the yeare to have good lucke in play,

And not to lose: then straight at game till day-light do they strive,

To make some present proofe how well their hallowde pence wil thrive.

Three Masses every priest doth sing upon that solemne day,

With offrings unto every one, that so the more may play.

This done, a woodden child in clowtes is on the aultar set,

About the which both boyes and gyrles do daunce and trymly jet,

And Carrols sing in prayse of Christ, and, for to helpe them heare,

The organs aunswere every verse with sweete and solemne cheere.

The priestes doe rore aloude; and round about the parentes stande,

To see the sport, and with their voyce do helpe them and their hande.

Another old Christmas belief may be found in the Golden Legend,

printed by Wynkyn de Worde, where it is said, that what persone

beynge in clene lyfe desyre on thys daye (Christmas) a boone of God:

as ferre as it is ryghtfull and good for hym, our lorde at reuerence

of thys blessid and hye feste of his natiuite wol graunt it to hym.

Most English Christmas customs, save the Christmas Tree, cards, and

the stocking hung up to receive gifts, are old, but one of the

prettiest modern ones that I know of was started by the Rev. J.

Kenworthy, Rector of Ackworth, in Yorkshire, about forty years since,

of hanging a sheaf of corn outside the church porch, on Christmas eve,

for the special benefit of the birds. It seems a pity that it is not

universally practised in rural parishes.

To be spoken of in the past tense also are, I fear, the Christ-tide

customs of Wales--the Mari Lhoyd, or Lwyd, answering to the

Kentish Hodening, and the Pulgen, or the Crowning of the Cock,

which was a simple religious ceremony. About three o'clock on

Christmas morning the Welsh in many parts used to assemble in church,

and, after prayers and a sermon, continue there singing psalms and

hymns with great devotion till it was daylight; and if, through age or

infirmity, any were disabled from attending, they never failed having

prayers at home and carols on our Saviour's nativity.

At Tenby it was customary at four o'clock on Christmas morning for

the young men of the town to escort the rector with lighted torches

from his residence to the church. Sometimes also, before or after

Christmas day, the fishermen of Tenby dressed up one of their number,

whom they called the Lord Mayor of Pennyless Cove, with a covering

of evergreens and a mask over his face; they would then carry him

about, seated in a chair, with flags flying, and a couple of violins

playing before him. Before every house the Lord Mayor would address

the occupants, wishing them a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. If

his good wishes were responded to with money his followers gave three

cheers, the masquer would himself give thanks, and the crowd again


In Scotland, Christ-tide is not observed as much as in England, the

Scotch reserving all their festive energy for the New Year. Yet, in

some parts of Scotland, he who first opens the door on Yule day is

esteemed more fortunate during the coming year than the remainder of

the family, because he lets in Yule. And Yule is treated as a real

person, as some people set a table or chair, covered with a clean

cloth, in the doorway, and set upon it bread and cheese for Yule. It

is common also to have a table covered in the house from morning till

night with bread and drink upon it, that every one who calls may take

a portion, and it is considered particularly inauspicious if any one

comes into a house and leaves it without doing so. However many be the

callers during the day, all must partake of the good cheer.

In Chambers's Popular Rhymes (ed. 1870, p. 169), it is said that the

doings of the guisards (masquers) form a conspicuous feature in the

New Year proceedings throughout Scotland. The evenings on which these

persons are understood to be privileged to appear are those of

Christmas, Hogmanay, New Year's day, and Handsel Monday. Dressed in

quaint and fantastic attire, they sing a selection of songs which have

been practised by them some weeks before. There were important doings,

however--one of a theatrical character. There is one rude and

grotesque drama (called Galatian) which they are accustomed to perform

on each of the four above-mentioned nights; and which, in various

fragments or versions, exists in every part of Lowland Scotland. The

performers, who are never less than three, but sometimes as many as

six, having dressed themselves, proceed in a band from house to house,

generally contenting themselves with the kitchen as an arena, whither,

in mansions presided over by the spirit of good humour, the whole

family will resort to witness the scene of mirth.

Grant, in his Popular Superstitions of the Highlands, says that as

soon as the brightening glow of the eastern sky warns the anxious

housemaid of the approach of Christmas day, she rises, full of anxiety

at the prospect of her morning labours. The meal, which was steeped in

the sowans bowie a fortnight ago to make the Prechdacdan sour, or

sour scones, is the first object of her attention. The gridiron is

put on the fire, and the sour scones are soon followed by hard cakes,

soft cakes, buttered cakes, bannocks, and pannich perm. The baking

being once over, the sowans pot succeeds the gridiron, full of new

sowans, which are to be given to the family, agreeably to custom, this

day in their beds. The sowans are boiled into the consistency of

molasses, when the lagan-le-vrich, or yeast bread, to distinguish it

from boiled sowans, is ready. It is then poured into as many bickers

as there are individuals to partake of it, and presently served to the

whole, both old and young. As soon as each despatches his bicker, he

jumps out of bed--the elder branches to examine the ominous signs of

the day, and the younger to enter into its amusements.

Flocking to the swing--a favourite amusement on this occasion, the

youngest of the family gets the first shouder, and the next oldest

to him, in regular succession. In order to add more to the spirit of

the exercise, it is a common practice with the person in the swing,

and the person appointed to swing him, to enter into a very warm and

humorous altercation. As the swung person approaches the swinger, he

exclaims, Ei mi tu chal--I'll eat your kail. To this the swinger

replies, with a violent shove, Cha ni u mu chal--You shan't eat

my kail. These threats and repulses are sometimes carried to such a

height as to break down or capsize the threatener, which generally

puts an end to the quarrel.

As the day advances those minor amusements are terminated at the

report of the gun, or the rattle of the ball-clubs--the gun inviting

the marksmen to the Kiavamuchd, or prize-shooting, and the latter to

Luchd-vouil, or the ball combatants--both the principal sports of

the day. Tired at length of the active amusements of the field, they

exchange them for the substantial entertainment of the table. Groaning

under the Sonsy Haggis and many other savoury dainties, unseen for

twelve months before, the relish communicated to the company by the

appearance of the festive board is more easily conceived than

described. The dinner once despatched, the flowing bowl succeeds, and

the sparkling glass flies to and fro like a weaver's shuttle. The rest

of the day is spent in dancing and games.

An old Shetlander, telling about Yule-time in Shetland[64] in his

boyhood, says: I daresay Yule--the dear Yule I remember so well--will

ere long be known and spoken of only as a tradition; for, altogether,

life in those islands is now very different from what it was some

fifty or sixty years ago. Yule, it seems, was then kept on old

Christmas day, and great were the preparations made for it. Everybody

had to have a new suit of clothes for the season, and the day began

with a breakfast at nine--a veritable feast of fat things; and before

we rise from the table, we have yet to partake of the crowning glory

of a Yule breakfast, and without which we should not look upon it as a

Yule breakfast at all. From the sideboard are now brought and set

before our host a large china punch-bowl, kept expressly for the

purpose; a salver, with very ancient, curiously-shaped large

glasses--also kept sacred to the occasion--and a cake-basket heaped

with rich, crisp shortbread. The bowl contains whipcol, the

venerable and famous Yule breakfast beverage. I do not know the origin

or etymology of the name whipcol. I do not think it is to be found

in any of the dictionaries. I do not know if it was a Yule drink of

our Viking ancestors in the days of paganism. I do not know if there

was any truth in the tradition that it was the favourite drink of the

dwellers in Valhalla, gods and heroes, when they kept their high Yule

festival. But this I know, there never was, in the old house, a Yule

breakfast without it. It had come down to us from time immemorial, and

was indissolubly connected with Yule morning. That is all I am able to

say about it, except that I am able to give the constituents of this

luscious beverage, which is not to be confounded with egg-flip. The

yelks of a dozen fresh eggs are whisked for about half an hour with

about a pound of sifted loaf sugar; nearly half a pint of old rum is

added, and then a pint of rich, sweet cream. A bumper of this, tossed

off to many happy returns of Yule day, together with a large square of

shortbread, always rounded up our Yule breakfast.

[Footnote 64: Chambers' Journal, Dec. 21, 1881.]

Football was the only game played at, and at this they continued till

3 P.M., when they sat down to a dinner which entirely eclipsed the

breakfast. After tea, there was dancing to the music of a fiddler

until eleven, when a substantial supper was partaken of, then several

glasses of potent punch, before retiring to rest. For a whole week

this feasting and football playing was kept up, and wonderful must

have been the constitutions of the Shetlanders who could stand it.

In Catholic Ireland, as opposed to Presbyterian Scotland, we might

expect a better observance of Christ-tide; and the best account I can

find of Christmas customs in Ireland is to be met with in Notes and

Queries (3rd series, viii. 495).

Many of what are called 'the good old customs' are not now observed

in the rural districts of Ireland; and I have heard ignorant old men

attribute the falling off to the introduction of railways, the

improvement of agricultural operations, and cattle shows! Amongst some

of the customs that I remember in the south-east of Ireland were the


A week or two before Christmas landed proprietors would have

slaughtered fine fat bullocks, the greater portion of which would be

distributed to the poor; and farmers holding from ten acres of land

upwards, were sure to kill a good fat pig, fed up for the purpose, for

the household; but the poorer neighbours were also certain of

receiving some portions as presents. When the hay was made up in the

farm yards, which was generally about the time that apples became

ripe, quantities of the fruit would be put in the hayricks, and left

there till Christmas. The apples thus received a fine flavour, no

doubt from the aroma of the new-mown hay. In localities of rivers

frequented by salmon, which came up with the floods of August and

September, the inhabitants used to select the largest fish, pickle

them in vinegar, whole ginger, and other spices, and retain them till

Christmas, when they formed a most delicious dish at the breakfast

table. Large trout were preserved in like manner for the same purpose.

Eggs were collected in large quantities, and were preserved in corn

chaff, after having been first rubbed over with butter. I have eaten

eggs, so preserved, after three or four months and they tasted as

fresh as if only a day old.

In districts where the farmers were well-to-do, and in hamlets and

villages, young men used to go about fantastically dressed, and with

fifes and drums serenade and salute the inhabitants, for which they

were generally rewarded with eggs, butter, and bacon. These they would

afterwards dispose of for money, and then have a 'batter,' which, as

Dr. Todd, of Trinity College, Dublin, truly says, is a 'drinking

bout.' These bands of itinerant minstrels were called 'Mummers.' They

are not now to be met with. It was usual for people to send presents

to each other, which consisted chiefly of spirits (potheen,

home-made whisky), beer, fine flour, geese, turkeys, and hares. A

beverage called 'Mead,' which was extracted from honeycomb, was also a

favourite liquor, and when mixed with a little alcoholic spirit, was

an agreeable drink, but deceitful and seductive, as well as

intoxicating. This used to pass in large quantities amongst

neighbours. 'Christmas cakes' and puddings were extensively made and

sent as presents. The latter were particularly fine, and made with

fine flour, eggs, butter, fruit, and spices. I have never met anything

in cities and large towns to equal them in their way, both as regards

wholesomeness and flavour.

Of course, the houses were all decorated with holly and ivy, winter

natural flowers, and other emblems of joy. People hardly went to bed

at all on Christmas eve, and the first who announced the crowing of

the Cock, if a male, was rewarded with a cup of tea, in which was

mixed a glass of spirits; if a female, the tea only; but, as a

substitute for the whisky, she was saluted with half a dozen kisses,

which was the greatest compliment that could be paid her. The

Christmas block for the fire, or Yule log, was indispensable. The

last place in which I saw it was the hall of Lord Ward's mansion, near

Downpatrick, in Ireland; and although it was early in the forenoon,

his lordship (then a young man) insisted on my tasting a glass of

whisky, not to break the custom of the country, or the hall. He did

the same himself.