How our ancestors celebrated Christmas

Grandpa's visit Christmas morning | Picryl | Public Domain
Madam Reisser Christmas tree | Picryl | Public Domain

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Christmas, like Diwali and Hanukkah, is a time of rituals. Every year, these familiar rituals unfold, uniting so many of us in a succession of cherished ceremonies. Take Christmas dinner, for example. As a dish, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about what is essentially a glorified roast dinner featuring a bird with all the trimmings. But what is remarkable, when you picture it in your mind, is the fact that on this one day of the year, millions upon millions of people up and down the land will be sitting down to more-or-less the exact same feast.

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But if you’ve ever dabbled in genealogy – perhaps looking through the records on Ancestry to find out more about distant relatives going back centuries – you may wonder if your ancestors had their own ways of celebrating Christmas; their own rituals and ceremonies which may or may not still be with us in some form today.

Take the burning of the ashen faggot, a Christmas Eve tradition which was once well-known in Devon as well as parts of Somerset and Dorset. As a newspaper article put it in 1914, ‘The ancient custom is not carried out so generally as it used to be in old time, but in many of the rural parts of Devon no Christmas would be considered properly observed without the burning of the “Ashen Faggot”’.

The faggot itself was a bundle of ash sticks tied together with strips of hazel or willow, which would be ceremoniously placed on the hearth to burn while locals gathered around. An anonymous poet of the late 18th Century evoked the scene by describing how ‘It blazes soon; nine bandages it bears / And as they each disjoin (so custom wills) / A mighty jug of sparkling cyder’s brought / With brandy mixt to elevate the guests’.

In other words, the custom contained a kind of drinking game, with cider or some other potent beverage consumed every time one of the binding strips snapped in the flames. There would be jokes and songs around the fire for hours, and at its peak the tradition was so popular that according to an official journal of 1879, 32 farms and cottages burnt the ashen faggot in one Devonshire postal district alone. Chances are if your ancestors hailed from this part of England, they may well have attended a good few burnings of the ashen faggot. The custom has persisted, in some quaint old pubs here and there, into the 21st Century.

In Wales, meanwhile, an equally long-standing tradition, going back hundreds of years, is the Plygain carol service. Experiencing something of a revival in recent years, this was once hugely popular in Wales, taking place in the very early hours of Christmas morning (anytime from 3am to 6am, in fact). Generally thought to have evolved after the Reformation from the Catholic Midnight Mass, Plygain brought communities together to watch the singing in flickering candlelight. A 19th Century writer called William Payne wrote an atmospheric account of one service, describing how the ‘church is in a blaze, now crammed, body, aisles, gallery’ with prayers giving way to singers who sing ‘in solos, duets, trios, choruses, then silence in the audience, broken at appropriate pauses by the suppressed hum of delight and approval, till between eight and nine, hunger telling on the singers, the Plygain is over and the bells strike out a round peal.’

Families and friends would often gather to make special Christmas toffee (called cyflaith) before the carol service began. But Plygain services weren’t always such virtuous or family friendly affairs. Often, much alcohol would be consumed as singers and spectators whiled away the hours from Christmas Eve into Christmas morning, and in 1812 a church in Neath actually banned the Plygain due to ‘the indecent behaviour of the persons attending there’. (The ceremony was eventually allowed to return to the church in… 2003.)

Of course, many people in the UK will have ancestors who celebrated Christmas in other countries, following the customs of diverse cultures across the world. British people of Caribbean and Bahamian descent may have had ancestors who took part in Junkanoo during the festive season. This annual event, featuring flamboyant street dancing by performers clad in colourful, gloriously over the top costumes, has roots going back centuries, though there continues to be some debate over the exact origins of the ceremony, and where the name even comes from. A well-known account of Junkanoo was written by a certain Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica at the turn of the 19th Century and described in her diary how ‘the whole town and house bore the appearance of a masquerade. After church, amuse myself very much with the strange processions, and figures called Johnny Canoes. All dance, leap and play a thousand anticks.’

John Canoe, said to be the source of the word ‘Junkanoo’, was the European name given to a formidable Black merchant in 18th Century Ghana who had his own private army and took on the status of a folk hero. It’s been theorised that the ceremonies we know as Junkanoo evolved among Africans forced into slavery in the New World, who would take advantage of some rare ‘days off’ during the Christmas period by putting on their own celebrations. The tradition continued after the abolition of slavery, with the performers parading down streets, going from door to door, and being provided with food and drink by spectators. Junkanoo celebrations still take place today across the Caribbean and the Bahamas, just another example of how varied the Christmas celebrations of our ancestors were.