With Christmas nearly upon us, here we look at 11 (mostly) forgotten Yuletide customs from around Britain. Take your mulled wine in hand, warm your feet by the fire, and take a trip into the British Christmas past.
1. St Thomas’s onion – Derbyshire - 20/21 December
For three centuries one Christmastime custom across England saw young women look to onions for answers to their love lives.
On St Thomas’s Eve (20/21 December) they would take an onion, peel it, wrap it in a handkerchief and put it under their pillow before bed.
The maiden would then say a special prayer to St Thomas to bring a lover into her arms that night.
There were many regional variations, and the custom continued well into the 19th century. In Victorian Derbyshire, the tradition was to stick the onion with nine pins. Sounds like an uncomfortable night’s sleep!
2. Mumping Day – Herefordshire – 21 December
On St Thomas’s Day, an ancient custom across England was for the less fortunate in the community to go house to house and ask for money, food, or other provisions for Christmas. This was commonly called ‘going a-gooding’, but varied by name and practice across different parts of the country.
In some areas, such as Kent, it was known as ‘a-Thomasing’, and in others, such as in Herefordshire, it was called ‘a-mumping’ and the day ‘Mumping Day’. In Cheshire, people would carry a large container about with them and farmers and homeowners would fill it with flour and corn. In other counties, it was more typically bread and cheese, or nuts and apples, that was involved.
Customs such as this lasted in some parts of England until the early 20th century.
3. Wokingham bull baiters – Berkshire – 21 December
From ‘time immemorial’, according to one source, the bull ring had been a permanent structure in the marketplace at Wokingham, Berkshire. Despite the odd maimed and killed spectator, the Chrimbo bull-baiting was hugely popular in the town. In 1822 a change in the law spelt the end for the sport, and local officials in Wokingham duly tore up the ring.
For locals the bull was also Christmas dinner, a local landowner having left a provision in his will for a bull every year to be baited and then butchered for the poor’s Christmas dinners.
Aggrieved locals continued to defy the ban on bull-baiting until well into the 1830s when spells in prison for the ringleaders put a stop to the acts of defiance. The bulls continued to be customarily served up for the locals’ meat every Christmas, with the bull’s tongue always being reserved for the town’s top officials.
4. Boar not on the floor – Queen’s College, Oxford – Christmas Day
This next Christmas custom is not entirely forgotten. Popular across Britain until the 17th century, Queen’s College, Oxford, still observes the old Christmas Day feast tradition of bringing in a boar’s head on a platter. A carol is sung as it is carried in, the head topped with a crown and festooned with flags and laurels.
Traditionally at the college, a steward would bring the head from the kitchen to the high table, with a ‘tabarder’ (a scholar), accompanying the procession with his hand on the platter.
The ‘Boar’s Head Gaudy’ ceremony continues at the college to this day, though it’s not on Christmas Day.
5. Goose dancing – Isles of Scilly – Christmas Day
One 18th-century account describes Christmas booze-soaked revelry on the Isles of Scilly.
Young people would go ‘goose-dancing’, which involved young women dressing up as men and young men dressing up as women. They would knock on doors and sing, dance, and joke with the occupants, who’d by custom gift beer to the visitors.
In a manner that sounds like a modern stag party and a hen party mixing it up at Butlin’s, the young women, typically dressed as sailors or soldiers, would jokily flirt with the men, who would be dressed as aristocratic ladies and affecting comedic airs and graces.
6. Hearty Highlands breakfast – Scotland – Christmas Day
Sowans is a traditional Scottish dish, made from the husks of oats and with the consistency of treacle. An old tradition in the Highlands is that family members would be served sowans in bed on Christmas morning.
On top of lots of eating and drinking, the day would be spent in outdoor games and pastimes, such as shooting. One traditional outdoor activity was for the children of the family to push each other on a swing, having a good-natured argument as they did so. The swings would get bigger and more forceful as the swinger and swingee hurled insults to each other, commonly in the form of a threat to eat each other’s Christmas cabbage.
7. Hunting the wren – Isle of Man – 26 December
Hunting owls and squirrels was a tradition in various parts of the country in the Christmases of yesteryear. This was still being practised as a custom among young men in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, in 1849.
According to ancient folklore on the Isle of Man, a dangerous siren, who’d taken the form of a wren, was condemned to be killed every December and then be reborn again on New Year’s Day. Men of the island would traditionally go out and ‘hunt the wren’ on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day), though the actual day did vary, and around this time young boys could be seen going from house to house carrying a dead wren suspended between two hoops. They would sing at each house for money, and in exchange, they’d give the homeowner a feather from the bird.
The practise died out for a time in the 20th century but has enjoyed a revival since the 1970s, though a real bird is no longer used.
8. Whipping with holly – Wales – 26 December
One old piece of forgotten Christmas fun in Wales is the holly-whipping. On 26 December everyone would enjoy the ancient privilege of being able to whip another person’s legs with holly. People would usually whip each other till blood flowed.
9. Sword Dance – Yorkshire – 26 December
Today, calling on people at Christmas and singing is still a tradition loved (by some). But for our ancestors, the customs of house-visiting at Christmas were a lot more varied and involved, and at times bizarre.
An old St Stephen’s Day tradition in Yorkshire would see six youngsters go around local villages dressed in white and carrying swords. Sounds terrifying, but this was the merry ‘sword dance’. One of the party would play the fiddle, another would pretend to be a doctor, another a king, and another dressing up as the ‘Bessy’, who is, as part of the act, accidentally ‘killed’ when the dancers cross their swords.
10. Stephening – Buckinghamshire – 26 December
In the Buckinghamshire village of Drayton Beauchamp there used to be a tradition of ‘Stephening’, in which locals would attend an all-you-can-eat buffet on St Stephen’s Day and get drunk and rowdy.
The parishioners would go to the rectory and gorge themselves on as much cheese, bread, beer, and ale as they fancied, all customarily paid for by the vicar.
It came to a point where locals were indulging so much, and behaving so badly, that money was given out to them instead. This got expensive, though, and both the feasting and the money had been knocked on the head by 1827.
11. Twelfth Night Rushes – Cornwall – 5 or 6 January
On Twelfth Night, the end of the Twelves Days of Christmas, one ancient Cornish tradition saw young couples gather in a farmhouse kitchen to discover what sort of future they’d have romance-wise.
Bending down before a hot fireplace, each of the pair would gently press their heads against the mantle stone above the fire. They would then silently go into the night and gather rushes and ivy.
Coming back into the house the couple would each place one rush side by side into the lit fire. A nice even burning of the rushes foretold a successful marriage, while if the fire flared up and scattered the rushes, this was a prediction of an unstable love life.
Next, they’d toss the ivy into the roaring fire, which would tell them first how many years away the nuptials were and also how many nippers they could expect.