Monthly Archives: December 2018

Custom survived: The Christmas Tree

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“Children knew nothing about Santa Claus or about Christmas Trees – those are German innovations which should be left to Germans…instead of the German tree we had the old fashioned English Mistletoe Bough.”

1890 J. S Fletcher A picturesque picture of Yorkshire

Well everyone can have an opinion but clearly J.S Fletcher was wrong…I am sitting composing this in the flickering light of mine, picture below, but on reflection cutting down, dragging in and setting up a tree in one’s house is such an odd tradition – but it is one that 8 million do each year. Indeed, in an odd way, the Christmas Tree is the most religiously neutral of Christmas paraphernalia…and for over a hundred years people have been putting up with the smell of pine and pine needles embedding in the feet, carpet, cracks of the floorboards (delete as appropriate)…the mistletoe bough was relatively simple..

Branching out from Germany

The origin of the Christmas Tree is often attributed to Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort. However, although he may have popularised it he did not introduce it. Its origins did not come as J. S. Fletcher noted came from Germany but from the Medieval region which is now Estonia and Latvia. It really only just gained popularity in Germany when George III’s wife Charlotte introduced a tree at a children’s party in 1800 it what is believed to be the first one. In a way it would be one of the most notable examples of a transcribed custom becoming a native and now surviving custom. Charles Grenville grandson of a duke was staying at Panshanger in Hertfordshire when the wide of the Russian Ambassador Princess Lieven had in 1829:

“got up a little fete such as is customary all over Germany. Three large trees in large pots were put unto a long table covered with pink linen, each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles – blue, green, red and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, books and various articles  – presents made to the owner of the tree. It was only for the children, in Germany it extends to persons of all ages.”

Incredibly little has changed since except now the trees tend to be dead rather than living in pots and much larger one would assume. It was evidently popular in the Royal family as Victoria recalls in her journal for 1832 at Christmas Eve that after dinner:

“ we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.”

By the 1840s, the custom had spread to the wealthy middle-class families  followed the fashion. An 1842 newspaper advert for the Times recalls:

“GERMAN CHRISTMAS TREES. The nobility and gentry are respectfully informed that these handsome JUVENILE CHRISTMAS PRESENTS are supplied and elegantly fitted up.”

The 1844 The Christmas Tree: published by Darton and Clark also recorded:

“The ceremony of the Christmas tree, so well known throughout Germany, bids fair to be welcomed among us, with the other festivities of the season, especially now the Queen, within her own little circle, has set the fashion, by introducing it on the Christmas Eve in her own regal palace.”

Cant see the wood from the tree

Setting up a Christmas Tree is a bit of an adventure. Once you’d been around measuring up and looking at examples. And despite the fact they all are basically the same, you still go to several suppliers. Its then packaged up and the first challenge is to get it in the car, all the seats down and its head sticking out of the front passenger window!  Next challenge getting it into the house and manipulated into the drawing room. I managed to get the tree in through the door, after sawing off the base of course to supposedly keep it fresher for longer – it didn’t seem to work. Then it was a case of then inserting the mighty log in the base….now that was a  real challenge as it swayed back and fro. Was it in. Yes. No. Let’s see…oh its fallen…another go and yes finally. Next open it up. Snip snip snip…pong the branches spring out pushing me backwards but fortunately the windows survive.

The undressed tree

Then comes dressing the tree. The first dressings were wax candles – slightly impractical as much as I like to keep to tradition – electric lights are more sensible The first Georgian trees were dressed  with “roses made of coloured paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, sweetmeats”. I had a choice of baubles, ornaments, candy canes and my least favourite tinsel and after about what seemed an hour it was dressed…last state the star. I got the ladder but as I got closer I realised a problem. The ladder was tall enough but I could not safely reach the top..so no star!

Firm roots for a custom

By the mid 1840s, adverts were regularly appearing in the Newspapers such as in The Times, 23 December 1844 called it “A new pleasure for Christmas.” By 1847 Prince Albert wrote:

“I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be.”

The tradition slowly spread through the aristocracy for example a letter to William Fox Talbot on the 2nd of January from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire recorded:

“Constance is extremely busy preparing the Bohemian  Xmas Tree. It is made from Caroline’s description of those she saw in Germany.”

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The dressed tree

By January 1848,  the custom was well-enough known for The Times to compare the January budget of 1848 with gifts handed out beneath “the Christmas tree”: From this point onwards it appears that the tree spread from the wealthy families to all families and by 1906  The Poor Children’s Yuletide Association. According to the Times had

“sent 71 trees ‘bearing thousands of toys’ to the poorest districts of London.”

And by 1926 it was stated that:

“’Poor families in Lewisham and similar districts are just as particular about the shape of their trees as people in Belgravia…’ ‘Shapely Christmas Trees.”

However, it looked like this establishing custom would be cut down before it fully grew its roots. Again the Times wishing its readers  “A Merry Christmas”: The Times in, 27 December 1918, stated:

“the so-called “Christmas tree” was out of favour. Large stocks of young firs were to be seen at Covent Garden on Christmas Eve, but found few buyers. It was remembered that the ‘Christmas tree’ has enemy associations.”

But fortunately this association was soon forgotten for in 1919 again the Times noted that a charity fair in aid of injured soldiers featured ‘a huge Christmas-tree’ at St. Dunstan’s Christmas Fair. By 1937 British farmers had started to invest money in Christmas Tree Plantations and it has not looked back since. Indeed despite another conflict with Germany the tree did not wain in popularity presumably because its Germanic associations had been largely forgotten. Indeed, in 1947 as the Norwegians remind us it is Norse – not German tradition – a fact they annually remind us every Christmas in Trafalgar square. The 20 metre high towering Norway Spruce which adorns Trafalgar Square has been an annual thanksgiving gift from the Norwegian government as it states each year:

“This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.A tree has been given annually since 1947.”

And after all as we annually gather around our Christmas Tree the message that Norway gives every year is more than reticent…peace to all at Christmas.

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Custom contrived: Lord Conyer’s Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

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It is a fairly nondescript lane, and dare I say it in a non-descript part of Yorkshire, and driving by one might wonder why so many cars were parked on the verge…but the eye alights on a group of people awaiting at the edge of a small woodland just beside the road. Cars and woods? Is this a mass dog walking exercise or ramble? No the crowd await something quite magical – Lord Conyer’s Morris Men’s rendition of the fabled Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance.

Horny subject

An account on line entitled A STRANGE ENCOUNTER IN TODWICK (As witnessed by one Tobias Jugg around 16:40)

“Passing through the South Yorkshire village of Todwick during the late afternoon of the last Saturday before Christmas, a strange sight befell us. My companion and I, weary and tired of the road as we headed south towards Newstead, stumbled across a small crowd of like travellers, numbering about twenty-five in all, and gathered by the wayside. Each did gaze silently into the nearby wood, close to the site where Robin Hood’s Trysting Tree does stand.”

What is Robin Hood’s Trysting tree you may ask? Well firstly it no longer stands and its replacement also went in 1973. Lord Conyer’s Morris men website relates:

“At the beginning of the twentieth century at Todwick in South Yorkshire, an ancient oak known as the Trysting Tree blew down in a gale. This tree was connected to the legend of Robin Hood and is mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel ‘Ivanhoe’. The Duke of Leeds decided to replace the stricken tree, both to mark the turn of the century and to celebrate the birth of his son and heir, the Marquis of Carmarthen, and on the 3rd October 1901 he planted a sapling grown from an acorn which had fallen from the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. The day was declared a holiday and all the people from the Duke’s estate were invited to the ceremony. A sit-down meal was provided for the guests in a large marquee and in return the villagers then presented the Duke with a silver rose bowl to mark the birth of his son.
And there it stood, at the edge of Bluebell Wood at Kiveton Hall Farm, until 1973 when the council, in their infinite wisdom, decided to cut down the tree whilst widening the road nearby. Then, a Mr Bishop, who was at that time tenant of Kiveton Hall Farm, planted a third oak complete with iron fence to protect the young sapling; the Trysting Tree was back again.
Then the Kiveton Park Folk Club erected a stone post furbished with a brass plaque nearby, the occasion being commemorated by G.F. Young, the Lord Lieutenant of South Yorkshire, and the legend was back also. On the 18th May 1974 the folk club held a trysting fair with music, dance and song; stalls, working craftsmen, and, of course, the marquee with food and drink….”

As they note:

“The legend of the trysting tree is now in the safe hands of Lord Conyers Morris Men who have danced at the site every May Eve at dusk and every May Day at dawn without fail since 1974.”

The removal was clearly a controversial subject but one which was the catalyst of a custom. For it has been since 1978 on the last Saturday before Christmas Day the twilight crescendo of a day of carols, sword dancing and Derby Tup – a sort of pick and mix of Christmas calendar customs of the North one could say.

Taking it by the horns

The Lord Conyer’s Abbot Bromley Horn dance is one of two imitations and there is no doubt to my mind this is the most evocative; more so perhaps than the real one! I had read of the custom but in a way had thought as I had been to the real one why see the imitations but I feel I was wrong so last year I decided to organise myself and go along and see.
There was a curious and eerie feel standing at the edge of the wood. The sun was setting spreading a red light across the landscape as a mist developed all around and the air became chilly. The account beautifully summed it up:

“It was dusk. It was cold, and it was damp and misty. We dismounted to see what the crowd were looking at but could see nothing; only the dark outline of trees against the grey mist. Just then, strains of music emanating from deep within the wood began to reach our ears; a strange mediaeval-sounding tune being played on a solo fiddle. Some minutes later a group of figures began to emerge from out of the dank mist as the music became louder. The crowd we had joined, their eyes transfixed on the scene before them, stayed silent as if in awe and there was an unearthly atmosphere about the place to which the music only added.”

The performers maintain the mystery by preparing and dressing out of sight. The first we experience is that weird sound which moves like the mist slowly enveloping the crowd. There’s an unworldly menace to the dancers who weave in and out holding their antlers aloft from a far. They appear to be stuck in the distance the full moon picking off their antlers and firms. As they came closer one could start to see the group’s form. The team comprise of six men carrying large red deer antlers with others bearing smaller fallow deer antlers. Together with these is a fool, a hobby horse, Maid Marian and a bowman – presumably Robin Hood. The last to be seen as they move down a path between the dense undergrowth despite them first to be heard. All in all they appear to be completely different to the Morris men I had seen earlier doing their sword dancing.

The Morris Men portray the dance well. It is simple one enacting the fighting of deer with the dancers facing each other in a line. The antlers raised up and down facing each other silently and smoothly. The chime of a bell as they go to fight. The repetitive nature of tune making the whole experience hypnotic! The account again describes it well:

“The dance itself appeared to reach a chilling climax as it approached the Trysting Tree, at which point the procession turned and headed slowly back from whence it came. One by one the dancers melted away into the mist, leaving us spellbound until the last haunting notes of the fiddle died away into the distance.”

All in all a great re-enactment and one which deserves notice in folklore calendars. A copy it may be, but one which has developed its own mythos, for atmosphere it cannot be beaten!

Custom demised: Holy Innocent’s Day or Childermas

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History of Childermas: Feast of the Holy Innocents

Holy Innocent’s Day or Childermas is a forgotten date in the calendar but in Britain it was recorded. The day still remembered beyond the British Isles records the slaughter by Herod of the boy children born in Bethlehem in his attempt to remove the Christ child. As these the first murdered associated with the burgeoning faith, they became the first martyrs and as such became marked in the church calendar.

Generally the day was thought to be unlucky and nothing would be organised on this day, Richard Carew noted on 17th century Cornwall:

“that proves as ominous to the fisherman as beginning a voyage on the day when Childermas day fell doth to the mariner.”

Similarly in Shropshire Charlotte Burne in her 1883 book of Shropshire folklore recorded:

“Innocent’s Day sometimes called Cross day is a day of ill omen. The ancient people of Pulverbach applied this name not only to Innocent’s day but throughout the year to the day of the week on which it had last fallen, such day of the week being believed to be an unlucky day for commencing any work or undertaking. A popular saying about any unfortunate enterprise was ‘It must have been begun on a cross day.”

As children were the forefront of the custom it was important to remember them. In some parts of the country the youngest child “rules the day.” It was the youngest who decides the day’s foods, drinks, music, entertainments. In Rutland, according to Leicestershire notes and queries:

“Playing in Church – When living in the Parish of Exton, Rutland, some 15 years ago. I was told by an old lady that in her girlhood, in the very early years of this century, it was custom for children to be allowed to play in the church on ‘Innocent’s day.’”

Still today, Boy or Youth Bishops, rule until Holy Innocent’s day and often a mass is held to commemorate their hand over. In the 17th century, Gregorie’s Works of 1684 noted a contrary custom:

“It was at one time customary on this day to whip the juvenile members of a family. Gregory remarks that ” it hath been a custom, and yet is elsewhere, to whip up the children upon Innocents’ Day morning, that the memory of this murder might stick the closer ; and, in a moderate proportion, to act over the cruelty again in kind.”

According to Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1900 British Popular customs past and present Gregory was informed of another custom told to him by his friend, Dr. Gerard Langbain, the Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, from which it appears that, at the church of Oseney, associated with the old abbey. He notes:

“They were wont to bring out, upon this day, the foot of a child prepared after their fashion, and put upon with red and black colour, as to signify the dismal part of the day. They put this up in a chest in the vestry, ready to be produced at the time, and to be solemnly carried about the church to be adored by the people.”

This too has been forgotten and perhaps what with Christmas’s secular approach more and more skewed to children it appear unlikely that any customs are going to be revived