Category Archives: Christmas

Custom survived: The Bodmin Wassail

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The Bodmin wassail is one of the few surviving house visiting wassails and has been on my to do list for some time. I did plan to attend in 2020, but as we all know Covid struck and despite plans to revive in 2021 and 2022 they were not full bodied revivals I believe and indeed one of these years it was cancelled last minute. 2023 was the year then to attend! So I organised myself to get down to Bodmin the day before so I could attend.

Always held on the 6th or 5th if the 6th is a Sunday, the custom dates at least back to the will of one Nicholas Sprey, a three-time mayor of Bodmin who died in 1624. He bequeathed the sum of 13s 4d for an “annual wassail cup” aiming “the continuance of love and neighbourly meetings” and to “remember all others to carry a more charitable conscience”. It is possible that Sprey, a Town Clerk and once MP for Bodmin may have established the custom for he directed that the wassail cup should be taken to the mayor’s house each year on the 12th day of Christmas, raising funds as it passed through the town. This stipend was withdrawn in 1838 the stipend but as we know the custom continued which suggests it doubtlessly had an earlier origin.

I arrived at the old town hall, now a museum to see the wassailers assembling on the steps. They are without exception the best dressed of any wassails, being dressed as they describe on their website as:

“top hat and tails, smart outfits comprised of “gentlemen’s hand-me-downs” – clothes acquired from the local gentry and passed down from one wassailer to another over the decades.”

Assembled on the steps in their black morning suits and notable top hats, they certainly look like a scene from another era and as they processed around the town certainly looked even more distinctive. The group chatted to the curious onlooker as they assembled and it was interesting to hear how long some members had been in the group; and heartening to see their was a relative new recruit in their ranks.

The day begun at the offices of Bodmin Town Council and soon in a curious crocodile they made their way where they were greeted by the  mayor and local councillors. Here the wassail cup was removed from the case and dutifully filled with wine for the first wassail with the Mayor. The wassail bowl is an important part of the custom; the cup usually being made of wood and decorated with holly, laurel and later tinsel. In Bodmin, however, it was always made of pottery. The original bowl of course has long gone, it was made of pottery. Apparently, according to a Mr. Tom Green Snr, a wassailer for around 70 years finishing late 1980s, it disappeared following the outbreak of the Second World War. At that time it disappeared having last being seen on display on top of a plant pot in a shop in Honey Street in Bodmin. Thus the wassailers continued without a drinking vessel.

In 2008 a former mayor John Chapman donated a specially commissioned bowl, made by Lostwithiel potter John Webb. When not on wassail service it is displayed throughout the year in the Tourist Information Centre in Bodmin’s Shire Hall.  Of this Vic Legg, who has been part of the wassailing tradition for 33 years said:

“John has been a keen supporter of the tradition, as was his father and grandfather, and we are extremely grateful to him for this generous gift…We’ve carried on without a bowl since before the war, visiting houses, pubs and residential homes, but now we can fill it up with beer or cider and offer people a drink, the original intention when Nicholas Sprey bought the first wassailing cup all those years ago. Having the new bowl makes a tremendous difference as we can use it as the focal point of the wassail.”

The receptible for collection had become closer to the tradition method too, when 2014, a new leather purse was donated replacing the plastic ice cream tub. Apparently, it inspired by the lyrics from one wassail song:

 “We’ve got a little purse made of stretching leather skin. We want a little of your money, to bind it well within.”

They started as traditional with one of three of their traditional wassail songs:

“Chorus

For singing Wassail, Wassail, Wassail,

And Johnney come to our jolly Wassail.

We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,

Pockets of money and a cellar of beer.

Chorus

If Master and Mistress be sitting at ease,

Put your hands in your pockets and give what you please.

Chorus

If Master and Mistress are both wide awake,

Please go to the cupboard and bring us some cake.

Chorus

Here comes a ship out in full sail,

Ploughs the wide ocean in many a gale.

Chorus

If you’ve got an apple I hope you’ve got 10,

To make some sweet cider ‘gainst we comes again.

Chorus

Come knock on the knocker and ring on the bell,

I hope you’ll reward us for singing Wassail.

Chorus”

The songs are the most important element of the wassail. Bodmin’s tradition has three, which is unique amongst wassail traditions – they usually have just one. Their website states:

“The first is sung on arrival before we enter the house or premises. The second was passed on to us by Mr Charlie Wilson, and is often sung during the eating, drinking, storytelling, fundraising and singing that goes on at each stop. The third is sung as we leave, thanking our hosts for their hospitality: “So now we must be gone to seek for more good cheer, where bounty will be shown, as we have found it here, in our Wassail.”

Of this first song the website notes:

“The verses are not always sung in this order, or indeed all of them sung at each stop. It is possible that in the chorus the word Johnney was originally ‘joy’, as in most wassails, but this is how Bodmin Wassail inherited the song.”

The old song is sung as they leave:

“Chorus
Wassail, Wassail, Wassail, Wassail,
I am joy, come to our jolly Wassail.

This is our merry night,
For choosing King and Queen,
Then be it your delight,
That something may be seen,
In our Wassail.

Chorus

Is there any butler here?
Or dweller in this house,
I hope he’ll take a full carouse,
And enter to our bowl,
In our Wassail.

Chorus

We fellows are all poor,
Can’t buy no house nor land,
Unless we do gain,
In our Wassail.

Chorus

Our Wassail bowl to fill,
With apples and good spice,
Then grant us your good will,
To taste here, once or twice,
Of our Wassail.

Chorus

So now we must be gone,
To seek for more good cheer,
Where bounty will be shown,
As we have found it here,
In our Wassail

Chorus”

As the website states:

“The old song is sung as they leave, sometimes in its entirety, and sometimes just the last verse and chorus. It has been around and sung, in either complete or truncated form, since at least the late 19th century, according to the late Wassailer Tom Green, Snr. A printed copy of the song was carried around on Wassail night. This copy was believed to have been lost until it came into the possession of Vic Legg in the mid 1970s via his colleague Vic Barratt. His father, Vic Barratt, Snr, had been a Wassailer for a short period in the 1940s and passed it down to his son.”

After around an hour here, taking advantage of the fine spread of food, the wassailers disappeared into a taxi to start a rather gruelling especially in the rather dreadful weather tour of at first residential homes, then local businesses and finally public houses of the town. At each place they would announce themselves with a wassail song.

The weather continued to be grim when we caught they entering a pub along Bodmin high street, despite singing and no doubt indulging in hospitality the entire morning there was no sign of fatigue as they song heartly and were received rapturously by those in the pub. After chatting and laughing with regulars there was a nod around the wassailers who then broke into their out song, grabbed hats and umbrellas and went their way to the next pub. And so, it went on through the town. Their repertoire varied little except for some poetry and discussion of the history of the songs to the local folk group who were keen to hear. I left them at their last pub, less packed and with a slightly more bemused assemblage, before the entered the dark gloom to finish some private sings and then rest for another year!

Bodmin’s wassail tradition is one indeed to be proud of. There are other wassails in Cornwall and beyond but these tend to be revivals. This is the oldest recorded and continually attended custom, even the pandemic did not prevent some wassailing, that being a socially distanced one of the Mayor….and no one mentioned it was probably bending the rules then,…but in a way that underlines the love Bodmin has for the wassail.

Custom demised: New Year Day gift giving

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New Year’s Day is generally a day now of recovery from celebrating the night before. Some families may have a New Year’s day meal but for many years it was New Year’s day not Christmas that was the day for gift giving.

Fosbroke, in his Encyclopædia of Antiquities, notices the continuation of the Roman practice of interchanging gifts during the middle and later ages; a custom which prevailed especially amongst our kings, queens, and the nobility. According to Matthew Paris, Henry III., following the discreditable example of some of the Roman emperors, even extorted them from his subjects.

File:Royal Christmas Boxes and New Years Gifts 1815&16 (NAPOLEON 164).jpeg  - Wikimedia Commons

In Rymer’s Fœdera a list is given of the gifts received by Henry VI. between Christmas Day and February 4th, 1428, consisting of sums of 40s., 20s., 13s. 4d., 10s., 6s. 8d., and 3s. 4d.

In the reign of Henry VII. the reception of the New Year’s gifts presented by the king and queen to each other and by their household and courtiers, was reduced to a solemn formula.

Agnes Strickland, in her Lives of the Queens of England (1864), quotes the following extract from a MS. of Henry VII.’s Norroy herald, in possession of Peter Le Neve, Esq.:

“On the day of the New Year, when the king came to his foot-sheet, his usher of his chamber-door said to him, ‘Sire, here is a New Year’s gift coming from the queen;’ then the king replied, ‘Let it come in.’ Then the king’s usher let the queen’s messenger come within the yate” (meaning the gate of the railing which surrounded the royal bed, instances of which are familiar to the public in the state bedrooms at Hampton Court to this day, and it is probable that the scene was very similar), “Henry VII. sitting at the foot of the bed in his dressing-gown, the officers of his bed-chamber having turned the top sheet smoothly down to the foot of the bed when the royal personage rose. The queen, in like manner, sat at her foot-sheet, and received the king’s New Year’s gift within the gate of her bed-railing. When this formal exchange of presents had taken place between the king and his consort, they received, seated in the same manner, the New Year’s gifts of their nobles. ‘And,’ adds the herald, assuming the first person, ‘I shall report to the queen’s grace and them that be about her, what rewards are to be given to them that bring her grace New Year’s gifts, for I trow they are not so good as those of the king.’”

In the 4th series of Notes and queries it is recorded that:

“there is in the possession of the Marquis of Bath, Longleat, a manuscript, which contains a list of moneys given to King Henry VIII. in the twenty-fourth year of his reign, as New Year’s gifts. They are from archbishops, bishops, noblemen, doctors, gentlemen, &c. The amount which the king’s grace complacently pocketed on this occasion was 792l. 10s. 10d.”

Honest old Latimer, however, says Hone in his 1836 Every Day Book states that instead of presenting Henry VIII. with a purse of gold, put into the king’s hand a New Testament, with a leaf conspicuously doubled down at Hebrews xiii. 4, which, on reference, will be found to have been worthy of all acceptation, though not, perhaps, well accepted.

A manuscript roll of the public revenue of the fifth year of Edward VI. has an entry of rewards given on New Year’s Day to the king, officers, and servants, amounting to 155l. 5s., and also of sums given to the servants of those who presented New Year’s gifts to the king.

Thistleton-Dwyer in his 1836 Popular customs states that:

“During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the custom of presenting New Year’s gifts to the sovereign was carried to an extravagant height. Indeed, Dr. Drake is of opinion that the wardrobe and jewelry of Queen Elizabeth were principally supported by these annual contributions on New Year’s Day. He cites lists of New Year’s gifts presented to her from the original rolls published in her “progresses” by Mr. Nichols; and from these it appears that the presents were made by the great officers of state, peers and peeresses, bishops, knights and their ladies, gentlemen and gentlewomen, physicians and apothecaries, and others of lower grade, down to her Majesty’s dustman. The presents consisted of sums of money, costly articles of ornament for the queen’s person or apartments, caskets studded with precious stones, valuable necklaces, bracelets, gowns, embroidered mantles, smocks, petticoats, looking-glasses, fans, silk stockings, and a great variety of other articles. The largest sum given by any of the temporal lords was 20l.; but the Archbishop of Canterbury gave 40l., the Archbishop of York 30l., and the other spiritual lords, 20l. and 10l. Dr. Drake says, that although Elizabeth made returns to the New Year’s gifts, in plate and other articles, yet she nevertheless took sufficient care that the balance should be in her own favour.”

And that:

“In the reign of James I. the money gifts seem to have been continued for some time, but the ornamental articles presented seem to have been few and of small value. No rolls, nor, indeed, any notices of New Year’s gifts presented to Charles I. seem to have been preserved, though probably there were such. The custom, no doubt, ceased entirely during the Commonwealth, and was never afterwards revived, at least, to any extent worthy of notice. Mr. Nichols mentions that the last remains of the custom at court consisted in placing a crown-piece under the plate of each of the chaplains in waiting on New Year’s Day, and that this custom had ceased early in the nineteenth century.”

The New Year’s gifts, says Chambers in his Book of Days presented by individuals to each other were suited to sex, rank, situation, and circumstances. From Bishop Hall’s Satires (1598), it appears that the usual gift of tenantry in the country to their landlords was a capon; and Cowley, addressing the same class of society says:

“Ye used in the former days to fall Prostrate to your landlord in his hall,When with low legs, and in an humble guise,Ye offer’d up a capon sacrificeUnto his worship, at a New Year’s tide.”

Ben Jonson, in his Christmas Masque, among other characters introduces:

“New Year’s gift in a blue coat, serving-man like, with an orange, and a sprig of rosemary on his head, his hat full of brooches, with a collar of gingerbread, his torch-bearer carrying a marchpane, with a bottle of wine on either arm.”

An orange stuck with cloves was a common present, and is explained by Lupton, who says that the flavour of the wine is improved, and the wine itself preserved from mouldiness, by an orange or lemon stuck with cloves being hung within the vessel, so as not to touch the liquor.

Thistleton-Dwyer also adds that:

“When pins were first invented, and brought into use about the beginning of the sixteenth century, they were a New Year’s gift very acceptable to ladies, instead of the wooden skewers which they had hitherto used. Sometimes, however, in lieu of pins, they received a composition in money, called pin money, an expression which has been extended to a sum of money secured by a husband on his marriage for the private expenses of his wife.

Gloves, too, were customary New Year’s gifts. They were far more expensive than nowadays, and occasionally a sum of money was given instead, which was called glove money.”

Now no one gives gifts it seems on New Year’s Day least of all to the monarch

Custom demised: Great Yarmouth Christmas breakfast

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Wedding customs by country - Wikipedia

Many of us have a large Christmas meal but in Yarmouth a custom was established to provide a Christmas breakfast. According to Charles Parkin’s 1776 History of Great Yarmouth:

“At Yarmouth before the Reformation it was a custom for the prior and monks, and afterwards for the dean and chapter, or the farmer of their parsonage, to provide a breakfast for the inhabitants of the town every year on Christmas Day, which custom continued till the 21st of Elizabeth”

It is started that it was established: 

“on account of a grievous plague which carried off two thousand of the inhabitants in one year, and on consideration of the ruinous condition of the parsonage-house, it was agreed that Thomas Osborne, who was then farmer of the parsonage, should pay 5l. a year to the churchwardens for the use of the town in lieu of the said breakfast.”

However, after the plague had ceased, the breakfast resumed and continued as usual, till the reign of James I. This was when according to Parkin:

“William Gostlynge, then farmer, absolutely refused to provide it or to pay an equivalent composition, upon which the town preferred a complaint to the dean and chapter, who promised not to countenance him in such a non-conformity to the terms of the lease by which he held of them. Finally, Mr. Gostlynge was obliged to sign an agreement, whereby he engaged to pay yearly to the town in lieu of the breakfast, 10l., which was distributed to poor fishermen, &c., and 5l. for his default, in before refusing to provide the breakfast.”

This seemed a convenient arrangement and again Parkin continues to note:

“This continued till the making of a new agreement, between the corporation and Mr. Gostlynge, of a grant of nomination and appointment of preachers and ministers in the town, since which it seems that both breakfast and composition shared the fate of all human institutions and sank into oblivion.”

Understandably despite the sentiment it has never been revived!

Custom contrived: Guildford Twelfth Night celebrations

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Guildford’s Twelfth Night celebrations, always held on the night is a great smorgasbord of the customs associated with the old celebrations associated with the day and a more rousing and enjoyable twelfth night celebration you couldn’t find I’d say.

The Twelfth Night at Guildford founded by Pilgrim Morris founded in 1972. The groups dressed as characters from a plough or Mummer’s Play tour a number of Guildford’s pubs injecting a necessary shot of jollity into a drab winter’s night. As they tour around a fair number of followers are attracted to their infectious fun. Their costumes in themselves were a riot of craziness and eccentricity covered with ribbons and adorned with Chrimbo iconography one even included a miniature Father Christmas!

I arrived at the first pub having travelled across the capital from the Jeffrey’s museum’s Twelfth night and came across them mid mummer’s play as St George was being speared by a Saracen in such a rather cramped location that I feared as he feel he would hit his head on a table.

At the play’s conclusion seeing the revival of St George to cheers one of the Morris mean appeared with a cake and urged people to eat. Some were rather reluctant whereas others upon finding the purpose dived in and took a piece hoping to find the pea and bean. The pea and bean, hidden in the cake, being a Twelfth Night tradition, whosever would find it would be King or Queen of Misrule. The taker was unsuccessful. However, soon a partaker looking like they’d swallowed something a bit odd, reached into his mouth and extracted a hard bean – a cheer went out and he was celebrated as the King for the night.

There was then a sword dance again in the rather small area and it was perhaps thankful the swords were not the sharp kind.  One of the Morris then moved a chair and upon standing on it began to chalking the beam as traditional for epiphany. Their version slightly different:

“Finally, at each place, three crosses are chalked onto the beams to protect the house and bring good luck for the next year.”

There were more cheers. 

Off we went to another pub and hear the wassail bowl was out. This a wooden bowl filled with spiced ale and was being offered around and drunk enthusiastically like a communion wine and in a way this was the intentions.

Phil Gorton noted in the Guildford gazette

“In each of the five places that we visited, the Guildford Mummer’s play was performed followed carols and wassail songs – not the boring standard issue ones but traditional versions, some of which are local to Surrey.”

These songs were particularly uplifting at their final pub The Royal Oak where gathered around the stairway and up on the balcony the Morris dancers and accompanied impromptu choir sung their hearts out in their mixture of traditional and not so familiar carols. The custom is so well established now that it has its own followers who regularly attend and know the words of the more obscure and localised carols much as they do around Sheffield.  As noted by Phil again:

“There are always plenty of singers who come along to bolster the unofficial choir and, as happens each year

The local newspaper recording:

“Up to 150 wassailers, traditionally celebrating twelfth night, toured some of Guildford’s pubs last night (Jan 6th) causing merriment at every venue.

One of the celebrants, morris man Phil Gorton of Farncombe said: “The pubs were packed and it was a riotous night!””

If you are in Guildford or perhaps not and are free on Twelfth Night join the wassail at Guildford for a great experience – second to none as it has something customwise for everyone – including free food and drink!!

Custom demised: Twelfth Night Moseley Dole, Walsall

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File:Walsall in Medieval Times (15th Century) Artist's Impression.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons

This demised custom had a great story behind it:

“Thomas Moseley, passing through Walsall, on twelfth eve, saw a child crying for bread, where others were feasting, and, struck by the circumstance, made over the estates at Barcott, &c., to the town of Walsall, on condition that every year one penny should be given each person on that day, so that no one might witness a like sadness.”

And as such established the Moseley Dole as recorded in An abstract of the title – of the town of Walsall, in Stafford, to valuable estates at Bascott, &c., in the county of Warwick, with remarks by James Cottrell, 1818. which reads:

“In 1453 Thomas Moseley made a feoffment of certain estates, to William Lyle and William Maggot, and their heirs, in trust, for the use of the town of Walsall; but John Lyle, son of William Lyle, to whom these estates would have descended, instead of applying the produce of the estates for the use of the town, kept them, and denied that the property was in trust, pretending it to be his own inheritance; but the inhabitants of Walsall not choosing to be so cheated, some of them went to Moxhal, and drove away Lyle’s cattle, which unjustifiable act he did not resent, because he was liable to be brought to account for the trust estate in his hands. At length a suit was commenced by the town against Lyle, and the estates in question were adjudged for the use of the town of Walsall. Accordingly, in 1515, John Lyle of Moxhal, near Coleshill, Warwickshire, suffered a recovery, whereby these estates passed to Richard Hunt, and John Ford, and they, in 1516, made a feoffment of the land, to divers inhabitants of the town of Walsall, in trust, and so it continues in the hand of trustees to this day.”

It is recorded that:

“In 1539 the first mention appears to have been made of the penny dole. On the twelfth eve, being the anniversary for the souls of Thomas Moseley, and Margaret his wife, the bellman went about with his bell, exciting all to kneel down and pray for the souls of Thomas Moseley, and Margaret, his wife; Thomas Moseley never gave this dole, either by feoffment or will; but, because he had been so good a benefactor, in giving his lands, &c., in Warwickshire, the town, by way of gratitude, yearly distributed a general dole of one penny each, to young and old, rich and poor; strangers, as well as townspeople; and this was the origin of the dole.”

However there is some discussion over where the dole really begun:

“The masters of the guild of St. John the Baptist, in Walsall, a religious fraternity, with laws and orders made among themselves, by royal licence, appear at this time to have been the trustees; for they received the rents of these estates, and kept court at Barcott. King John granted to every arch-deacon in England a power of gathering from every ‘fyer householder,’ in every parish, one penny, which were called Peter pence; therefore I am inclined to think this religious fraternity were the beginners of this penny dole, which would enable them immediately to pay their Peter Pence or, perhaps they might stop it in the same manner as the bellman does the lord of the manor’s penny.”

The author of the extract:

“It would be a good thing if this dole was given up, and the rents of these valuable estates, which are now considerable, were all applied to charitable purposes.”

The dole ceased in 1825 after some local resistance it is believed. Twelve alms-houses, were built with the money in the hands of the corporation with the money apparently.

Custom revived: Lincoln Crying Christmas

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I’ve said this before but some towns and cities lend themselves to having a plethora of customs and traditions. Lincoln is such a place but with its challenging Steep Hill, towering cathedral and Roman ruins it should have collated a number of curious customs – but bar a couple of interesting church services and its Australian breakfast – unfortunately since I reported it in this blog now in abeyance – its rather lacking. That is why the revival of perhaps one of the city’s unique and certainly colourful customs is very welcome.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

Why should anyone by crying over Christmas you may ask? Not getting the correct present was it? Indigestion from too much stuffing and pudding? Or was it the inevitable argument with the in laws that did it? Not its not the emotional type of crying but crying out as in calling out and the aim of this custom was to inform the citizens of the rules surrounding on the on coming festive period.

I arrive and climbed that famous steep hill – well at least the custom was going downwards – to see a small group assembled dressed in medieval clothing and carrying banners and traditional instruments. The party were called Waites an old English name for such civic musicians.

Waites in themselves are a curious tradition. They were a sort of municipal musicians employed by the Mayor to play at civic ceremonies. Established by Henry III in 1253 in association with watching over the citizens during the curfew and as such they died out as the curfew became redundant and were officially stopped by the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act although apparently they continued to 1857 in Lincoln.

Origin of crying.

“”Evere franchest man and dennyssen inhabite within this Citie schalle have free liberte and sayffegarde in honest mirthe and gam sportis to goo or doe what hym pleys”.

The aim of the crying event being to inform the cities that unless written permission was given by the King, during the 12 days of Christmas no man would be arrested by the city’s authorities. Thus at regular intervals through the evening of the 21st December verses would be delivered either sung or spoken by three Senatours appointed by the Mayor and possibly city Waites. In 1576 for example it was recorded that:

“Christmas myrthe to be proclaimed in ten or twelve places and every Alderman to ride with the Officers”

The first written record of the custom is the words “Crying Christmas” being written on a flyleaf of Entries of the Common Council (1565 – 1599) with the words

“Anno xxv. Officij Willelmi Hynde Communis Clerici Civitatis Lincolniensis”.

An account of 1572 records:

“The old robes which the Officers Cried Christmas withal to be made into decent cloaks for the said officers to cry the same yearly.”

One assumes the custom became obsolete as soon as the Waites died out and it was not until 2007 that it was revived.

Waite for it!

Once the Cathedral clock struck 6pm and the with the steady beat of the drum we were off down into Lincoln. Accompanied with the sound of flutes and trumpets the streets of Lincoln was immediately brightened by this archaic sounds. Understandably as the ground processed downwards they received some interest from onlookers who stopped to take photos and some joined the procession behind making it seem like a real life piped piper procession.

 

At the first place one of the Waites put a horn to his lips and blew and then another called a Senator, read a proclamation:

“The maker Allmyghtye the grounds of all grace, Save this Congregation that here be present and Bryng them all to the Celestyall place, That with paycens wyll here the effect of our intent.”

A further three times these Senators read out their proclamations

“Oure intent & purpose is Auncyent customes to declare that have ben Vsed in this Citie manye yeres ago and noew for to breake them we wysshe ye schuld beware for ther be grevous ponysshmentes for them that wyll do soo.”

and then

“At the tyme of Crystmas, mythe haith ben made throughout all nacyons, of the Crystian faith and styll so to keip it, ye nede not be affrayde for then, was our Savyour bourn as the Scripture saith.”

It was all a bit confusing for the onlookers and indeed this being Friday night there were a few rowdy characters who sought to interject with their views, some somewhat colourful and in all cases fell flat. Indeed the concern with the possible conflict with the large night time economy meant that one year when the 21st fell on a Saturday it was decided not to entertain the notion!

In the market square beneath the shadow of the cathedral some of the Waites then danced weaving in and out of each other. I continued with them until we reached the Mayors parlour when the musicians played and a final proclamation made by the city cryer:

“The eternall Lord, have mercy on your souls this day. vnto other place to bear our tidings we must now away power upon you that ye may do good, the Lord bestow he, that all thynges both good and evil doth well know.”

Then we were all invited in for some festive food and the procession ended for another year. The city informed of the coming of Christmas and their rights and the dark and cold December nights made much better for it.

Custom contrived: Tenby Boxing Day swim

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Boxing Day dips and swims have become a modern phenomena and the desire to throw oneself into the icy cold waters around Britain just as the Christmas excesses has worn off can be found all around the country. Perhaps the oldest now over 50 years old is that at Tenby. A local news website stated:

“Named as one of Britain’s top ten barmiest winter dips, TENBY’s famous Boxing Day Swim has been an institution in the small West Wales town for decades and has recently featured in the ITV Wales series The Harbour, which was filmed in Tenby and shows a year in the life of the seaside community.”

The Tenby Boxing Day Swim is organised by the Tenby Sea Swimming Association, which dates back to the early 1900s as the organisers website states:

” In 1910, Arthur Dickinson – Quaker, lay preacher, artist and keen swimmer – brought his family from Yorkshire to live in Ruabon House, South Parade. Arthur was a year-round swimmer, and family legend has it that he was the first person to swim to Caldey. His son-in-law, Ossie Morgan, who was appointed as headmaster of the Tenby Council School, carried on the family tradition of teaching children to swim. When Mr Morgan retired, his own offspring decided to get non-swimmers afloat, and in the 1960s, Idris Morgan, Gly Osborne, Alan Morgan and Ray Lowe formed the Tenby Sea Swimming Association (TSSA). The opening of Tenby’s first indoor swimming pool could have spelled the end of TSSA, but the organisation then took on a new lease of life in 1970 when Tenby’s publicity officer, John Evans, came up with the idea of a charity Boxing Day Swim to put Tenby on the map. “

And pandemic aside it has thrived every since with numbers reaching the high 100s with around 800 in 2019 all amassed on the town’s North Beach excitedly staring into the grey waters. The event is of course a charity one and one which attracts a fair bit of eccentricity! Lined up on the beach awaiting its less than inviting waters are a wide range of young and old, some just in shorts and bikinis, some in full body costume – giant bananas appear to be popular – an Father and more often Mrs Claus. In 2020 Wales online recorded that the theme was Climate change:

“Ahead of the mad dash into the ocean, swim chairman Chris Osborne said: “Our seaside environment, which we proudly treasure, is under threat so it seems absolutely right that we support efforts to raise awareness of climate change and its impact. We hope our swimmers’ imaginative fancy dress will help in this cause.”

Indeed they did as:

“People embraced the theme of climate change for what was the 49th event, with even a polar bear spotted marching into the water complete with a sign proclaiming “Lost home to climate change”….There was even a Swedish-style ark, complete with endangered species, inspired by teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg.”

Large crowds watch on with the compulsory local photographers who encourage the usual high activity types of photos – often with the more glamorous members of the local community! Boxing day swim was for many just a dip in, although some plunged deeper into the waters watched with eagle eyes by boats from the RNLI for safety sake, Sensibly a large bonfire was set up on the beach and hot soup handed out – which was very welcomed. Perhaps less out of place with their full regalia the town’s Mayor than presents each of the  swimmers with a commemorative medal which this year. In the year of recognising the impact of climate change these were made out of wood instead of plastic or metal. For the 50th the theme of Golden was chosen and with its triumphant post lockdown return the beach was awash with shiny yellow suits and yes more bananas of course.

Custom demised: Biddenham Parish Bull on St Thomas’s Day

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Edwards in his 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes:

“An ancient annual payment of 5l. out of an estate at Biddenham, formerly belonging to the family of Boteler, and now the property of Lord Viscount Hampden, is regularly paid on St. Thomas’s Day to the overseers of the poor for the purchase of a bull, which is killed, and the flesh thereof given amongst the poor persons of the parish.”

This is an unusual bequest because it was usually St. Martin’s Day that spare cattle were slaughtered and this may have been an issue. It is recorded that the churchwardens overseers and principal inhabitants assist at the distribution of the meat the portions being given to those who have the families. The report considers:

“For many years past the annual fund, being insufficient to purchase a bull, the deficiency has been made good out of other charities belonging to the parish. “

Tunnicliffe, C. F. (1901-1979), 'The Chartley Bull', Wood Engraving, 1939/2007 £300.00 - Fine Art prints paintings drawings sculpture uk

 

It was noted that the value of the bull has varied in the 1800s from £9 to £14 which may have resulted in the customs disappearance however a suggestion was made:.  

It was proposed some years ago by the vicar that the 5l. a year should be laid out in buying meat, but the poor insisted on the customary purchase of a bull being continued, and the usage is accordingly kept up.”

 It was said that the money came from a transfer of £200 from the trustees. This is possibly linked to land bought in 1706 by Elizabeth Boteler. Sadly the custom did not survive the 20th century. 

Custom contrived: Chocolate advent calendars

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Advent calendar - Wikipedia

Each year in November parents run around the shops preparing for Christmas and the first thing perhaps that needs to be purchased is the advent calendar. However these are not the card board ones which I remembered and are worthy of a separate discussion, no these are the chocolate ones. But how did the paper ones turn into the chocolate ones and when?

It is thought that advent calendars first started in German around the early 1900s although the company which first made these appeared to cease production during the Second World War but it was revived in 1946 and by the 1950s it had arrived in the US.

A date for the choco-holic?

It was not long into the 1950s that some had the idea of replacing the images in the advent windows with chocolate and secularisation begun. The first chocolate Advent calendar appeared in 1958. These continue to be made during the 1960s but it did not appear to catch on and I remember in the 1980s in the UK the advent calendar we purchased just had the scenes of the nativity in it – and to be honest I was quite excited to see them as well.

The beginning of the dominance perhaps could be traced to 1971 when chocolate giant Cadbury introduced one in the UK. However, they still not catch on and they were only produced intermittently between 1972 and 1986. They were not put into continuous production until 1993. By the 2000s they appear to have become the mainstay and the excepted. Such that it is now difficult to find the original none chocolate ones. Indeed, Martin Johnes in his Research notes and resources on the histories of Wales and popular culture blog notes:

“It is tempting to see the move to giving children a chocolate every day as another sign of the commercialisation of Christmas and ever growing levels of festive consumption. The emergence in of the past few years of luxurious calendars with toys and even food, drink and gifts aimed at adults has added to this sense and led to accusation that religious ideas are being colonised and trampled.”

Of course one could criticise the commercialisation of the original cardboard ones but somehow the addition of chocolate is somewhat more commercial. However, like the original card one, the countdown to Christmas day is still the principle role and children still get excited to see the windows open and see that they are one day closer to the big day itself and the joy that that brings.

For the folklorist the fact that it was not until the 1990s and 00s that this custom became established and then becoming the expected tradition just shows how quickly a custom can establish itself and become part of the smorgasbord of Christmas. Of course, that is if you can stop your children from eating them all in one go! Perhaps they are trying to win the record set by Kevin Strahle. He holds the record for eating the advent chocolates for the fastest time: 1 minute 27.84 seconds. A record which definitely flies in the face of the spirit of the custom!

Custom survived: Eating mince pies on every day for the Twelve days of Christmas

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“And if you wanted to be ensure good health and happiness in the upcoming year, you should eat one mince pie every day for the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Eve until the 5th of January.”

Walkers Shortbread

Every year some mentions it as they open a box of mince pies as the festive season begins. Then I think I’ll try and eat one for each day of twelfth night and then fail miserably!! But it seems so easy. However, it looks like I’ve been failing before I begin as research shows I needed to do more than eat them!

Mince your words!

The earliest reference to this custom appears to by from 1853 Denham Christmas

“As many mince pies as you taste at Christmas so many happy months you will have….general though..Westermorland and Cumberland counties celebrated extreme hospitality.”

What is interesting is that it is not found before the 1850s but becomes widespread soon after. Furthermore the basic concept behind the tradition is outlined  twelve mince pies one for each day.

However soon after a variant appears. Within the decade, a copy of the 1861 Notes and queries 2nd Series states that:

“Eating mince pies in different houses. This saying is so well known that it need not relate it at length.”

Well perhaps it would have been good if it had because the appearance of different houses appears new but is it hinted by Denham when discussing the hospitality of those households. Certainly by 1883 Charlotte Sophia Burne’s Shropshire: A Sheaf of Gleanings stated that:

“There is ‘luck’ about mince pie damd iit is this. For every house during the Twelve days he will enjoy a happy month in the ensuing twelve months.”

By the 1921 Notes and Queries 12 Series an anonymous reported stated:

“Fifty years ago I was taught that the first mince pie should be eaten on Stirrup Sunday’ and every ne eaten between then and Twelfth night, in a different house, meant one month of happiness in the New Year.”

However, in 1908 Arnold Bennett Old Wives Tale had immortalised it in fiction in the following:

“Now Mr Scales, you must taste my mine A happy month for every tart you eat, you know’ Mrs Barnes reminded him.”

Wiltshire Folklore by Kathleen Wiltshire in 1975 notes:

“Mince pies too, have their own magic; if you eat twelve of them, from twelve, separate friends, during the twelve days of Christmas, you are promised a lucky twelve months to follow.”

Again suggesting the simpler tradition. But why mince pieces?

Having your pie and eat it

An account of 1923 from Martock Somerset in Folklore records a confused account:

“Even if a currant of each, taste as many mince-pies and Christmas puddings as possible between Christmas Day and the 6th January – each is a happy month.”

By 1960 another proviso had occurred. A woman from Steep Hampshire states that:

 “You will get a happy month for each mince pie you eat, as long as you don’t speak whole you are eating it.”

Yet another reason why I haven’t been successful. I would have to be careful though because when I had opened those mince pies in early December I was already going against my luck. John Symonds Udal’s 1922 Dorsetshire folklore

“Amongst strict observers of old customs…no one would think of eating a mince-pie before Christmas Eve or later than Twelfth Night.”

Pie in the sky

The luck associated appeared to be associated with the need to wish as an account from 1923 notes:

“When you eat the first mince pie you must wish.”

Finally, in the 1932 G.K. Chesterton New Poems he says:

“Some wishes at Xmas: Mince-pieces grant wishes, let each name his prize; but as for us, we wish for more Mince pies.”

More mince pieces surely not!