Christmas traditions may vary between families, but did you know about these 12 slightly quirkier customs and facts which form part of our British Christmas culture, past and present?
1. The Ashen Faggot
Originally a fertility ceremony from Saxon times, the faggot is a bundle of green ash sticks bound together with nine bands of hazel. Predominantly celebrated in the West Country on Christmas Eve, the faggot is burnt on a fire that has been lit with the remnants of the previous year’s faggot. Legend says that any unmarried woman present at the ceremony would each chose one of the green bands and it was believed that the woman who selected the first band to ignite and break would be the next to get married. The tradition still continues today in many pubs across Devon and Dorset.1 2
2. The Smoking Bishop
You may be partial to a mulled wine at this time of year but have you tried the Smoking Bishop of Scrooge fame? 3 This festive tipple is said to be named after the mitre-shaped drinking vessel that it was originally served in during Victorian times. Cinnamon, cloves, mace and port feature heavily in this boozy Bishop beverage.
3. White Christmases are but a dream
The definition that the Met Office uses to define a white Christmas in the UK is for one snowflake to be observed falling in the 24 hours of 25 December somewhere in the UK.4 White Christmases were more frequent in the 18th and 19th centuries, even more so before the change of calendar in 1752 which effectively brought back Christmas Day by 12 days. Climate change and our now higher than average temperatures has also played a big part in the chances of a white Christmas being reduced. The last ‘official’ white Christmas was 2017 with snow reportedly falling across 11% of the UK but alas, no snowmen featured because no snowflakes settled on the ground.
4. The turkeys that wore booties
In the late 18th century the majority of turkeys in the UK were being farmed in Norfolk. During this era it was only the upper classes that could afford to eat this bird so farmers used to walk their turkeys all the way to the London markets to make a good price. This huge 100 mile ramble could take several weeks so the birds used to wear booties made from leather or sacking, or even have them dipped in tar to prevent them getting sore.5
5. The festive onion which predicts your future.
The humble onion may be an essential ingredient in your Christmas stuffing but if you turn the clock back a few years and head to the Devon6 moors, this vegetable was used to predict your festive future love. On St. Thomas’s Eve (20th December) if a young woman wished to find out who her future husband was she would take an onion for each suitor, carve the initials of each man on an onion before placing them in a dark cupboard. The first onion to sprout would represent the truest of her loves. In other counties, a young woman would put an onion under her pillow on St. Thomas’s Eve and then she would dream of her future husband.
6. An alternative to Auld Lang Syne – Lets Wassail!
We’re heading back to Anglo-Saxon times which saw the first type of Wassailing celebrations. The Lord of the Manor would greet his villagers with the toast “waes hael”,7 meaning “be well”! to which the locals would respond with “drink hael”, or “drink well”, and the New Year celebrations would begin with a warmed spiced ale– Knees up, Let’s Wassail!
The second, and currently practised Wassailing custom is generally performed in the countryside8 , particularly in fruit growing regions, where the trees are blessed in the hope of a good harvest. Evil spirits will be scared away by the Wassailers who will move from orchard to orchard singing, shouting, banging pots and pans, and even firing shotguns! This new year custom is used to both waken the sleeping tree spirits, and also to frighten off any evil demons that may be lurking in the branches!
7. The Mince Pie Diet
The tradition of ‘Stir-it up Sunday’ is usually associated with the mixing of the Christmas Pudding, but in the middle ages it also kick-started a new mince-meat custom. After each member of the family had stirred the spiced-fruit mixture clockwise and made a wish, they insisted on eating a mince pie each and every day for the 12 days of Christmas. This regular diet was believed to bring good health and happiness for the forthcoming year9 .
8. Police say “Freeze!”
If we should be fortunate enough to have a white Christmas be wary of where you and your kids go sledging. Section 54 of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 act states that any person ‘who shall make or use any slide upon ice or snow in any street or other thoroughfare, to the common danger of the passengers’ can be arrested and fined! Apparently the fine for inappropriate sledging can be as much as £500!
9. Christmas is Cancelled!
During the 17th Century the Puritans thought Christmas was wasteful. Firstly they renamed it Christ-tide to move it away from the Catholic connotations of ‘Christ -mass’. In addition to this, soldiers were given the power to confiscate food if they believed it was to be used to celebrate Christmas10 . The House of Parliament at the time, along with Oliver Cromwell introduced the banning of Easter, Pentecost and Christmas because they believed it threatened core Christian beliefs. Party Poopers.
10. Who am I?
‘Mummering’ or ‘Janneying’ is a game played by a group of friends and/or family who dress in disguise during the 12 days of Christmas. The group of Mummers visit the houses of their neighbours and perform a variety of jokes, dances or recitations. Once their identities have been guessed, the Mummers receive food and drink from the host of the house. This tradition has expanded to include ‘Mummer’s Plays’ which are based on the early concept of pantomime and often include the character of Father Christmas11 .
11. Mistletoe may offer more than just a kiss!
Going back in time, the druids of Britain used to harvest mistletoe from sacred oak trees. As part of a Celtic religious ceremony, druids dressed top to toe in white would climb a sacred oak, cut down the mistletoe growing on it, sacrifice two white bulls and use the mistletoe to make an elixir to cure infertility!12 To this day, practising Druids still believe mistletoe to have healing properties.
12. What a cracker!
The world’s biggest Christmas cracker was made in Buckinghamshire in December 2001. It measured 63.1metres long with a diameter of 4metres! Crackers were originally created by a London-based confectioner Tom Smith13 in the 1800’s. The concept began with sugared almond bon-bons being wrapped in twisted paper. Over time, mottos such as love poems were added, with the ‘bang’ a few years later: completing the modern-day cracker as we know it!