Christmas Eve In North Notts
As these old customs are fast dying out, and should be chronicled, I
must be pardoned if I give another and very similar illustration of
how Christmas eve was spent in North Notts fifty years ago.
[Footnote 39: Notes and Queries, seventh series, ii. 501.]
None keep Christmas nowadays as was the fashion fifty to a hundred
years ago in this part of the country. Here and there are to be met
the customs, or bits of the customs, which were then observed: but, as
a rule, the old ways have given place to new ones. Here in North
Notts, every house is more or less decked in the few days before
Christmas Day with holly, ivy, and evergreens, nor is mistletoe
forgotten, which would scarcely be likely by any one living within a
dozen miles of Sherwood Forest, where mistletoe grows in rare
profusion on thorn bushes, the oak, and other trees, and under certain
conditions may be had for the asking.
Fifty years ago, at any rate, in all the villages and towns of North
Notts, the preparations among farmers, tradesmen, and poor folks for
keeping Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were always on a bountiful
scale. Fat pigs were killed a week or so previously, portions of which
were made into Christmas pies of various kinds. Plum puddings were
made, and the mince meat, cunningly prepared some weeks beforehand,
was made into mince pies of all sorts, sizes, and shapes. Yule
'clogs,' as they are here called, were sawn or chopped in readiness,
and a stock laid in sufficient to last the whole of one or two
In well-regulated houses it was usual to have all the preparations
and the housework completed by early in the afternoon of Christmas
Eve, and after an early tea in parlour and kitchen--the servants,
clean and neat, piled up the Yule clogs in the rooms, getting the
large ones well alight, and keeping them going by smaller knots of
wood. Long, large, white Christmas Candles were lighted, set in
old-fashioned, time-honoured, brass candlesticks, accompanied by
equally old and honoured brass snuffers and trays, all bright and
shining. Of candles, there was no lack, and when all were fairly
going, parlour and kitchen presented a blaze of warm, ruddy light,
only seen once in the year. In both rooms the Christmas Eve tables
were laid with snowy linen, and set for feasting, with all the good
things provided. On each table would be a large piece of beef, and a
ham, flanked by the pies and other good things, including a Christmas
About six in the evening, the chief item of the feast was prepared.
This was hot spiced ale, usually of a special brew. This was prepared
by the gallon in a large kettle, or iron pot, which stood, for the
purpose, on the hob. The ale was poured in, made quite hot, but not
allowed to boil, and then sugar and spice were added according to
taste, some women having a special mode of making the brew. When
ready, the hot ale was ladled into bowls,--the large earthenware ones
now so rare. A white one, with blue decorations, was used in the
parlour, a commoner one, of the yellowish earthenware kind, with rough
blue or other coloured bands for ornamentation, being for the kitchen.
These, nearly full of the steaming brew, were carried to the tables.
Whoever then dropped in, and usually there were many, to see parlour
or kitchen company, had to drink from these bowls, lifting the bowl to
the lips with both hands, expressing a good seasonable wish, and
taking a hearty drink. The visitors then partook of anything on the
table they liked, and one and all were treated bountifully. Soon, as
the company arrived, the fun increased in parlour and kitchen,
particularly in the latter, as the womenkind went through the
old-fashioned ceremony under the mistletoe, which was hung aloft from
a highly-decorated 'kissing-bunch.'
All sorts of games and fun went on till about ten o'clock, as a rule,
about which time the master, mistress, and family, with the rest of
the parlour company, visited the kitchen. Then the steaming ale bowl
was refilled, and all, beginning with the master and the mistress, in
turn drank from the bowl. This over, the parlour company remained, and
entered into the games for a time. There was always some one who could
sing a suitable song; and one, if song it can be called, was:
The Folks' Song.
When me an' my folks
Come to see you an' your folks,
Let you an' your folks
Treat me an' my folks
As kind, as me an' my folks
Treated you an' your folks,
When you an' your folks
Came to see me an' my folks,
Sure then! never were such folks
Since folks were folks!
This was sung several times over with the last two lines as a chorus.
The proceedings in the kitchen closed with another general sup from
the replenished bowl, the parlour folks returning to the parlour.
During the evening the proceedings were varied by visits from
Christmas singers and the mummers, all of whom were well entertained.
Usually, if the weather was fit, the kitchen folks wound up the night
with a stroll, dropping in to see friends at other houses. As a rule,
soon after midnight the feastings were over, but most folks never
thought of retiring till they heard the bands of singers in the
distance singing the morning hymn, 'Christians, awake!'
A very old custom was that of wassailing the fruit trees on
Christmas eve, although it obtained on other days, such as New Year's
day and Twelfth day. Herrick says:
Wassaile the Trees that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare;
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.
This custom of drinking to the trees and pouring forth libations to
them differs according to the locality. In some parts of Devonshire it
used to be customary for the farmer, with his family and friends,
after partaking together of hot cakes and cider (the cakes being
dipped in the liquor previous to being eaten), to proceed to the
orchard, one of the party bearing hot cake and cider as an offering to
the principal apple tree. The cake was formally deposited on the fork
of the tree, and the cider thrown over it.
In the neighbourhood of the New Forest the following lines are sung at
the wassailing of the trees:
Apples and pears, with right good corn
Come in plenty to every one;
Eat and drink good cake and hot ale,
Give earth to drink, and she'll not fail.
Horsfield, who wrote of Sussex, speaks somewhat at length of this
subject, and says that the wassail bowl was compounded of ale, sugar,
nutmeg, and roasted apples, the latter called lambs' wool. The
wassail bowl is placed on a small round table, and each person present
is furnished with a silver spoon to stir. They then walk round the
table as they go, and stirring with the right hand, and every
alternate person passes at the same time under the arm of his
preceding neighbour. The wassailing (or worsling, as it is termed in
West Sussex) of the fruit trees is considered a matter of grave
importance, and its omission is held to bring ill luck, if not the
loss of all the next crop. Those who engage in the ceremony are called
The farm labourers, or boys (says Horsfield), after the day's toil is
ended, assemble in a group to wassail the apple trees, etc. The
trumpeter of the party is furnished with a cow's horn, with which he
makes sweet music. Thus equipped, they call on the farmer, and
inquire, please, sir, do you want your trees worsled? They then
proceed to the orchard, and encircling one of the largest and
best-bearing trees, chant in a low voice a certain doggerel rhyme; and
this ended, all shout in chorus, with the exception of the trumpeter,
who blows a loud blast. During the ceremony they rap the trees with
their sticks. Thus going from tree to tree, or group to group, they
wassail the whole orchard; this finished, they proceed to the house of
the owner, and sing at his door a song common on the occasion. They
are then admitted, and, placing themselves around the kitchen fire,
enjoy the sparkling ale and the festivities of the season.
There are two wassail rhymes in Sussex:
Stand fast, root; bear well, top;
Pray the God send us a good howling crop.
Every twig, apples big;
Every bough, apples enow.
Hats full, caps full,
Full quarters, sacks full.
Holloa, boys, holloa! Hurrah!
The other is:
Here's to thee, old apple tree;
May'st thou bud, may'st thou blow,
May'st thou bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel, bushel sacks full!
And my pockets full, too!
In the Gentleman's Magazine (January 1820, p. 33) mention is made of
an ancient superstitious custom obtaining at Tretyre, in
Herefordshire, upon Christmas Eve. They make a cake, poke a stick
through it, fasten it upon the horn of an ox, and say certain words,
begging a good crop of corn for the master. The men and boys attending
the oxen range themselves around. If the ox throws the cake behind it
belongs to the men; if before, to the boys. They take with them a
wooden bottle of cyder, and drink it, repeating the charm before
There is a curious custom at Downside College, near Bath. On Christmas
eve the scholars of this well-known institution proceed to the
election of their king and other officers of his household, consisting
of the mayor of the palace, etc. His reign lasts fourteen days, during
which period there are many good feasts; a room in the college being
fitted up in fine style, and used by his Majesty as his palace. At
Oxford, too, in pre-Reformation time, at Merton College, they had a
king of Christmas, or misrule; at St. John's he was styled lord, and
at Trinity he was emperor!
There is a rather rough but pretty west country carol for Christmas
eve, which is to be found in Davies Giddy, or Gilbert's Ancient
Christmas Carols, etc., and which, he says, was chanted in private
houses on Christmas eve throughout the west of England up to the
latter part of the last century.
The Lord at first did Adam make
Out of the dust and clay,
And in his nostrils breathed life,
E'en as the Scriptures say.
And then in Eden's Paradise
He placed him to dwell,
That he, within it, should remain,
To dress and keep it well.
Now let good Christians all begin
An holy life to live,
And to rejoice and merry be,
For this is Christmas Eve.
And then within the garden he
Commanded was to stay,
And unto him in commandment
These words the Lord did say:
The fruit which in the garden grows
To thee shall be for meat,
Except the tree in the midst thereof,
Of which thou shall not eat.
Now let good Christians, etc.
For in the day that thou shall eat,
Or to it then come nigh;
For if that thou doth eat thereof,
Then surely thou shalt die.
But Adam he did take no heed
Unto the only thing,
But did transgress God's holy law,
And so was wrapt in sin.
Now let good Christians, etc.
Now, mark the goodness of the Lord,
Which He for mankind bore,
His mercy soon He did extend,
Lost man for to restore;
And then, for to redeem our souls
From death and hellish thrall,
He said His own dear Son should be
The Saviour of us all.
Now let good Christians, etc.
Which promise now is brought to pass,
Christians, believe it well;
And by the coming of God's dear Son
We are redeemed from thrall.
Then, if we truly do believe,
And do the thing aright;
Then, by His merits, we, at last,
Shall live in heaven bright
Now let good Christians, etc.
And now the Tide is nigh at hand
In which our Saviour came;
Let us rejoice, and merry be,
In keeping of the same.
Let's feed the poor and hungry souls,
And such as do it crave;
Then, when we die, in heaven sure
Our reward we shall have.
Now let good Christians, etc.
Christmas eve is notable in the Roman Catholic Church for the unique
fact that mass is celebrated at midnight. I say, advisably, is
celebrated, because, although Cardinal Manning abolished public mass
at that hour within the diocese of Westminster about 1867, yet in
conventual establishments it is still kept up, and in every church
three masses are celebrated. The ancient, and, in fact, the modern
use, until interrupted by Cardinal Manning, was to celebrate mass at
midnight, at daybreak, and at the third hour (9 a.m.) This use is very
old; for Thelesphorus, who was Pope A.D. 127, decreed that three
masses should be sung in Festo Nativitatis, to denote that the birth
of Christ brought salvation to the fathers of three periods--viz. the
fathers before, under, and after the law.
Another Roman Catholic custom on Christmas eve is the preparation of
the Manger, which in some places is a very elaborate affair. The
Christ is lying on straw between the ox and ass, Mary and Joseph
bending over Him; the shepherds are kneeling in adoration, and the
angels, hovering above, are supposed to be singing the gloria in
excelsis. A writer in the Catholic World (vol. xxxiv. p. 439)
says:--Christmas Dramas are said to owe their origin to St. Francis
of Assisi. Before his death he celebrated the sacred Birth-night in
the woods, where a stable had been prepared with an ox and an ass, and
a crib for an altar. A great number of people came down from the
mountains, singing joyful hymns and bearing torches in their hands;
for it was not fitting that a night that had given light to the whole
world, should be shrouded in darkness. St. Francis, who loved to
associate all nature with his ministry, was filled with joy. He
officiated at the Mass as deacon. He sang the Gospel, and then
preached in a dramatic manner on the birth of Christ. When he spoke of
the Lamb of God, he was filled with a kind of divine frenzy, and
imitated the plaintive cry of the sacrificial lamb; and, when he
pronounced the sweet name of Jesus, it was as if the taste of honey
were on his lips. One soul before the rural altar, that night, with
purer eyes than the rest, saw the Divine Babe, radiant with eternal
beauty, lying in the manger.