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Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Night of the Winter Bull: The customs and traditions of New Year's Eve

The Dorset Ooser
For most people, New Year's Eve is either spent quietly at home, or at a party, which lasts till after midnight to ‘see the New Year in’. Such gatherings differ little from other parties, apart from the ubiquitous singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. For some, the proper way to celebrate is to gather at a public place appropriated for such use.

However, in the past it was believed the malevolent powers set loose by the winter season had to be driven away. People dressed up in animal masks to disguise themselves and went about their parish beating pots and pans, clanging bells, tooting horns, cracking whips and blowing whistles. In some districts one man would dress in a horned bulls mask or ‘Ooser’ as it is called in Dorset, and he would be led from door to door and symbolically beaten before each. The Osser or Winter-Bull, brought luck to those household that he passed. The noise of the ‘Town Rattling’ as it was called, drove out the ghosts of the dying year and thus brought the New Year safely in. Great ritual bonfires were also lit in order to burn out the old year and to cleanse the new. In the home candles flickered from every window, the hearth fire was kept burning, and New Year ‘globes’ made of twisted hawthorn seasoned with cider were hung up in the kitchen to ensure against illness. 

New Year's Eve Folklore 

New Year's Eve or Day was also one of the key times for divination. Particularly popular was ‘dipping’ into the Bible and reading aloud a passage to predict how the coming year would be. Another widespread method involved inspecting the ashes of the domestic fire for shapes, while many put their faith in whom they met first on New Year's Day, preferring certain types of people for luck (as in the first footing), but a variation was the idea that the Christian name of the first person of the opposite sex you see on that day will be that of your future partner. 

Weather Lore 

The wind direction on New Year Eve was seen as an indication of what could be expected in the months to come.
‘If New Year’s Eve night wind blows south,
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If West, much milk and fish in the sea;
If North, much cold and storms there will be;
If East, the trees will bear much fruit;
If North-east, flee it, man and brute’.
Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days December 31st 1864, details the traditions of New Year's Eve.


 As a general statement, it may be asserted that neither the last evening of the old year nor the first day of the new one is much, observed in England as an occasion of festivity. In some parts of the country, indeed, and more especially in the northern counties, various social merry-makings take place; but for the most part, the great annual holiday-time is already past. Christmas Eve, Christmas-day, and St. Stephen's or Boxing Day have absorbed almost entirely the tendencies and opportunities of the community at large in the direction of joviality and relaxation. Business and the ordinary routine of daily life have again been resumed; or, to apply to English habits the words of an old Scottish rhyme still current, but evidently belonging to the old times, anterior to the Reformation, when Christmas was the great popular festival:
Yule's come and Yule 's gane,
 And we hae feasted weel;
 Sae Jock maun to his flail again,
 And Jenny to her wheel.'
Whilst thus the inhabitants of South Britain are settling down again quietly to work after the festivities of the Christmas season, their fellow-subjects in the northern division of the island are only commencing their annual saturnalia, which, till recently, bore, in the license and boisterous merriment which used to prevail, a most unmistakable resemblance to its ancient pagan namesake. The epithet of the Daft [mad] Days, applied to the season of the New Year in Scotland, indicates very expressively the uproarious joviality which characterized the period in question. This exuberance of joyousness—which, it must be admitted, sometimes led to great excesses—has now much declined, but New-year's Eve and New-year's Day constitute still the great national holiday in Scotland. Under the 1st of January, we have already detailed the various revelries by which the New Year used to be ushered in, in Scotland. It now becomes our province to notice those ceremonies and customs which are appropriate to the last day of the year, or, as it is styled in Scotland, Hogmanay.

This last term has puzzled antiquaries even more than the word Yule, already adverted to; and what is of still greater consequence, has never yet received a perfectly satisfactory explanation. Some suppose it to be derived from two Greek words, άιαμηνη (the holy moon or month), and in reference to this theory it may be observed, that, in the north of England, the term used is Hagmenu, which does not seem, however, to be confined to the 31st of December, but denotes generally the period immediately preceding the New Year. Another hypothesis combines the word with another sung along with it in chorus, and asserts 'Hogmanay, trollolay!' to be a corruption of 'Homma est né—Trois Bois lá' ('A Man is born—Three Kings are there'), an allusion to the birth of our Saviour, and the visit to Bethlehem of the Wise Men, who were known in medieval times as the 'Three Kings.'

But two additional conjectures seem much more plausible, and the reader may select for himself what he considers the most probable. One of these is, that the term under notice is derived from Hoggu-nott, Hogenat, or Hogg-night, the ancient Scandinavian name for the night preceding the feast of Yule, and so called in reference to the animals slaughtered on the occasion for sacrificial and festal purpose word hogg signifying to kill. The other derivation of Hogmanay is from 'Au gui menez' ('To the mistletoe go'), or 'Au gui ľan neuf' ('To the mistletoe this New Year '), an allusion to the ancient Druidical ceremony of gathering that plant. In the patois of Touraine, in France, the word used is Aguilanneu; in Lower Normandy, and in Guernsey, poor persons and children used to solicit a contribution under the title of Hoguinanno or 0guinano; whilst in Spain the term, Aguinaldo, is employed to denote the presents made at the season of Christmas.

In country places in Scotland, and also in the more retired and primitive towns, it is still customary on the morning of the last day of the year, or Hogmanay, for the children of the poorer class of people to get themselves swaddled in a great sheet, doubled up in front, so as to form a vast pocket, and then to go along the streets in little bands, calling at the doors of the wealthier classes for an expected dole of oaten-bread. Each child gets one quadrant section of oat-cake (some-times, in the case of particular favourites, improved by an addition of cheese), and this is called their hogmanay. In expectation of the large demands thus made upon them, the housewives busy themselves for several days beforehand in preparing a suitable quantity of cakes. The children on coming to the door cry, 'Hogmanay!' which is in itself a sufficient announcement of their demands; but there are other exclamations which either are or might be used for the same purpose. One of these is:

            'Hogmanay, Trollolay,

            Give us of your white bread, and none of your gray.'

And another favourite rhyme is:

            Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers,
            And dinna think that we are beggars;
            For we are bairns come out to play,
            Get up and gie's our hogmanay!'

The following is of a moralising character, though a good deal of a truism:

            Get up, goodwife, and binna sweir,
            And deal your bread to them that 's here;
            For the time will come when ye'll be dead,
            And then ye'll neither need ale nor bread.'

The most favourite of all, however, is more to the point than any of the foregoing :

            My feet's cauld, my shoon's thin;
            Gie's my cakes, and let me rin!'

It is no unpleasing scene, during the forenoon, to see the children going laden home, each with his large apron bellying out before him, stuffed full of cakes, and perhaps scarcely able to waddle under the load. Such a mass of oaten alms is no inconsiderable addition to the comfort of the poor man's household, and enables him to enjoy the New-year season as much as his richer neighbours.

In the primitive parish of Deerness, in Orkney, it was customary, in the beginning of the present century, for old and young of the common class of people to assemble in a great band upon the evening of the last day of the year, and commence a round of visits throughout the district. At every house they knocked at the door, and on being admitted, commenced singing, to a tune of its own, a song appropriate to the occasion. The following is what may be termed a restored version of this chant, the imagination having been called on to make up in several of the lines what was deficient in memory. The 'Queen Mary' alluded to is evidently the Virgin:

            'This night it is grid New'r E'en's night,
            We're a' here Queen Mary's men;
            And we 're come here to crave our right,
            And that's before our Lady.

            The very first thing which we do crave,
            We 're a' here Queen Mary's men;
            A bonny white candle we must have,
            And that's before our Lady.

            Goodwife, gae to your butter-ark,
            And weigh us here ten mark.

            Ten mark, ten pund,
            Look that ye grip weel to the grund.
            Goodwife, gae to your geelin vat,
            And fetch us here a skeet o' that.

            Gang to your awmrie, gin ye please,
            And bring frae there a yow-milk cheese.

            And syne bring here a sharping-stane,
            We'll sharp our whittles ilka ane.

            Ye'll cut the cheese, and eke the round,
            But aye take care ye cutna your thoom.

            Gae fill the three-pint cog o' ale,
            The maut maun be aboon the meal.

            We houp your ale is stark and stout,
            For men to drink the auld year out.

            Ye ken the weather's snow and sleet,
            Stir up the fire to warm our feet.

            Our shoon's made o' mare's skin,
            Come open the door, and let's in.'

The inner-door being opened, a tremendous rush was made ben the house. The inmates furnished a long table with all sorts of homely fare, and a hearty feast took place, followed by copious libations of ale, charged with all sorts of good-wishes. The party would then proceed to the next house, where a similar scene would be enacted. How they contrived to take so many suppers in one evening, heaven knows ! No slight could be more keenly felt by a Deerness farmer than to have his house passed over unvisited by the New-year singers.

The doings of the guisers or guizards (that is, masquers or mummers) form a conspicuous feature in the New-year proceedings throughout Scotland. The favourite night for this exhibition is Hogmanay, though the evenings of Christmas, New-year's Day, and Handsel Monday, enjoy like-wise a privilege in this respect. Such of the boys as can lay any claim to the possession of a voice have, for weeks before, been poring over the collection of 'excellent new songs,' which lies like a bunch of rags in the window-sill; and being now able to screech up 'Barbara Allan,' or the 'Wee cot-house and the wee kail-yardie,' they determine upon enacting the part of guisers. For this purpose they don old shirts belonging to their fathers, and mount mitre-shaped casques of brown paper, possibly borrowed from the Abbot of Unreason; attached to this is a sheet of the same paper, which, falling down in front, covers and conceals the whole face, except where holes are made to let through the point of the nose, and afford sight to the eyes and breath to the mouth. Each vocal guiser is, like a knight of old, attended by a sort of humble squire, who assumes the habiliments of a girl, 'with an old-woman's cap and a broomstick, and is styled 'Bessie: Bessie is equal in no respect, except that she shares fairly in the proceeds of the enterprise. She goes before her principal, opens all the doors at which he pleases to exert his singing powers; and busies herself, during the time of the song, in sweeping the floor with her broomstick, or in playing any other antics that she thinks may amuse the indwellers. The common reward of this entertainment is a halfpenny, but many churlish persons fall upon the unfortunate guisers, and beat them out of the house. Let such persons, however, keep a good watch upon their cabbage-gardens next Halloween!

The more important doings of the guisers are of a theatrical character. There is one rude and grotesque drama which they are accustomed to perform on each of the four above-mentioned nights; and which, in various fragments or versions, exists in every part of Lowland Scotland. The performers, who are never less than three, but sometimes as many as six, having dressed themselves, proceed in a band from house to house, generally contenting themselves with the kitchen for an arena; whither, in mansions presided over by the spirit of good-humour, the whole family will resort to witness the spectacle. Sir Walter Scott, who delighted to keep up old customs, and could condescend to simple things without losing genuine dignity, invariably had a set of guisers to perform this play before his family both at Ashestiel and Abbotsford. The drama in question bears a close resemblance, with sundry modifications, to that performed by the mummers in various parts of England, and of which we have already given a specimen.

Such are the leading features of the Hogmanay festivities in Scotland. A similar custom to that above detailed of children going about from house to house, singing the Hagmena chorus, and obtaining a dole of bread or cakes, prevails in Yorkshire and the north of England; but, as we have already mentioned, the last day of the year is not in the latter country, for the most part, invested with much peculiar distinction. One or two closing ceremonies, common to both countries—the requiem, as they may be termed, of the dying year—will be more appropriately noticed in the concluding article of this work.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Boxing Day! The customs and traditions of St. Stephen's Day

Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days December 26th 1864, details the traditions of St. Stephen's Day.

St. Stephen
St. Stephen's Day

To St. Stephen, the Proto-martyr, as he is generally styled, the honour has been accorded by the church of being placed in her calendar immediately after Christmas-day, in recognition of his having been the first to seal with his blood the testimony of fidelity to his Lord and Master. The year in which he was stoned to death, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, is supposed to have been 33 A.D. The festival commemorative of him has been retained in the Anglican calendar.

A curious superstition was formerly prevalent regarding St. Stephen's Day—that horses should then, after being first well galloped, be copiously let blood, to insure them against disease in the course of the following year. In Barnaby Googe's translation of Naogeorgus, the following lines occur relative to this popular notion:

Then followeth Saint Stephen's Day, whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abrode, as swiftly as he can,
Until they doe extremely sweate, and then they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good,
And keepes them from all maladies and sicknesse through the yeare,
As if that Steven any time tooke charge of horses heare.'

The origin of this practice is difficult to be accounted for, but it appears to be very ancient, and Douce supposes that it was introduced into this country by the Danes. In one of the manuscripts of that interesting chronicler, John Aubrey, who lived in the latter half of the seventeenth century, occurs the following record: On St. Stephen's Day, the farrier came constantly and blouded all our cart-horses.' Very possibly convenience and expediency combined on the occasion with superstition, for in Tusser Redivivus, a work published in the middle of the last century, we find this statement: 'About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses in, for then they are commonly at house, then spring comes on, the sun being now coming back from the winter-solstice, and there are three or four days of rest, and if it be upon St. Stephen's Day it is not the worse, seeing there are with it three days of rest, or at least two.'

In the parish of Drayton Beauchamp, Bucks, there existed long an ancient custom, called Stephening, from the day on which it took place. On St. Stephen's Day, all the inhabitants used to pay a visit to the rectory, and practically assert their right to partake of as much bread and cheese and ale as they chose at the rector's expense. On one of these occasions, according to local tradition, the then rector, being a penurious old bachelor, determined to put a stop, if possible, to this rather expensive and unceremonious visit from his parishioners. Accordingly, when St. Stephen's Day arrived, he ordered his housekeeper not to open the window-shutters, or unlock the doors of the house, and to remain perfectly silent and motionless whenever any person was heard approaching. At the usual time the parishioners began to cluster about the house. They knocked first at one door, then at the other, then tried to open them, and on finding them fastened, they called aloud for admittance. No voice replied. No movement was heard within. 'Surely the rector and his house-keeper must both be dead!' exclaimed several voices at once, and a general awe pervaded the whole group. Eyes were then applied to the key-holes, and to every crevice in the window-shutters, when the rector was seen beckoning his old terrified housekeeper to sit still and silent. A simultaneous shout convinced him that his design was under-stood. Still he consoled himself with the hope that his larder and his cellar were secure, as the house could not be entered. But his hope was speedily dissipated. Ladders were reared against the roof, tiles were hastily thrown off, half-a-dozen sturdy young men entered, rushed down the stairs, and threw open both the outer-doors. In a trice, a hundred or more unwelcome visitors rushed into the house, and began unceremoniously to help themselves to such fare as the larder and cellar afforded; for no special stores having been provided for the occasion, there was not half enough bread and cheese for such a multitude. To the rector and his housekeeper, that festival was converted into the most rigid fast-day they had ever observed.

After this signal triumph, the parishioners of Drayton regularly exercised their 'privilege of Stephening' till the incumbency of the Rev. Basil Wood, who was presented to the living in 1808. Finding that the custom gave rise to much rioting and drunkenness, he discontinued it, and distributed instead an annual sum of money in proportion to the number of claimants. But as the population of the parish greatly increased, and as he did not consider himself bound to continue the practice, he was induced, about the year 1827, to withhold his annual payments; and so the custom became finally abolished. For some years, however, after its discontinuance, the people used to go to the rectory for the accustomed bounty, but were always refused.

In the year 1834, the commissioners appointed to inquire concerning charities, made an investigation into this custom, and several of the inhabitants of Drayton gave evidence on the occasion, but nothing was elicited to shew its origin or duration, nor was any legal proof advanced skewing that the rector was bound to comply with such a demand.* Many of the present inhabitants of the parish remember the custom, and some of them have heard their parents say, that it had been observed:

'As long as the sun had shone,
And the waters had run.'

In London and other places, St. Stephen's Day, or the 26th of December, is familiarly known as Boxing-day, from its being the occasion on which those annual guerdons known as Christmas-boxes are solicited and collected. For a notice of them, the reader is referred to the ensuing article.


The institution of Christmas-boxes is evidently akin to that of New-year's gifts, and, like it, has descended to us from the times of the ancient Romans, who, at the season of the Saturnalia, practiced universally the custom of giving and receiving presents. The fathers of the church denounced, on the ground of its pagan origin, the observance of such a usage by the Christians; but their anathemas had little practical effect, and in process of time, the custom of Christmas-boxes and New-year's gifts, like others adopted from the heathen, attained the position of a universally recognised institution. The church herself has even got the credit of originating the practice of Christmas-boxes, as will appear from the following curious extract from The Athenian Oracle of John Dunton; a sort of primitive Notes and Queries, as it is styled by a contributor to the periodical of that name.

Q. From whence comes the custom of gathering of Christmas-box money? And how long since?

A. It is as ancient as the word mass, which the Romish priests invented from the Latin word mitto, to send, by putting the people in mind to send gifts, offerings, oblations; to have masses said for everything almost, that no ship goes out to the Indies, but the priests have a box in that ship, under the protection of some saint. And for masses, as they cant, to be said for them to that saint, &c., the poor people must put in something into the priest's box, which is not to be opened till the ship return. Thus the mass at that time was Christ's-mass, and the box Christ's-mass-box, or money gathered against that time, that masses might be made by the priests to the saints, to forgive the people the debaucheries of that time; and from this, servants had liberty to get box-money, because they might be enabled to pay the priest for masses—because, No penny, no paternoster—for though the rich pay ten times more than they can expect, yet a priest will not say a mass or anything to the poor for nothing; so charitable they generally are.'

The charity thus ironically ascribed by Dunton to the Roman Catholic clergy, can scarcely, so far as the above extract is concerned, be warrantably claimed by the whimsical author himself. His statement regarding the origin of the custom under notice may be regarded as an ingenious conjecture, but cannot be deemed a satisfactory explanation of the question. As we have already seen, a much greater antiquity and diversity of origin must be asserted.

This custom of Christmas-boxes, or the bestowing of certain expected gratuities at the Christmas season, was formerly, and even yet to a certain extent continues to be, a great nuisance. The journeymen and apprentices of trades-people were wont to levy regular contributions from their masters' customers, who, in addition, were mulcted by the trades-people in the form of augmented charges in the bills, to recompense the latter for gratuities expected from them by the customers' servants. This most objectionable usage is now greatly diminished, but certainly cannot yet be said to be extinct. Christmas-boxes are still regularly expected by the postman, the lamplighter, the dustman, and generally by all those functionaries who render services to the public at large, without receiving payment therefore from any particular individual. There is also a very general custom at the Christmas season, of masters presenting their clerks, apprentices, and other employees, with little gifts, either in money or kind.

St. Stephen's Day, or the 26th of December, being the customary day for the claimants of Christmas-boxes going their rounds, it has received popularly the designation of Boxing-day. In the evening, the new Christmas pantomime for the season is generally produced for the first time; and as the pockets of the working-classes, from the causes which we have above stated, have commonly received an extra supply of funds, the theatres are almost universally crowded to the ceiling on Boxing-night; whilst the 'gods,' or upper gallery, exercise even more than their usual authority. Those interested in theatrical matters await with consider-able eagerness the arrival, on the following morning, of the daily papers, which have on this occasion a large space devoted to a chronicle of the pantomimes and spectacles produced at the various London theatres on the previous evening.

In conclusion, we must not be too hard on the system of Christmas-boxes or handsets, as they are termed in Scotland, where, however, they are scarcely ever claimed till after the commencement of the New Year. That many abuses did and still do cling to them, we readily admit; but there is also intermingled with them a spirit of kindliness and benevolence, which it would be very undesirable to extirpate. It seems almost instinctive for the generous side of human nature to bestow some reward for civility and attention, and an additional incentive to such liberality is not infrequently furnished by the belief that its recipient is but inadequately remunerated otherwise for the duties which he performs. Thousands, too, of the commonalty look eagerly forward to the forth-coming guerdon on Boxing-day, as a means of procuring some little unwonted treat or relaxation, either in the way of sight-seeing, or some other mode of enjoyment. Who would desire to abridge the happiness of so many? 


Pantomimic acting had its place in the ancient drama, but the grotesque performances associated with our English Christmas, are peculiar to this country. Cibber says that they originated in an attempt to make stage-dancing something more than motion without meaning. In the early part of the last century, a ballet was produced at Drury Lane, called the Loves of Mars and Venus, wherein the passions were so happily expressed, and the whole story so intelligibly told by a mute narration of gesture only, that even thinking spectators allowed it both a pleasing and rational entertainment. From this sprung forth that succession of monstrous medleys that have so long infested the stage, and which arise upon one another alternately at both houses, outlying in expense, like contending bribes at both sides at an election, to secure a majority of the multitude.'

Cibber's managerial rival, Rich, found himself unable, with the Lincoln's-Inn-Fields' company, to compete with Drury Lane in the legitimate drama, and struck out a path of his own, by the invention of the comic pantomime. That he was indebted to Italy for the idea, is evident from an advertisement in the Daily Courant, for the 26th December 1717, in which his Harlequin Executed is described as 'A new Italian Mimic Scene (never performed before), between a Scaramouch, a Harlequin, a Country Farmer, his Wife, and others.' This piece is generally called 'the first English pantomime' by theatrical historians; but we find comic masques 'in the high style of Italy,' among the attractions of the patent-houses, as early as 1700. Rich seems to have grafted the scenic and mechanical features of the old masque upon the pantomimic ballet. Davies, in his Dramatic Miscellanies, describes Rich's pantomimes as 'consisting of two parts—one serious, the other comic. By the help of gay scenes, fine habits, grand dances, appropriate music, and other decorations, he exhibited a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, or some other mythological work. Between the pauses or acts of this serious representation, he interwove a comic fable, consisting chiefly of the courtship of Harlequin and Columbine, with a variety of surprising adventures and tricks, which were produced by the magic wand of Harlequin; such as the sudden transformation of palaces and temples to huts and cottages; of men and women into wheel-barrows and joint-stools; of trees turned to houses; colonnades to beds of tulips; and mechanics' shops into serpents and ostriches.'

Pope complains in The Dunciad, that people of the first quality go twenty and thirty times to see such extravagances as:

'A sable sorcerer rise,
Swift to whose hand a winged volume flies:
All sudden, gorgons hiss and dragons glare,
And ten-horned fiends and giants rush to war.
Hell rises, Heaven descends, and dance on earth,
Gods, imps and monsters, music, rage, and mirth,
A fire, a jig, a battle and a ball,
Till one wide conflagration swallows all.
Thence a new world to Nature's laws unknown,
Breaks out refulgent, with a heaven its own;
Another Cynthia her new journey runs,
And other planets circle other suns.
The forests dance, the rivers upward rise,
Whales sport in woods, and dolphins in the skies;
And last, to give the whole creation grace,
Lo! one vast egg produces human race.'

The success of the new entertainment was wonder-fully lasting. Garrick and Shakespeare could not hold their own against Pantomime. The great actor reproaches his aristocratic patrons because:

'They in the drama find no joys,
But doat on mimicry and toys.
Thus, when a dance is in my bill,
Nobility my boxes fill;
Or send three days before the time,
To crowd a new-made pantomime.'

And The World (1st March 1753) proposes that pantomime shall have the boards entirely to itself. 'People of taste and fashion have already given sufficient proof that they think it the highest entertainment the stage is capable of affording; the most innocent we are sure it is, for where nothing is said and nothing is meant, very little harm can be done. Mr. Garrick, perhaps, may start a few objections to this proposal; but with those universal talents which he so happily possesses, it is not to be doubted but he will, in time, be able to handle the wooden sword with as much dignity and dexterity as his brother Lun.'

The essayist does Rich injustice; the latter's Harlequin was something more than a dexterous performance. Rich was a first-rate pantomimic actor, to whom words were needless. Garrick bears impartial witness to the genius of the exhibitor of the eloquence of motion. In the prologue to a pantomime with a talking-hero, produced after Rich's death, he says:

'Tis wrong,
The wits will say, to give the fool a tongue.
When Lun appeared, with matchless art and whim,
He gave the power of speech to every limb;
Though masked and mute, conveyed his quick intent,
And told in frolic gestures all he meant.'

At this time the role of Harlequin was not considered derogatory to an actor as it is now—Woodward, who established his reputation by playing such characters as Lord Foppington, Marplot, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, was equally popular as the party-coloured hero.

In the hands of Lun's successors, Harlequin sadly degenerated; and when Grimaldi appeared upon the scene, his genius elevated the Clown into the principal personage of the pantomime. The harlequinade still remained the staple of the piece, the opening forming a very insignificant portion. John Kemble himself did not disdain to suggest the plot of a pantomime. Writing to Tom Dibdin, he says:

'The pantomime might open with three Saxon witches lamenting Merlin's power over them, and forming an incantation, by which they create a Harlequin, who is supposed to be able to counter-act Merlin in all his designs against King Arthur. If the Saxons come on in a dreadful storm, as they proceeded in their magical rites, the sky might brighten, and a rainbow sweep across the horizon, which, when the ceremonies are completed, should contract itself from either end, and form the figure of Harlequin in the heavens. The wizards may fetch him down as they will, and the sooner he is set to work the better.' —Dibdin's Reminiscences.

Dibdin himself was a prolific pantomime author; and we cannot give a better idea of what the old-fashioned pantomime was, than by quoting the first scene of his Harlequin in his Element; or Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, performed at Covent Garden Theatre in 1807. The dramatis persona consist of Ignoso, the spirit of Fire; Aquina, the fairy of the Fountain; Aurino, genius of Air; Terrena, spirit of Earth; Harlequin (Mr Bologna, Jr.); Columbine (Miss Adams); Sir Amoroso Sordid, guardian to Columbine (Mr Ridgway); and Gaby Grin, his servant (Mr Grimaldi).


A beautiful garden, with terraces, arcades, fountains, &c. The curtain rises to a soft symphony. Aurino is seen descending on a light cloud; he approaches a fountain in the centre of the garden, and begins the following duet:

Aurino. Aquina! Fountain Fairy!
The genius of the Air
Invites thee here
From springs so clear,
With love to banish care.

AQUINA, rising from fountain.

Aquina. Aurino, airy charmer,
Behold thy nymph appear.
What peril can alarm her,
When thou, my love, art near?

Terrena rises from the earth, and addresses the other two.

Terr. Why rudely trample thus on Mother Earth?
Fairies, ye know this ground 's my right by birth.
These pranks I'll punish: Water shall not rise
Above her level; Air shall keep the skies.

It thunders; IGNOSO descends.

Igno.' Tis burning shame, such quarrels 'mong you three,
Though I warm you, you're always cold to Inc.
The sons of Earth, on every slight disaster,
Call me good servant, but a wicked master.
Of Air and Water, too, the love I doubt,
One blows me up, the other puts me out.
Nay, if you're angry, I'll have my turn too,
And you shall see what mischief I can do !

Ignoso throws the fire from his wand; the flowers all wither, but are revived by the other fairies.

Terr. Fire, why so hot? Your bolts distress not me,
But injure the fair mistress of these bowers;
Whose sordid guardian would her husband be,
For lucre, not for love. Rather than quarrel,
let us use our powers,
And gift with magic aid some active sprite,
To foil the guardian and the girl to right.


Igno. About it quick!
Toss This clod to form shall grow,
Aqui. With dew refreshed
Aur. With vital air
Igno. And warm with magic glow.

HARLEQUIN is produced from a bed of party-coloured flowers; the magic sword is given him, while he is thus addressed:

Terr. This powerful weapon your wants will provide;
Then trip,
Aur. Free as air,
Aqui. And as brisk as the tide.
Igno. Away, while thy efforts we jointly inspire.
Terr. Tread lightly!
Aur. Fly!
Aqui. Run!
Igno. And you'll never hang fire!

IGNOSO sinks. AQUINA strikes the fountains; they begin playing. TERRENA strikes the ground; a bed of roses appears. Harlequin surveys everything, and runs round the stage. Earth sinks in the bed of roses, and Water in the fountain. Air ascends in the car. Columbine enters dancing; is amazed at the sight of Harlequin, who retires from her with equal surprise; they follow each other round the fountain in a sort of pas de deux.' They are surprised by the entrance of Columbine's Guardian, who comes in, preceded by servants in rich liveries. Clown, as his running footman, enters with a lapdog. Old Man takes snuff views himself in a pocket-glass. Clown imitates him, &c. Old Man sees Harlequin and Columbine, and pursues them round the fountains, but the lovers go of, followed by Sir Amonoso and servants.

And so the lovers are pursued by Sir. Amoroso and Clown through sixteen scenes, till the fairies unite them in the Temple of the Elements. The harlequinade—left is full of practical jokes, but contains no hits at the follies of the day throughout it all; the relative positions of Clown and Sir Amoroso, Pantaloon, or the Guardian (as he is styled indifferently), as servant and master, are carefully preserved.

Since Dibdin's time, the pantomime has under-gone a complete change. The dramatic author furnishes only the opening, which has gradually become the longest part of the piece; while the harlequinade—left to the so-called pantomimists to arrange—is nothing but noise. Real pantomime-acting is eschewed altogether; Harlequin and Columbine are mere dancers and posturers; and Clown, if he does not usurp the modern Harlequin's attribute, is but a combination of the acrobat and coarse buffoon. The pantomime of the present day would certainly not be recognized by Rich or owned by Grimaldi.

Friday, 25 December 2015

A Dorset Christmas 1880: The customs and traditions of this festive season

Dark Dorset 
would like to wish 
all our readers a 
Merry Christmas 
and Joyful Yule.

As a Christmas contribution, we offer the following article printed in Notes and Queries (series 6, Vol ii, July-Dec 1880) by Dorset folklorist J. S. Udal, regarding the Christmas traditions and customs in Dorset.

Imbued with the utilitarian spirit of our time, one is apt to overlook those strong feelings of genuine pleasure and innocent merriment with which our ancestors were wont to greet Christmas as it came upon them in its annual round. For many years now the ancient glories that used to attend the celebration of the great season of Christmas-tide in England have been on the wane. The advent of Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol, nearly forty years ago, bearing with it that beautiful lesson of charity - charity, in its true sense of love for, and sympathy with the sufferings of, humankind checked for a time the ebbing tide of its popularity. But in this matter-of-fact age it is greatly to be feared that only too many look upon Christmas but as a statutable holiday, and welcome it merely as a cessation from toil.

In olden times Dorset had its full share in the gaieties appertaining to this joyous and festive season, and still in out-of-the-way corners of the county many scattered remnants of its former glory survive.

The following quaint custom (a note of which I sent to "N. & Q.," 4th S. x. 494) has not yet quite died out in some parts of the county. A few days before Christmas (generally about St.Thomas's Day) the women, children, and old men in a parish would visit by turns the houses of their wealthier neighbours, and in return for, and in recognition of, their Christmas greetings and their general demand of " Please give me something to keep up a Christmas," would receive substantial pieces or hunks of bread and cheese,bread and meat, or small sums of money. The old and infirm of either sex were generally represented by their children or grandchildren, those only being refused the dole who did not belong to the parish.

It was customary in many farmhouses on Christmas Eve for a large block of wood (in fact, a very Yule log) to be brought into the kitchen,and an immense fire having been made up, the farm labourers would come in and sit round it, or is many as were able would crowd into the chimney corner, and drink beer and cider. This was what was usually called a Christmas "brown."

Playing "forfeits" was a very favourite amusement with Dorsetshire folk during the long Christmas evenings, and one form which the game took was that of a " puzzle," as it was sometimes called, the solution of which was to be arrived at by making persona in turn repeat a line or couplet of a jingle or a rhyme ; and if it were not correctly rendered a "forfeit" was declared. The following is an example : - One of the company, who knows the "puzzle" (all being seated round the fire), commences by saying "Ragged-and-Tough," and, this having gone the circuit of the company, he begins the second round with " Not Ragged-and-Tough, but Huckem-a-buff, first cousin to Ragged-and-Tough." This being duly honoured, he begins again with "Not Ragged-and-Tough, nor Huckem-a-buff, first cousin to Ragged-and-Tough, but Miss Grizzle, maiden aunt to Huckem-a-buff, first cousin to Ragged-and-Tough," and so on ; each person repeating the jingle, one after another, and going backwards through the list, a new character being introduced each round, so that by the time the end of the characters, some seven or eight in number, is reached, some one's memory is sure to become confused and a mistake be made in the repetition, whilst, amid general laughter, a u forfeit" is claimed.

There is another one, which I can give but imperfectly, for I can only remember up to "twelve," though I fancy there are "eighteen" or more ; and an old Dorsetshire lady from whom I have heard it has now (in her ninetieth year) forgotten it. I should be much beholden to any reader of " N. & Q." who, happening to know the continuation of it, would be kind enough to acquaint me with it. It is as follows, and each rhyme is to be repeated backwards as in the last :

" A gaping, wide-mouthed, waddling frog,
Two pudding-ends won't choke a dog;
Three monkeys tied to a log ;
Four mares stuck in a bog ;
Five puppy-dogs and our dog Ball
Loudly for their breakfast call ;
Six beetles on a wall,
Close to an old woman's apple-stall ;
Seven lobsters in a dish,
As good as any heart can wish ;
Eight cobblers, cobblers all,
Working with their tools and awl ;
Nine comets in the sky,
Some are low and some are high ;
Ten peacocks in the air,
I wonder how they all got there -
You don't know and I don't care;
Eleven ships sailing on the main,
Some bound for France and some for Spain,
I wish them all safe back again ;
Twelve hunters, hares, and hounds, Hunting over other men's grounds."

It is to be noted that these two illustrations of forfeits that I have given are very similar in their backward repetition or refrain to "The House that Jack built," and it is quite possible that our old friend, now enshrined in every nursery book, may owe its origin to a game of "forfeits."

Chief, however, amongst the amusements and customs of this festive season as no doubt they were the most ancient were the " mummers" (or maskers), a party of youths who went from house to house and performed a play or drama, generally representing a fight between St. George, the patron saint of England, and a Mohammedan leader, commemorative of the Holy Wars. The actors were all decked out with painted paper and tinsel, in the character each was intended to assume, garnished with bows, coloured strips of paper, caps, sashes, buttons, swords, helmets, &c. The principal character in the Dorsetshire mummers was "Old Father Christmas," who frequently appeared mounted on a wooden horse covered with trappings of dark cloth. The representation took place in the servants' hall or kitchen of the mansion or farmhouse in which the mummers were permitted (a permission seldom denied) to act. The actors, ten or twelve in number, were grouped together at the back of the stage, so to speak, and each came forward as he was required to speak or to fight, and at the conclusion fell back upon the rest, leaving the stage clear for other disputants or combatants.

As soon as the play, which always concluded with a song, was over, and the actors had been regaled with such good cheer as the hospitable hearts of the Dorsetshire folk seldom refused, the mummers passed on to the next parish, where to a fresh and ever-delighted audience they went through a repetition of their performance ; and though if the night were wet and the wind cold they experienced rough usage at times, yet their welcome was made all the warmer at their next halting- place, so that none could doubt for a moment but that he came in for no small share (a share I wish to every reader of " N. & Q.") of the delights of a " Merry Christmas." Those readers of "N. & Q.'; who may desire to see the full text of a Dorsetshire mummers' play, I would refer to a paper I read before the Folk-lore Society last April, and which has been printed in the Folklore Record, vol. iii. part i.p. 87 ; also, for a list of characters, &c., in the same, see a short contribution I sent to the Christmas number of " N. & Q." in 1874 (5th S. ii. 505).

Thursday, 24 December 2015

A Dorset Ghost Story for Christmas

Curiously perhaps, Yuletide has always seemed an appropriate time for spine chilling tales and ghost stories. Maybe it is because the festival comes in the depths of winter when the nights are longest. One of the most famous Christmas fables of all is a ghost story is Charles Dickens 'A Christmas Carol' with its four reforming spirits. But the spectres of most ghostly tales are far less benign.

One classic Dorset ghost story for Christmas is taken from the Rev. W. S. Swayne’s, 1889 publication “History and Antiquities of Stalbridge”.

“The old manor house in the park at Stalbridge was pulled down in 1822. It was of the Jacobean style, and contained a beautiful staircase with figures of the twelve apostles about a yard high, placed at intervals between the balusters.

In connection with the old mansion, a curious story is told. It is said that for some years before the house was pulled down it was left empty in the charge only of an old housekeeper.

Stalbridge Manor
The owner, however, on one occasion lent the house for the Christmas season to a lady friend of hers who had a large family of young children, making the stipulation that she should do whatever the old housekeeper required of her.

On arriving at the house the lady and her family were met by the housekeeper, who requested all of them to make a point of not being in the hall of the house at five o’clock of an evening. This request was agreed to, and for some time observed; but on one occasion the lady had had some children in to play during the afternoon with her own children, and having said goodbye to them, was standing in the hall of the house just on stroke of five. Hardly had the hour passed when her notice was attracted by a figure issuing from the door of one of the bedrooms on the first floor, which could be seen from the hall. The figure was that of a woman enveloped in flames, who repeated to herself in an agonized voice: ‘I have done it. I have done it.’ The figure disappeared almost immediately into the door of another room:

The lady ascended the stairs, and found that the doors both of the room from which the figure had emerged and that into which it had entered were locked.

Startled by so strange an occurrence, she determined to be in the hall on another evening at the same hour. Once more, she witnessed the same strange events. Now thoroughly convinced that it was something more than a mere freak of her imagination she returned at once with her children to London, and took an early opportunity of calling upon the owner. She mentioned what she had seen, and begged to know what was the meaning of it.

The following story was then related to her.

Some years ago the house was inhabited by a widowed mother and her only son, who was not yet of age. One day the boy came to his mother and told her that he had fallen in love with the gamekeeper’s daughter. The mother reproved him for his indiscretion, and forbade him to mention the subject again. Not long after the boy returned to the subject and announced his intention of marrying the girl. Once more, his mother refused to listen to him.

Some weeks afterwards the son once more spoke to his mother on the same subject and told her that it would be far better for her to make up her mind to accept the inevitable as the girl had now been his wife for some months. The mother was so indignant that she turned her son out of the house and forbade him ever to enter it again. Some months passed away, and the mother apparently repented of her harshness, for she went to her son and told him that she would receive both him and his wife and condone his disobedience. They returned to Stalbridge House, and at first all went well, for the girl was beautiful and amiable and did her best to please her mother-in-law.

One day, however, the young man returned late in the evening after a long day’s hunting, and was met by the sad news that his young wife had been burnt to death. The accident had occurred in this way. His wife had entered her mother-in-law’s dressing room about five o’clock in the evening, ready dressed for dinner. The mother-in-law was sitting in a distant part of the room before her looking glass, and the girl stood before the fire. Suddenly the elder lady heard a scream, and turning, saw her daughter-in-law enveloped in flames, having accidentally caught her dress on fire from the hearth. This story was accepted without question; and it was not until the wretched woman lay on her deathbed that she confessed to her son that she had murdered his young wife, having pushed her into the fire. After the death of the murderess the old house was haunted by her figure enveloped in flames, and exclaiming at her own crime.” 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A Dorset folk charm to combat the recession 19th Century style

On this day in 1882 a farmer's wife who lived near Bridport, took a gamble with four pounds. She entrusted the money to two travelling women who claimed that they could treble money, and who asked for just a few shillings in return for their financial acumen.

They marked the coins with astrological symbols, and hid them. The farmer was having none of this and demanded to know where they had put the loot. Despite his wife's warnings that it must be left undisturbed until Easter Sunday, the farmer dragged the truth from her and discovered that the two strangers had stuck something up the chimney.

The something turned out to be a cloth-wrapped, pin-stuck smoked pig's heart stuffed with polished farthings. That was that: the spell was broken, and so the four pounds was never trebled. That is the non-cynic's way of viewing it.

Animal Hearts used as Folk Charms

Witches were once commonplace in Dorset, and the belief in witchcraft was never stronger than in the outlying villages and hamlets - such as Hawkchurch.

In 1884, one of its residents made an unusual discovery, for found lodged up a chimney of the farmhouse was a stuffed bullock's heart studded with thorns, pins, and nails.  John Symonds Udal in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922 wrote:

"An interesting illustration of that to which Mr. Roberts alludes occurred some forty years ago in the parish of Hawkchurch, West Dorset, an account of which appeared in the Bridport News in March, 1884. A new tenant had recently entered into possession of a house in the village which had just been vacated, when it was necessary to displace what was thought to be a lodgment in one of the chimneys. The obstruction was got out, and was found to be neither brick nor stone, but a bullock's heart, into which was stuck a quantity of the prickles of the white thorn, some nails, pins, and other things. This bullock's heart, in exactly the same state in which it was removed from the chimney of the cottage at Hawkchurch, is now, or was, in the Literary Institute at Bridport, and was exhibited at the meeting of the Dorset Field Club at that town in July, 1889, when I myself saw it. It presented a very dry, shrivelled, and almost mummified appearance, evidently having been in the smoke for many years. A correspondent suggested that as the late occupant was a bachelor, possibly he might have used the " charm " to ward off the attacks of the ladies and to prevent " witches " from getting access to the house by means of the chimney! This correspondent is undoubtedly right in conjecturing that the obstacle in the chimney was intended to act as a charm, for a bullock's heart so placed was always considered by superstitious Dorset folk to be the most effective way of keeping witches or fairies out of a house, as it was by the chimney they were generally supposed to effect an entrance. More especially is the charm to be depended upon if the animal's heart (as in this case) be previously studded with prickles of thorns, nails, or pins, in the same way as Mr. Roberts mentioned with regard to pieces of bacon used for the similar purpose. In order to make the charm more efficacious, " maiden " thorns should be used ; that is, thorns that have been grown the same year in which they were picked.
The same paper in April, 1901, mentions a similar case as occurring at Shipton Gorge, which carries the belief in such practices in West Dorset up to the beginning of the present century.   It says :—
" A week or two ago the son of Mr. Fowler, sweep, of Bridport, while sweeping a chimney in one of the cottages in Ship ton came upon a curious relic of past days. He had reason to go up the chimney, and about eight or ten feet from the ground he found an old canvas bag, hanging or fixed in a cranny of the wall, and inside this was discovered, wrapped in paper, a hard and dried bullock's heart, stuck through and through with thorns and pins. This is the fourth heart of the kind found in chimneys in the neighbourhood within the last few years. This was one of the charms against the witch's spell in days gone by, and was hung in the chimney with the idea that the pins and thorns added torment to the witch and broke her spell."
The late Mr. Bosworth Smith, in his Bird Life and Bird Lore (1909), p. 366, spoke of the belief in the " evil eye ", and in the bewitching of cattle and persons, as still lingering on in Bingham's Melcombe and the surrounding villages. And he mentioned the practice of sticking pins into a bullock's or other animal's heart as still followed in that neighbourhood. But in the instance he there gave of this having been carried out only a year or two before, the " charm " would seem to have been used rather as a remedy or cure for the bewitching or overlooking than as a preventive against the spell being cast. In this case the heart, " bestuck with pins till it bristled all over with them ", was set before a fire ; and then " as it begins to glow and frizzle the power of the witch or wizard gradually diminishes, and when at last it burst with the heat the spell is broken and the witchcraft over."
A Bullock's Heart
impaled with Hawthorns
At Wyke Regis, Weymouth, there once lived an old woman who was suspected of practising witchcraft, for it was believed she had overlooked a young girl. A gypsy informed the girl's mother to hang a bullock's heart stuffed with pins inside the chimney, which in time would break the spell. The mother did this and when the heart dried out, it fell into the fire and was burnt to a cinder. Later when her daughter recovered, the old witch was seen in a fit of rage claiming that some one had been meddling in her affairs.

Mentioned in the 'Dorset Year Book 1942-3'. The Police station at Frampton, near Dorchester found a Bullock’s heart in their chimney.  

‘During the fitting of a new firegrate at the Police Station nearly forty years ago my mason dislodged a bullock’s heart stuffed full of pins’

 At Marshwood, near Lyme Regis another bullock’s heart placed up chimney. J.B. Lang paper on ‘Charming of cattle’, 'Procceedings of the Dorset Natural. History. & Archaeology. Society. 91 (1969)'

"A farmer complained his cattle had been ‘overlooked’ and were all gradually dying off. He was told to take the heart out of the last animal which had died and push the heart, stuck all over with pins and nails, up the chimney so that the ‘overlooking’ would pass back again where it had come from."
Hermann Lea wrote in his paper on 'Some Dorset Superstitions' published in ‘Memorials of Old Dorset’ by T. Perkins and H. Pentin, 1907, with regards to this strange folk superstition.

"In a case where the horses were dying from some obscure complaint, the victim was told to cut out the heart of the next animal that died and boil it in water containing sage, peppermint, and onions; when cold, it was to be stuck full of new pins on the one side, and on the other with "maiden" thorns — i.e., thorns of the present year's growth — picked by a maiden — woman or girl — and inserted by her. This done, it was to be hung up on a nail in the chimney of a neighbour — the one accused of being the witch."
Source: Dark Dorset Website: Bullock's Heart stuffed with Thorns

Monday, 21 December 2015

Keepen Up O’Christmas - The Customs and Traditions of St. Thomas' Day in Dorset

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal mentions the Dorset traditions of ' St. Thomas's Day' in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:
keeping up o' Christmas
Christmasing.— Christmas being the principal season of the year for feasts and other festive rejoicings — when people, too, were generally supposed to be more charitably disposed towards their fellow-beings than at any other time — many of the poorer class would seek by visiting in good time the houses of their richer neighbours to obtain the means of taking some share in these rejoicings themselves. This was generally called " Christmasing ".

In 1872 I sent to Notes and Queries (Ser. iv, x, 494) a short account of this custom, as follows :—
" A few days before Christmas, the women, children and old men in a parish would visit by turn the houses of their wealthier neighbours, and in return for and in recognition of Christmas greetings and their general demand of ' Please, give me something to keep up a Christmas ' (or ' for keeping up o' Christmas ') would receive substantial pieces or ' hunks ' of bread and cheese, bread and meat, or small sums of money. The old and infirm of either sex were generally represented by their children or grandchildren, those only being refused the dole who did not belong to the parish"
This, I should have stated, always took place on or about St. Thomas's Day, the 21st of December. This custom appears to be somewhat akin to that known to Brand (i, 350) as " going-a-gooding on St. Thomas's Day ", which there seems to have been carried out by women only. He suggests that it may have been only another name for the northern custom of going about and crying " Hagmena ". There would appear to be other variants.

Tithe Custom: Thornford. — The Standard newspaper, sometime in 1878, gave an account of a custom which is said to have prevailed some years ago in Thornton, near Sherborne, amongst the tenants of the Manor of depositing five shillings in a hole in a certain tombstone in the churchyard, a ceremony which precluded the lord of the manor from taking the tithe of hay during the year. This had always to be done before twelve o'clock on St. Thomas's Day, or the privilege fell through.

Again, in December, 1887, the Antiquary (xvi, p. 225) refers to this custom in almost the same words, citing Hampson's MedicBvi Kalendarium, p. 83, for its authority.

It is, however, clear from the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries for 1894 (vol. iv, p. 122) that Thornton in both these journals is a mistake for Thornford, which is a village near Sherborne. Here the custom is again detailed, with a slight variation in phraseology, on the authority of the Salisbury and Winchester Journal of 2nd November, 1829. An editorial note is added referring to a statement by Hutchins that a tomb in the churchyard at Thornford was called the " Prebendal Tomb ", because in a hole on its cover the modus in lieu of tithe on the prebendal lands due to the rector was formerly paid on St. Thomas's Day. This curious modus, Hutchins tells us (vol. iv, p. 302), led to a dispute between the then rector and the lord of the manor, which being carried into the law courts ended in the defeat of the rector. Beyond this Hutchins makes no reference to the alleged custom.
Keepen Up O’Christmas
by William Barnes

An’ zoo you didden come athirt,
To have zome fun last night: how wer’t?
Vor we’d a-worked wi’ all our might
To scour the iron things up bright,
An’ brush’d an’ scrubb’d the house all drough;
An’ brought in vor a brand, a plock
O’ wood so big’s an uppen-stock
An’ hung a bough o’ misseltoo,
An’ ax’d a merry friend or two,
To keepen up o’Christmas.

An’ there wer wold an’ young; an’ Bill,
Soon after dark, stalk’d up vrom mill.
An’ when he wer a-comin near,
He whissled loud vor me to hear;
Then roun’ my head my frock I roll’d,
An’ stood on orcha’d like a post,
To meake en think I wer a ghost.
But he wer up to’t, an did scwold
To vind me stannen in the cwold,
A-keepen up o’ Christmas.

We play’d at Forfeits, an’ we spun
The trencher roun’, an’ meade such fun!
An’ had a geame o’ dree-ceard loo,
An’ then begun to hunt the shoe.
An’ all the wold vo’k zitten near,
A-chatten roun’ the vier pleace,
Did smile in woone another’s feace,
An’ sheake right hands wi’ hearty cheer.
An’ let their left hands spill their beer,
A-keepen up o’ Christmas.

Winter Solstice: The Dark Days of Winter

Today is the Winter Solstice also known as St. Thomas' Day .

The ‘Winter Solstice’ occurs on either the 21st or 22nd December and observes the lowest point of the sun in the sky at midday as well as the most southerly sunrise and sunset in the year. The Romans called it ‘Sol Invictus’, meaning, ‘the Undefeated Sun’.

Symbolically, it is the rebirth of the sun, and the chief gods in many religions are born at this time. The birthdays of the Babylonian ‘Queen of Heaven’ and ‘Osiris’, ‘Dionysus’, ‘Adonis’, ‘Mithras’,‘Balder’ and ‘Jesus’ are celebrated on 25th December, the old date of the Winter Solstice. All are associated with concepts of rebirth and eternal life.

The Solstice was played a huge part in the Roman midwinter holiday, Saturnalia (17th December). Riotous merry-making took place at home, and the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees. Lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. Schools were closed, the army rested, and no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewellery, and incense. Temples were decorated with evergreens symbolizing life's continuity, and processions of people with masked or blackened faces and fantastic hats and costumes danced through the streets.

The custom of mummers visiting their neighbours in costume, which is still alive in Dorset and the rest of Britain, is descended from these masked processions.

Roman masters feasted with slaves, who were given the freedom to do and say what they liked (the medieval custom of all the inhabitants of the manor, including servants and lords alike, sitting down together for a great Christmas feast, came from this tradition). A Mock King was appointed to take charge of the revels (the Lord of Misrule of medieval Christmas festivities had his origin here).

In northern tradition, the Winter Solstice is the feast of ‘Yule’, which means, ‘yoke of the year’, and is the midwinter festival associated with fertility and continuing life. Starting at the solstice Yule continues until ‘Twelfth Night’, 5th January, when the Christmas decorations are removed.

As it is also St. Thomas' Day weather lore states that if there is frost on this day, a bad winter is predicted.

St Thomas divine, Brewing, baking, and killing of fat swine.

Below, Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days December 21st 1864, details the traditions of St. Thomas' Day day.
St. Thomas Day
The festival of St. Thomas was instituted in the twelfth century, and, as an old author alleges, was assigned an early place in the ecclesiastical calendar from this apostle having been vouchsafed the most indisputable evidence of the resurrection. In pictorial art, St. Thomas is represented holding a builder's square, and in accordance with the following legend, he is regarded as the patron saint of architects and builders. When St. Thomas was at Caesarea, our Lord appeared unto him, and said: 'The king of the Indies, Gondoforus, hath sent his provost, Abanes, to seek for workmen well versed in the science of architecture, who shall build for him a palace finer than that of the emperor at Rome. Behold now, I will send thee to him.' And St. Thomas went, and Gondoforus commanded him to build a magnificent palace, and gave him much gold and silver for the purpose. The king went to a distant country, and was absent for two years; and St. Thomas, meanwhile, instead of building a palace, distributed all the treasures intrusted to him among the poor and sick; and when the king returned he was full of wrath, and commanded that St. Thomas should be seized and cast into prison, while he meditated for him a horrible death. Meantime, the brother of the king died, and the king resolved to erect for him a magnificent tomb; but the dead man, after that he had been dead four days, suddenly rose, sat upright, and said to the king:
'The man whom thou wouldst torture is a servant of God; behold, I have been in Paradise, and the angels chewed unto me a wondrous palace of gold, silver, and precious stones; and they said: This is the palace that Thomas the architect has built for thy brother King Gondoforus.'
And when the king heard those words, he ran to the prison, and delivered the apostle, and then St. Thomas said to him: 'Knowest thou not that they who would possess heavenly things have little care for the goods of this world! There are in heaven rich palaces without number, which were prepared from the beginning of the world for those who purchase the possession thereof through faith and charity. Thy riches, 0 king, may prepare thy way to such a place, but they cannot follow thee thither.' Like many other of the old saintly legends, this was never meant or assumed to be a matter-of-fact relation, but simply a parable or religious fiction, invented for the instruction of the people, and rendered the more impressive and striking by an exalted apostle being made the hero of the tale.
It is said that after the dispersion of the apostles, St. Thomas preached the gospel to the Medes, Persians, Bactrians, Ethiopians, and Indians, among the latter of whom he suffered martyrdom at Melapoor, and was buried in a church, which he had caused to be erected in that city. Marco Polo, who travelled in the thirteenth century, says: ' In that province of Malabar, is the body of the glorious martyr St. Thomas, the apostle, who there suffered martyrdom. It rests in a small city, not frequented by many merchants, because unsuited for the purposes of commerce; but, from devotional motives, a vast number both of Christians and Saracens resort thither. The Christians who perform this pilgrim-age collect earth, which is of a red colour, from the spot where he was slain, and reverentially carry it away with them, often employing it afterwards in miracles, and giving it with water to the sick, by which many disorders are cured. A variety of miracles are daily performed at the tomb of St. Thomas, through the interposition of the blessed apostle.'

Sir John Mandeville in his travels, describes the same country as 'a great kingdom containing many fair cities and towns. In that kingdom lies the body of St. Thomas the apostle in flesh and bone, in a fair tomb, in the city of Calamy; for there he was martyred and buried. But men of Assyria carried his body into Mesopotamia, into the city of Edessa; and afterwards he was brought thither again. And the arm and the hand that he put to our Lord's side, when he appeared to him after his resurrection, is yet lying in a vessel without the tomb. By that hand they there make all their judgments. For, when there is any dissension between two parties, and each of them maintains his own cause, both parties write their causes on two bills, and put them in the hand of St. Thomas; and, anon, the hand casts away the bill of the wrong cause, and holds still the bill with the right cause, and therefore men come from far countries to have judgments of doubtful causes.'
The accompanying engraving, from an illumination in an ancient manuscript of Mandeville's travels, preserved in the Bibliothèque Imperiale of Paris, represents the judgment of St. Thomas. And if the story be considered incredible, the writer can only quote Mandeville's own lines addressed to unbelievers thus:
'If scanty be my laud and praise,
And witless folk should call me liar,
For that my hook contains strange lays,
I will not storm nor burst with ire.
Let him who credits not my tales,
Travel as far as I have been,
Then, may he tell if truth prevails,
In what I say that I have seen.'
St. Thomas's Day falls on the winter solstice, the shortest day in the year, as expressed in the following couplet:
'St Thomas gray, St. Thomas gray,
The longest night and the shortest day.'
In some parts of the country the day is marked by a custom, among poor persons, of going a gooding, as it is termed—that is to say, making the round of the parish in calling at the houses of their richer neighbours, and begging a supply either of money or provisions to procure good things, or the means of enjoying themselves at the approaching festival of Christmas. From this circumstance St. Thomas's Day is in some places designated 'Doleing Day,' and in others 'Mumping [begging] Day.' In Warwickshire, the custom under notice used to be called going a corning, from the poor people carrying with them a bag in which they received a contribution of corn from the farmers.
By a correspondent of Notes and Queries, in 1857, we are informed that the custom of 'Gooding' exists in full force in Staffordshire, where not only the old women and widows, but representatives from every poor family in the parish, make their rounds in quest of alms. The clergyman is expected to give a shilling to each person, and at all houses a subsidy is looked for either in money or kind. In some parts of the same county a sum of money is collected from the wealthier inhabitants of the parish, and placed in the hands of the clergyman and churchwardens, who on the Sunday nearest to St. Thomas's Day, distribute it in the vestry under the name of ' St. Thomas's Dole.' We learn also from an-other communication of the writer just quoted, that at Harrington, in Worcestershire, it is customary for children on St. Thomas's Day to go round the village begging for apples, and singing

'Wassail, wassail, through the town,
If you've got any apples, throw them down;
Up with the stocking, and down with the shoe,
If you've got no apples, money will do;
The jug is white and the ale is brown,
This is the hest house in the town.'
In return for the alms bestowed during these 'gooding' peregrinations, it was customary for the recipients, in former times, to present to their benefactors a sprig of holly or mistletoe. A liberal dole was distributed at the 'great house,' or the mansion of the principal proprietor in the parish; and at the kitchens of all the squires and farmers' houses, tankards of spiced-ale were kept for the special refection of the red-cloaked old wives who made in procession these foraging excursions on St. Thomas's Day. It is said that the hospitality shewn on such occasions proved sometimes rather overpowering, and the recipients of this and other charitable benefactions found themselves occasionally wholly unable to find their way back to their own habitations, having been rendered, through the agency of John Barleycorn, as helpless as the ' Wee bit Wilkie' immortalised in Scottish song.
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