Holiday Traditions in the British Isles
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Article describing Christmas holiday traditions in the British Isles.
Before Christmas & Christmas Day
- The ‘greening’ of Christmas – holly and ivy, mistletoe, and the Christmas tree.
- Father Christmas/St. Nicholas – the popular patron saint of little children. St. Nicholas’ Day is December 6th.
- St. Thomas’ Day, December 21st – poor widows went door to door begging for food and money.
- Caroling – the Welsh are particularly fond of and noted for their singing.
- Wassailling – to drink from the wassail bowl – a traditional drink made with apples and spices.
- Mummers – An 800 year old tradition – troops of ‘mummers’ would put on a traditional play.
- Pantomime – more traditional plays.
- Christmas cards began in 1843.
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published in December 1843 and more than 15,000 copies were sold within a year.
- Candles were placed in the windows to light the way for the Christ Child, and to invite anyone in need into the home.
- Christmas Day, celebrated on Dec. 25, coinciding with ancient celebrations of the return of light to the Northern Hemisphere.
§ Christmas dinner and pudding
- Christmas crackers
- The Queen’s speech
December 26th, St. Stephen's Day
- He was a disciple of Christ, one of seven to whom the twelve Apostles gave the task of caring for the widows and the poor.
- St. Stephen is the patron saint of alms giving.
- On St. Stephen’s Day the alms boxes were opened and alms were given to the poor.
December 26th, Boxing Day
- A day for giving to the poor and to those who serve you throughout the year.
- The origin comes from the tradition of opening the church alms boxes on this day and distributing alms to the poor.
- Or, it comes from the tradition of the wealthy boxing up the left-over of their Christmas feast and giving it to their servants and poor.
- Tips are given to those who serve you such as the postman or dustman.
- In Ireland, young men in extravagant dress, sometimes wearing masks, parade noisily through the streets in the Wren Boys' Procession. They carry a long pole on top of which is attached a holly bush. The bush supposedly contains a captured wren, and for whose sake the young men beg for money.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
- Begin on December 25th and end on January 5th, called Twelfth Night.
- The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ whose birthday we celebrate on December 25, the first day of Christmas.
- Two turtle doves represent the two books of the Bible: the Old and New Testaments.
- Three French hens represent the Three Christian Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.
- Four calling birds represent the four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
- Five gold rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament.
- Six geese a-laying represent the six days or periods of the Creation.
- Seven swans a-swimming represent seven gifts of the Spirit (see Romans12:6-8).
- Eight maids a-milking represent the eight Beatitudes.
- Nine ladies dancing represent the nine Fruits of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22).
- Ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments.
- Eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful Apostles of Jesus Christ.
- Twelve drummers drumming represent the twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed.
New Year's Eve
' * The new year used to begin in the Spring on March 25th and was not changed to January 1st in England until 1752 (Scotland changed in 1600).
- New Year’s Eve is a time for partying with family and friends and visiting each other’s homes.
- On the stroke of midnight church bells peel throughout the land.
- “First Footing” is the tradition of having a dark stranger be first to step over your threshold at midnight. He brings coal, food, and a coin for good luck and your feed him.
- “Hogmanay” is what the New Year’s Eve party is called in Scotland and gifts may be exchanged at midnight.
- Twelfth Night is the eve of January 5th and is the official end of the twelve days of Christmas.
- Again parties are held, plays are put on, and bonfires are lit.
- Christmas decorations are taken down.
- Epiphany is the commemoration of the visit of the Three Wise Men to the Baby Jesus.
- It is the climax of the Christmas season.
- Gifts may be exchanged on this day instead of Christmas.
Sources of Information
- Baker, Margaret, Folklore and Customs of Rural England, FHL book 942 H7bm.
- Hole, Christina, English Custom & Usage, FHL book 942 H6hc.
- Various Internet web sites, especially http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/Xmas/