Holiday Traditions in the British Isles
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Article describing Christmas holiday traditions in the British Isles.
Before Christmas - Advent
- Advent - the Christmas season - begins 4 Sundays before Christmas Day and ends on Christmas Eve.
- The ‘greening’ of Christmas – holly and ivy, mistletoe, and the Christmas tree.
- Christmas trees introduced during the Georgian period became popular in Britain during the 1840's following the lead of Prince Albert
- 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 – plays performed at Christmas for a family audience based on traditional children's stories from fairy tales or nursery rhymes.
- Christmas cards began in 1843. Boosted by the introduction of the half-penny post in 1870.
- 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.
- Midnight Mass or Watchnight is celebrated on Christmas Eve, traditionally leading up to midnight, in commemoration of Christ's birth.
- Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols - Christmas Eve service notably broadcast worldwide by King's College, Cambridge.
- Hanging up stockings to be filled with gifts - an apple, an orange and a few nuts would be typical for a poor household in 1870.
- Christmas Day, celebrated on Dec. 25, coinciding with ancient celebrations of the return of light to the Northern Hemisphere.
- Christmas dinner - includes roast turkey (beef or goose for the less wealthy - rabbit for the poor) with nutty stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce. Served with sprouts, parsnips, carrots and roast potatoes. May also include sausages wrapped in bacon (pigs in blankets)
- Christmas pudding a steamed pudding with raisins, nuts and cherries. Traditionally a silver coin (six pence) was hidden inside. The silver coin brought good fortune to whomever was lucky enough to find it when the pudding was cut.
- Christmas crackers - invented by a London sweet maker in 1846
- The King's/Queen’s speech - annual Christmas message. Tradition begun in 1932 with a radio broadcast by George V.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
- Begins on December 25th and ends 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.
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. In Pembrokeshire The Hunting of the Wren was held on January 6th.
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). See England Calendar Changes
- 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.
- During the 18th and 19th centuries, Twelfth Night parties were popular and usually involved games-playing, drinking and eating.
- A special Twelfth Cake, was the centrepiece of the party, and a slice was given to all members of the household.
- Traditionally, it contained both a dried bean and a dried pea. The man whose slice contained the bean was elected King for the night; a Queen was found with a pea. For the rest of the evening, they ruled supreme.
- Epiphany is the commemoration of the visit of the Three Wise Men to the Baby Jesus.
- It is the climax of the Christmas season.
- Epiphany tart - jam tart made into a six-point star for the occasion to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem.
- Gifts may be exchanged on this day instead of Christmas.
- In Wales known as Ystwyll
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 British Christmas Customs and Traditions, Victorian Christmas and Ten Ages of Christmas