British Christmas Customs
It is a sad fact of presentday British life that Christmas has lost a great
deal of its religious meaning.Today, it's mostly Christmas cards, presents,
stockings and lots of Santa Claus impersonators, bulging trolleys at the
supermarkets, long queues at the checkouts and all of it accompanied by a
veritable barrage of TV and other advertising and a merciless emphasis on
consumerism rather than faith.
It never used to be this way. Until at least the middle of the 20th century,
Christmas customs tied to the religious significance of the festival were
quite common all over Britain. Christmas Eve was usually the start of the
celebrations, with the traditional Yule log being brought home, and a special
supper served of bread and cheese, ale and hot elderberry wine. Carol singing
was already under way, and bells were being rung in parish churches.
The Yule log would be placed on the kitchen hearthstone or to a large
fireplace, and once lit, had to burn for at least twelve hours, or bad luck
might strikeIf the log was large enough, it might burn for the whole of
In farmhouses and country homes in Cornwall, the Yule log was called a "mock"
and was gathered from the woods or forests. At Bridport in the county of
Dorset, a huge oak log would be obtained from the local shipyard. In the West
Riding of the county of Yorkshire, in northern England, where the log was
called the "Christmas clog", it was customary to sit round drinking Christmas
ale, play cards (with a new pack) and sing "Yule! Yule!" In some places, the
Yule log was actually the root of a large tree, and Christmas candles that
were burned had to be lit from the Yule fire.
The county of Devon, in southwest England, had a rather different way of
dealing with the Yule log. There, a large faggot from an ash tree bound round
with twisted hazel, was used . The ash had many occult and superstitious
connotations in Devon. It was, for example, the source of lucky charms.
Several special recipes were reserved for Christmas Eve supper. There was a
dish of wheat cakes boiled in richly spiced milk in Nottinghamshire, and in
Yorkshire, a Christmas pie made from beef's tongue, fowl, eggs, sugar,
raisins, lemon, orange peel and different spices. Some pies contained one or
two whole geese and six or seven chickens, and was so large that the pastry
had to be tied with iron bands while it was cooking in the oven.
The get-together aspect of Christmas Eve was provided in Cornwall with small
current and saffron cakes which were distributed to family and friends. No one
ate their own cake, though. Everyone had to taste someone else?s! This curious
custom was a symbol of good fellowship at Christmas.
In Northumberland, in northern England, sweet cakes or dough called Yule
babies were given to children. The "babies" were very realistic, with currents
for eyes nose and mouth and a row of currents down the front for "buttons".
Yorkshire housewives used to make a special Christmas cheese, but before any
of it could be eaten, she had to score a large cross in it with a sharp
Animals were not left out of the festivities. Cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and
birds were given extra food and all these creatures were excused work on
Christmas day itself. It was thought that the animals somehow "knew" that
Christ's birth was being celebrated and a special treat was prepared for them,
in the form of a sheaf of corn which hung from the ceiling of a farmhouse from
harvest time in August. On Christmas Eve, the sheaf was cut down and fed to
On Christmas day itself, Derbyshire folk used to find a dark-haired man and
let him into the house before anyone else was allowed to enter. The man had to
go into each room in the house before it was "proper" for the householder to
admit the next visitor. Women, however, were excluded. Even the farmer's wife
had to go to sleep in someone else?s house on Christmas eve. This practice was
"confirmed" on one Christmas day in Herefordshire, in west England. A man who
had taken a woman into his house actually died soon afterwards! It appears
that a dark-haired male "consecrated" the threshold of a house and so "let in"
Christmas. It was of course, very bad luck if a woman or girl turned up first
instead. In some districts, there were professional "lucky birds" who were
engaged to cross thresholds every Christmas and receive the small coins, cake,
cheese, sweet homemade wine, bread, salt and other "payments" that were their
There was also a character known as a "lucky bird".In the West Riding of
Yorkshire he had to be dark-haired and in the East Riding, light-haired.
Redheaded men were barred, because that colour was associated with Judas
Iscariot who hair, it was believed, had been red. In the east Riding, the
"lucky bird" chosen to put the "first foot" past the door brought a spring of
evergreen with him. After he had gone, every member of the family went out to
collect more sprigs and bring them to the house. However, they were not
allowed to wash until they had done so. Needless to say, bad luck would follow
if any of these customs was not properly observed. Really serious bad luck was
thought to be the consequence of a man with the "wrong" coloured hair putting
the "first foot" over the doorstep.
Another old English custom was for the church choir to climb to the top of
the church tower to sing anthems In Yorkshire, the choir boys used to bring
large baskets full of red applies, each basket being decorated with sprigs of
rosemary. In church, the boys went round the congregation, giving an apple to
everyone there and in return received small coins.
No one knows how old some of these Christmas customs were, but the strong
element of superstition they included points at least as far back as medieval
times, in the 12th or 13th centuries. No one truly believes in the bad luck
that attended doing the wrong thing at Christmas, since superstition in
Britain today is not what it was. But then, neither is Christmas.