From Apple Blessings to Sacred Fires
Yet some true English blood still lives, Who gifts to the poor at Christmas gives, And to their neighbours makes a feast, I wish their numbers were increased.— Poor Robin's Almanac, 1702
Even for those for whom Christmas is mainly a secular festival, the holiday season is a time of ritual. Customs such as Christmas dinner, the opening of presents and even the Queen's Speech are comforting in their regularity, and seasonal treats such as mulled wine and mince pies give December a sense of being somehow different from the rest of the year. But these more-or-less universal Christmas customs are only the best-known of Britain's many forms of Yuletide celebration, some of which date back to the middle ages or even earlier. Some are long-forgotten, while others have remained in some parts of the country.
Some of Britain's Christmas traditions are so commonplace that it's hard to believe they were ever new innovations. Most people know that Christmas trees were popularised by Prince Albert, who encouraged a custom popular in his native Germany. But other traditions, such as crackers and even Christmas cards, are also of Victorian origin. Some of the country's older Christmas traditions, by contrast, are no longer to be found.
Records from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century show that households spent money every Christmas as a charitable donation to a group of people known as hognells, hoggells or hogglers. These hognells seem to have gone from house to house collecting money for charity; they even formed guilds in some places. Apart from that, historians are unsure who the hognells were, what they did to collect money (performances in exchange for donations are a common feature of British seasonal customs) or even what the name meant. The Reformation seems to have put an end to hognells in most places; in the mid-17th century, they were still holding on around Chester, but after that they faded from view.
Some customs that we now associate with other holidays were once part of Christmas festivities. Costumes and masks were popular at medieval and Renaissance Christmas celebrations, a practice known as "mumming" or "disguising." Groups of masked revellers would sometimes turn up to Christmas parties unannounced, occasionally causing drunken mischief. Like many other Christmas customs, this one seems to have died out around the time of the Reformation or somewhat later.
Both of these customs flourished in an era where large, community-centred Christmas celebrations were more common. Landlords were expected to hold feasts for their tenants -- although contemporary writers often complained that they didn't -- and some went so far as to hold "open house" celebrations, welcoming anyone who came by. Today's Christmas celebrations tend to be more intimate; apart from still-traditional carolers, few households would welcome a group of masked party-crashers.
Not all of the customs that characterised the Christmas celebrations of earlier eras have died out. Some still remain, particularly those associated with wassailing. The wassailing tradition varies from place to place, but it usually involves toasts offered for the health or good fortune of others, often from special wassail bowls or with a particular drink such as hot spiced ale. The word originates from an Old English phrase, "waes hael," which means "be of good health."
Wassailing traditions are largely gone from modern Christmas celebrations, but they survive in some places. In some cases, they are not on Christmas itself. In the middle ages, Christmas was celebrated as part of a 12-day festival, ending on Twelfth Night. When Britain changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, many festivals stayed where they were instead of moving. One example is the annual wassailing of the apple trees in Carhampton, Somerset. This celebration was believed to help the next year's apple crop be fruitful and was particularly common in Somerset. The Butcher's Arms pub in Carhampton is one of the few places where it is still observed. Although it originally took place on Twelfth Night as part of Christmas celebrations, it is now in mid-January.
Another West Country Christmas tradition is the ashen or ashton faggot. This bundle of ash branches was bound together with withies and burnt. As with the apple trees, merrymakers drink to the bundle of branches as it burns. An old superstition holds that a young woman who correctly guesses which withy will break first in the fire will marry soon.
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