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Discovering Christmas Folklore and Traditions – Margaret Baker
“The Church realized that it could never suppress immemorial pagan customs…even after two thousand years seams in the patchwork still show.”
Wonderfully illustrated with 19th Century woodcuts and 20th Century photographs, and divided into chapters with names like “The Christmas Feast,” and “Games and Amusements,” Baker’s tiny volume is a perfect starter for anyone wanting to bring a touch of history to their celebration.
Unlike most Shire titles, Discovering Christmas has a more international, or at least European, flavor, rather than strictly British. But since many British and US holiday customs come from the continent – particularly Germany during the Victorian period – this is not so surprising.
As with so many parts of Victorian life, Christmas could be as morbid as it was splendid.
One 19th Century British custom (based on Christmas’s connection to the solstice, and the Irish custom of burning candles in every window to light the Holy Family’s way) was for grocers to give their customers a red and a blue candle at the holiday. They could only be lit by the head of the household, and once placed on a table, could not be moved or put out, as to do so would invite death.
Perhaps the most famous English custom of the day for many was the Christmas Eve ghost story. Primarily remembered in the US as one of the inspirations behind Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, and the countless filmed and staged versions of it, a yearly ghost story by the fire was a key part of the Victorian celebration. As novelist Jerome K. Jerome noted in 1891, this may have been due to ‘close, muggy atmosphere of Christmas that draws up ghosts, like the dampness that brings out frogs and snails.’
Apparently has long been believed that the dead pay closer attention to the living on Christmas Eve. Swedish families cleaned out their parlors, and brought out food and ale for visiting trolls, it being considered bad luck to even say the word dead on that night.
Another mystical belief, and fun game, was that surrounding the ‘dumb cake.’ Girls would a bake the cake in silence, marking her initials on the surface. It was believed that if she left the cake on the hearthstone, and left a door unlocked, her husband to be would enter the house at midnight.
(I wonder how many 19th Century girls married rather surprised thieves.)
Games have long been associated with Christmas celebrations. Victorian’s played a game called ‘snapdragon.’ It involved setting light to raisins floating in brandy, and trying to snatch them out without getting burned. A regional variation called ‘flapdragon’ involved lighting a candle in a jar, surrounding it with cider, and the player trying to drink the jar dry with out burning his side-whiskers. The still beloved Christmas cracker also dates from this era.
One of the most charming stories in the book is of one of the first recorded Christmas dinners in New Zealand, in 1865. Lady Barker, a pioneer sheep rancher, rolled up her own sleeves, in spite of having never cooked before, and prepared a huge, traditional meal for her shepherds and shearers. In spite of the difficulty obtaining certain ingredients and the summer weather, carols were sung and toasts were made to the day.
The holiday season, which once encompassed most of December and the first part of January, has been dramatically shortened in the modern era. Even if the stores start decorating before Halloween, and interrupt the United State’s enjoyment of Thanksgiving, with false jolly, the period for most really only lasts from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day, if they are lucky.
Victorian author Leigh Hunt speaks of what we have lost:
“Christmas Day is the morning of the season; New Year’s Day the middle of it, or noon; Twelfth Night is the night brilliant with innumerable planets of Twelfth Night cakes.”