In days past, Christmas looked very different to what it does today. Many modern Christmas traditions originated in the Victorian era, but some had their origins in older traditions, legends and superstitions. In fact, most of what we think of when we think about Christmas comes from the Victorians, from the introduction of Christmas trees in their modern form, the sending of Christmas cards, the modern format of Christmas dinners, and the notion of a “white Christmas”. The “mini-ice age” had caused harsh winters for around 300 years, but it was only with the Industrial Revolution and associated increases in agricultural output and trade that harsh winters became less of an existential threat and people were able to enjoy frost fairs and the like.

In this year’s Christmas post I’ll look at three very different forgotten Christmas traditions, which have slipped into history since Victorian times, except in some corners of the country were they are kept alive.

A green Christmas

old father time

If you stepped into a Christmas grotto and saw Father Christmas all dressed in green, you might roll your eyes and think someone was trying to make an “eco” point of some sort. But they are just as likely to be making a historical point, because red-clad Santa is a relatively recent development. In fact, Father Christmas and Santa were not originally the same person, or, in the case of Father Christmas, a real person at all (or maybe the bigger surprise is that Santa is based on a real person!).

Many people are vaguely familiar with St Nicholas, the 3rd Century Bishop of Myra in Turkey, who is part of Santa’s origin story. Nicholas was known to travel around giving gifts to the poor. He was often depicted in brown or green clothes, although paintings and mosaics also showed him in red. He was said to be so shy that he gave families money secretly by dropping coins down their chimney — which landed in a stocking in the room below. The legend of St Nicholas came to Britain with the Norman Conquest, where it was absorbed into the older British legend of Father Christmas.

The character of Father Christmas is based on various pagan winter festivals and represented the coming of spring. This un-named mythical figure wore a long green hooded cloak, and a wreath made of holly, mistletoe or ivy. His role was to bring happiness throughout the hard winter months and was associated with feasting, drinking and merriment.

In the fifth and sixth centuries this character evolved into King Winter, King Frost or Father Time. During winter festivals, someone would dress up as King Winter and be welcomed into homes, where he would sit near the fire and be given something to eat and drink. People believed that being kind to King Winter would mean they would receive something good in return such as a mild winter.

father timeWhen the Vikings invaded Britain, they brought their own winter traditions. In late December the Norse God Odin took on the character of Jul, and visited earth sporting a white beard and wearing a long blue hooded cloak. He rode through the world on an eight legged horse giving gifts to the good and punishments to the bad. This character merged with the existing King Frost /Father Time character. This Father Christmas had many of the characteristics we recognise today, such as an aged appearance with a long beard, the long green robes became a furred gown and cap, and an ability to travel as if by magic to a great many places in a short space of time.

At the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was still a relatively minor festival – 25 December did not become a public holiday until 1834. At some point in the late 1800s, Father Christmas transformed from a figure associated with adult partying into a benevolent giver of gifts to children, and he started to be pictured in red rather than green from 1863.

Popular myth has it that this transformation was due to a Coca-Cola advert by Haddon Sundblom, produced to boost sales of the drink, but in fact American cartoonist Thomas Nast first drew pictures of Santa in red for Harper’s Weekly, a political magazine. His Santa Claus appeared on the cover of the publication’s 3 January 1863 edition. However, Coca-Cola popularised the depiction of Santa in his red suit in its Christmas advertising campaigns from the 1920s. A 1930 cartoon drawn by Fred Mizen depicts a department-store Santa relaxing with a bottle of Coke. From 1931, the company commissioned Haddon Sundblom to depict a wholesome, warm Santa Claus character for use in its festive marketing campaigns, dressed in the red and white Coca-Cola colours, which by then had been associated with Father Christmas for almost 70 years.

The modern Father Christmas / Santa Claus was born.

Burning the ashen faggot

In the days of King Frost /Father Time, mid-winter fire ceremonies were very popular in Britain, particularly in rural communities. Some persist today, such as the burning barrels in Ottery-St-Mary, a rather hazardous event I visited on several occasions as a student.

Fire festivals had pagan origins, which brought light and heat to the dark, cold winter months. A common one was Burning the Yule Log. “Yule” comes from Old English geol, and its Old Norse equivalent, jól, both of which referred to a midwinter festival centred around the winter solstice, celebrating the re-appearance of the sun and the land’s rebirth. The Yule log was burned to entice the sun to return, and was originally an entire tree whose trunk would be brought inside the home with the large end dragged into the fireplace. The log would feed the fire through the 12 Days of Christmas. These days we just eat a chocolate version instead, and the original version is largely forgotten.

ashen faggot at the Harbour Inn

Less well known was the tradition of Burning the Ashen Faggot which was popular in the West Country. Although this has now largely disappeared as a household custom, it is still celebrated in a handful of local pubs. The “ashen faggot” was an ash log or large bundle of ash sticks, surrounded by smaller sticks, and bound together by thin bands of willow or hazel known as withies. The ashen faggot was cut and constructed on Christmas Eve and placed on a fire kindled with remnants of the previous year’s faggot. As the fire caught each of the withies broke, upon which fresh jugs of cider were passed around.

The scene is vividly brought to life in the Festivities and Superstitions of Devonshire chapter of Bentley’s Miscellany 1847:

“On Christmas Eve it is the custom in all the farm houses of this neighbourhood to “burn the ashen faggot”. All the labourers and servants are invited, and a huge fire is heaped up on the wide hearth.  We all sat round the hearth in a circle; the firelight deepening the shadows on the hard-featured mahogany countenances around, and setting off the peculiarities of each form. The ashen faggot which lay on the hearth consists of a long immense log of ash, surrounded with smaller branches bound to it with many withies, forming one large bundle; it filled the whole hearth and as it burned the roaring in the large chimney was tremendous.  As the fire slowly catches and consumes the withies, the sticks fly off and kindle into a sudden blaze and as each one after the other gives way, all present stand up and shout with might and main; the “loving cup” of cider is handed round and each drinks his fill. They then resume their seats, sing songs, crack jokes until the bursting of another band and the kindling of a fresh blaze demands renewed shouts and another pull at the cider flagon. The merriment is allowed to go on till nearly midnight, before which hour the worthy giver of the feast likes to have her house clear, that the “Holy Day” may begin in peace. This custom is kept up religiously in all the farmhouses around, and is one of the principal festivals of the year.”

The custom would probably have disappeared had it not been revived by local pubs where it survives despite increasingly onerous insurance and health and safety requirements. One such pub is the 800-year-old Harbour Inn at Axmouth in Devon. On the morning of Christmas Eve, a group of villagers cut the ash and make the faggot which measures about six feet in length and five feet in circumference, filling the old inglenook fireplace. Seven bindings each made from hazel are used to secure the faggot which is traditionally taken to the Harbour Inn at lunchtime. The ceremony itself starts late Christmas Eve with the reading of the following lines taken from Christmas by RJ Thorn (1795):

ashen faggot Squirrel InnThy welcome eve, loved Christmas now arrived,
The parish bells, their tuneful peals resound,
And mirth and gladness every breast pervade,
The ponderous Ashen Faggot, from the yard,
The jolly farmer to his crowded hall conveys with speed;
 where, on the rising flames, it blazes soon.

Seven bandages it bears,
and as they each disjoin, a mighty jug of sparkling cider’s brought
with brandy mixed to elevate the guests!

The faggot is placed on the open hearth where it catches fire, and burns with distinctive orange and purple flames. As each binding “disjoins” revellers enjoy seasonal toasts while local singers perform three seasonal songs: The King, Christmas Song (from the Copper family) and Stormy Winds, followed by communal carol singing which continues well into the night.

The tradition is also kept up at the Squirrel Inn in Laymore, near Chard, where it takes place on 6 January, the old Christmas Eve under the Julian calendar. There the faggot is around 12ft long, bound with a dozen bands. The fireplace is smaller than the wide inglenook at the Harbour Inn, so just one end of the faggot is placed onto the grate and move forward as it slowly burns down.

There are various superstitions associated with burning the ash bundle. Ignoring the tradition was considered unlucky since it was thought that the fire would ward off the devil and evil spirits. Later Christianised versions suggested the fire was to keep the baby Jesus warm. Legend had it that unmarried women each chose one of the bands, the first to burn would show who would be the next to marry.

The Exeter-based Western Times newspaper from 1914 described the burning of an ashen faggot at Ashburton on Christmas Eve. It reported the faggot was 5ft 6in long and 2ft 6in in diameter, weighing around 40 stone. The report said: “The ancient custom is not carried out so generally as it used to be in old time, but in many of the rural parts of Devon no Christmas would be considered properly observed without the burning of the ‘Ashen Faggot’”.

Local records from 1878 show that in the postal district of Ashburton, the tradition of burning the ashen faggot was carried out at 32 farms and cottages. In one place, the youngest child was put on faggot with the length of time they stayed there being regarded as a sign of how brave they might become. Sources suggest miniature faggots were burned in houses lacking a suitably large fireplace for a full sized version. Accounts from Devon suggest that the custom lingered on in more remote farming communities in Somerset and Devon until at least the 1970s.

Shoe the mare, snapdragon and some interesting tipples

Family gatherings at Christmas are well known for games, whether that’s charades, Monopoly or a civilised game of Scrabble. The Elizabethans enjoyed a rather less sedate game known as Shoe the Mare – which involved a player (the farrier) sitting astride a wooden beam (the mare) suspended from the roof with two even length ropes. The beam would be high enough above the floor so the player’s feet were off-ground. The player would hit the underside of the beam with a hammer. as if shoeing a horse, giving “four time eight blows” at a designated spot, until he or she fell off and another player took a turn. Apparently it was hilarious and inspired a nursery rhyme:

Shoe the colt,
Shoe the colt,
Shoe the wild mare;
Here a nail,
There a nail,
Yet she goes bare.

I can’t see this game enjoying a revival any time soon!

A game which was popular in the nineteenth century was snapdragon, where the objective was to seize raisins from a bowl of flaming brandy. To play the game, the players gathered in a darkened room and placed raisins in a large, shallow bowl. Brandy was poured over them and set alight. Each player took a turn at reaching through the flames to grab as many raisins as possible, while singing:


Here he comes with flaming bowl,
Don’t be mean to take his toll.
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Take care you don’t take too much
Be not greedy in your clutch.
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

With his blue and lapping tongue
Many of you will be stung.
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

For he snaps at all that comes
Snatching at his feast of plums.
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

But Old Christmas makes him come
Though he looks so fee! Fa! Fum!
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Don’t ‘ee fear him, be but bold.
Out he goes, his flames are cold.
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Disturbingly, Victorian images show this as a children’s game! No doubt their responsible adults were tipsy having enjoyed a mug of Smoking Bishop (steaming port, red wine, cloves and oranges), Whipkull (brandy and egg concoction hailing from the Shetland Isles), Lambs’ Wool (a mixture of ale, apples, sugar and cream), or Egg-Hot (a combination of cider, egg yolks and spices).

Christmas message

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