Old British Folk Tales and Festivals: From the Weird to the Wacky

Part 1. Christmas

Did you know that it was Woden who careered across the night sky on his chariot, Bearing gifts at the time of the Winter solstice? What is strange, is that over the years, nobody really knows exactly when the role was taken over by St. Nicholas. Mainly because his official feast day, was conveniently near to the 6th December. Also, he was the patron Saint of children.

Before Christianity hit our shores, the same time of year was dedicated to the Roman God Saturnalia, a week long festival during which masters and servants changed places and everything was allowed to happen! I personally would have got my own back if I had been a servant! Still, evidently some of the traditions have survived till quite recent times, these were called Mischief Nights, when it was commonly believed that the normal laws of behaviour were suspended. Everybody could do exactly what they wanted within reason, and get away with it!

Another feature of the Saturnalia was the decking of houses with evergreen plants and trees. This is still used around the world. Prince Albert is given the credit for introducing the Christmas tree, but there are records that say they were in fact used hundreds of years earlier in London. The evergreens were always treated with respect and reverence because the woodland spirits of vegetation were believed to reside in them, when the other trees had lost their leaves. Evidently the spirits moved house, until the spring came around again. I hope they remembered to turn of the gas!

The two most interesting customs of Christmas are Wassailing and the performance of Mumming plays. Mumming plays retained their popularity because it meant that they could collect alms (money for charity). Mostly though, the charity ended up in their own pockets! if, of course, they had pockets!. There was another excuse to get money out of people, as well. It was St. Thomas Day which very conveniently fell on the 21 December. Going 'Thomasing' on that day was not considered begging. It wasn't so much that they asked for money, it was usually something like corn or milk. But money was usually accepted as well. These Mummers usually carried little boxes, which later turned into what we now know as Boxing Day. These boxes were usually earthenware piggy banks, which had to be broken to extract the contents.

The Yule log, which was always dragged in with much ceremony to burn on the Hearth, was started in the north part of the country. Yule being the name of the midwinter festival before the Christian calendar. Also in the West country, ashen faggots bound with withies were often used as a substitute for the Yule log. And this was used for divination according to the order in which they snapped in the flames.

And last but not least, Carol singing is still popular today, and the reason for this is usually to collect money for charity.

On the Isle of man which is situated just off the coast of western England, they used to have some very peculiar and lengthy mournful Carols. These were known as Oei'l Voirrey, which were sung at Christmas Eve services, while they were drinking Ale!

A few last facts are that The flower, the Glastonbury Thorn, still flowers at Christmas. And also people believed that oxon always knelt in their stalls, facing east on Christmas Eve.Oh and according to hearsay, bees sang in their hives.

Well there you go. And you thought Christmas was an easy and calm festival. I think I prefer it the way it is now, but sometimes it would be nice to catch a glimpse of a few mummers, dressed in their donkey suits and masks, making their way to your door. Or perhaps not. Happy Christmas.

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1. Wassailing-Door to door Carol singing

2. Mummers-Men dressed up in costumes with black soot on their faces, acting out traditional, and local plays, or Mime

3. Wood faggots-small pieces of wood for the fire.

4.Withies- Long, bendy willow sticks.

5. The Glastonbury Thorn-Joseph of Aramethea supposedly planted this tree when he came to Glastonbury, after Jesus had died. He had a Staff that he was using to help him up the hill, but became tired and fell asleep. When he awoke, the Staff had turned into a beautiful tree, that afterwards bloomed in spring and at Christmas.

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Comments 27 comments

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

That is lovely and interesting. Most of the Christian festivals took over so called 'heathen celebration' about which I am annoyed. They despised the so called heathen and yet they took their festivals and changed it into a Christian festival. Only not to confront the people completely and get their foot in the door. Thank you for your hub.


Green Lotus profile image

Green Lotus 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Wow. I just learned a lot..and I'm married to a Brit! I really like the idea of the woodland spirits of vegetation. What a lovely concept. Nice Hub


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England Author

Hi, Hello I quite agree with you, virtually every Christian festival is on the old pagan days. In truth I think Jesus was born in the summer, from what I have read by archaologists, etc. thanks again, and Hi, Green Lotus, Not a lot of people realise that things are not quite what they seem, they just presume Christmas, for example, is just the only thing that happened at that time of year, but virtually every God that was before that time, was celebrated on that day or around the same time. Thanks again for reading it. cheers Nell


TINA V profile image

TINA V 6 years ago

I know something about St. Nicholas, Prince Albert, St. Thomas, and the Christmas Carols. However, I don't know anything about the Mummers and Glastonbury Thorn. It is good to know something new about Christmas.

This is a very informative hub. I like it.


keira7 profile image

keira7 6 years ago

Hi my dear Nell, sorry for the delay. Very good hub, I am glad I came to read it. I have learn a lot. Thanks for the info ma dear friend. Bless you.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England Author

Hi, Tina yes I quite agree with you, I am still learning as well, I must admit I didn't know about the Glastonbury thorn until recently. thanks again, and Hi, Keira thanks for stopping by, it is always nice to hear from you, I am still learning about things in England and will put it all together and start on part two. thanks again. lol Nell


Kendall H. profile image

Kendall H. 6 years ago from Northern CA

Thanks for the hub! I think I read that people in the UK always had evergreen branches strewn about their homes during the Christmas season but it was Prince Albert that made Christmas trees a popular custom from 1850 onwards. Folklore usually gets misconstrued. But thank you again I really learned a lot from your hub!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England Author

Hi Kendall, thank you for reading it. Yes we do have some odd customs over here, over the years, and I am going to write about a few more, which will make you laugh!. We are a funny lot!! Hope you have a good xmas. Cheers Nell


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Very nice. Thanks for the history!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England Author

Hi, Mickey, glad you liked it. Cheers Nell


ladyjane1 profile image

ladyjane1 6 years ago from Texas

Very interesting customs and thanks for enlightening me as you always do. Nicely written.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England Author

Hi, Ladyjane. Thanks again, yeah we are a weird lot!! You should see what we do for the rest of the year!! cheers nell


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

Always wondered where Boxing day got its name from. Had just assumed it had something to do with the sport. Mummers and Glastonbury Thorn- very cool.

You know the origins, names and customs of English history is very interesting to me. Part one on Christmas is a great start Nell. Look forward to the next one. Btw, most of your readers will probably know this but Santa Claus was an invention of Coca-Cola created to sell coke like Ronald McDonald was dreamed up to sell cow-burgers. Even seen old mag advertisements with the jolly fellow downing the soft drink left out for him after arriving down the chimney..lol


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 5 years ago from New York

Mischief night has carried over to the night before Halloween here in the states. Nice article.


Pollyannalana profile image

Pollyannalana 5 years ago from US

Well if Christians turned Christmas into what it is I say good job, it would have died long ago if not I would about bet and other than the commercialism which real Christians should never go for it is a fantastic Holiday enjoyed by all. Too bad people want to destroy it. I read a really interesting article by a well known person giving his opinion on people like that. I wish there was a way to get it here. Makes perfect sense and shows anti-Every things for what they are. Great write Dear Nell and pushing all your buttons! (Especially shocked they are not already!)


Lucky Cats profile image

Lucky Cats 5 years ago from The beautiful Napa Valley, California

Nell, ALL UPS for you! This is SO much fun to read. I love the season; no matter from which aspect one views it...your writing is so filled w/honest enjoyment...just so neat! I have a good friend, Drake, who married an English woman...a teacher. Each year, they celebrate Christmas on the 25th and then, the following days are dedicated to "boxing." Opening gifts, like Christmas. I used to participate in the California Dickens Faire...and learned quite a bit about some of the history of the origins of the holiday from that perspective. Your hubs are so interesting and filled w/all kinds and bits of "411" that most of us are not familiar with on this side of the pond...love it..your history, your excitement and exuberance and downright 'real' way of sharing. UP UP and AWAY!!!!!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 5 years ago from Taos, NM

Nell: Great Hub! I love learning the culture of other countries and these stories about English Christmas are great. I never knew all this. Mummers - this is so interesting to me because in Philadephia, PA on New Year's Day they have the annual Mummers Parade! I never knew it's origin was from England - but that makes so much sense. When I was a child, I used to ask my parents all the time what a "mummer" was and why the parade was called a Mummer's Parade. Now I know! Thanks for another interesting and informative hub about England. Voted up!


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

I love this! Great hub on the true origins of what is now known as Christmas. I love the older traditions, and would much rather celebrate Yule and Saturnalia, which began as a sort of "lighting the darkness of winter to cast hope for the return of spring and light."

We light up half our neighborhood with our lighted displays, but you'll see nothing of Christendom therein. It's Santa in his sleigh with reindeer, trees, wreaths and "just lights" on the roof, around the windows, etc. Pagan and proud of it--celebrating the original truth of the season. ;-)

Great hub! Voted up all around (including funny, in an ironic sense, because it amuses me that people so adamantly insist that the holiday originated with Christianity)!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 5 years ago from England Author

Hi, Alastar, yes you are right! isn't it funny? father Christmas is such an icon for kids these days, but back in the day he was so different! thanks for the read, and glad you liked it, cheers nell

Hi, tillsontitan, its funny how ideas cross the pond and get adapted, I do with they would do it over here! we seem to miss out on halloween, not many people take notice any more, well, not around where I live, thanks again, nell

Hi, Polly, this one was written when I had more or less just started, but I updated it today, I do think that we commercialise Christmas too much these days, but down in the West Country and up North luckily they still keep these ideas going, thanks as always nell

Hi, Lucky Cats, thanks so much! I went to Hastings, the famous site of the battle in 1066 recently, and watched the mummers dancing, it was great!

Hi, suzette, amazing, it seems most of our English ideas and ways get over there in one form or another, thanks for the info! cheers nell

Hi, DzyM, I know, it is strange, most of our celebrations come from way back then, I love them! especially the mummers and the morris dancers! great stuff, and a great lot old traditions, thanks as always, nell


Noemi Beres profile image

Noemi Beres 5 years ago from Cyprus

Very interesting hub. I lived in Ireland before and I read a lot about Halloween and the old Irish tradition Samhain. I think it's quite fascinating to look back these old traditions.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 5 years ago from England Author

Hi, Noemi, thanks for reading, I love all our old traditions, I wish they would do this sort of thing around where I live, but we seem to have lost it in the South of England, oh well, maybe I should start it up again! lol


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Nell, thank you for enlightening us on how Christmas traditions started and what they signified. It's my dream to spend at least one Christmas season in Merry Old England. Until I discovered that the majority of my ancestors were Brits, I had no idea why I'd wait until Dec 23rd to put up a tree, etc, or why for me "Christmas" didn't end until 12 Days after. ;D


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 5 years ago from England Author

Hi, Jama, it will be like coming home! maybe try and get over here this year? that would be great for you, go and visit a few Castles and have Dinner at Warwick Castle, they do a mean 16th Century do there! lol


Mama Kim 8 profile image

Mama Kim 8 4 years ago

Loved this!! Thank you, Voting and sharing!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England Author

Thanks so much Kim, glad you liked it, and thanks for the share!


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

Very interesting and festive! I like weird and wacky! Best of both worlds in this hub :)


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England Author

Thanks Linda I love the weird stuff we do too! lol!

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