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

Updated on September 12, 2012

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.


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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