Long lost Christmas traditions in Lancashire from 500 years ago
In a fascinating feature Zowie Swan looks at some of Lancashire's festive traditions from years ago
After a peculiar year of pandemic, pandemonium and social purgatory, there appears to be a general swelling of enthusiasm towards the celebration of Christmas.
Christmas today is often criticised for being a secular, consumerist affair, with more emphasis on expensive gifts, bulging cupboards and all day drinking than peace on earth and goodwill to all men.
However, the sober, sentimental convention of Christmas, with focus on the values of family, charity and peace, is by and large a Victorian fiction, contrived to keep the riotous working classes from congregating in groups, where the whispers of protest could be heard and instead tucked safely in their homesteads feeling grateful for what little they could afford.
Our Lancashire forbears celebrated Christmas in a raucous manner. The rough and often wild customs of the rural people of this county would later disturb the puritanical Cromwell so much that it contributed to Christmas being cancelled for almost 20 years during his rule.
Christmas in the 1500s was a time of inversion, subversion and misrule. Christmas Day was the first day of the Twelve Days of Christmas and followed the strict fast of Advent, which lasted from the end of November until Christmas Eve and demanded abstinence from meat and dairy. The end of this time of penance understandably became a joyous period of merriment, feasting and inebriation.
According to the Puritans, it also became a time of gambling, immorality and promiscuity, where self-control was abandoned and where previously sensible individuals ate, drank and danced in excess. A tradition we seem to have carried over to the office Christmas party.
But what were these unruly, pagan practices that gave ‘Old Noll’ Cromwell the collywobbles? How would our Lancashire ancestors have celebrated Christmas half a millennia ago?
Christmas Eve - The Yule Log and Bringing in the Boughs
While celebrations officially commenced on Christmas Day, local people would begin to prepare on Christmas Eve. The men would go into the woods and acquire ‘the largest log obtainable’ which was ‘lighted on the hearth and denominated the yule log’.
This log was burned for all Twelve Days of Christmas and it was deemed unlucky if it went out before. People would gather in front of the fire, telling dark tales and eating hot frumenty, a traditional spiced porridge.
While the men busied themselves with the yule log, the women would go out and collect evergreens and decorate their cottages and windows with boughs of bay, laurel, holly, ivy and yew.
Kissing boughs or bushes were also made, apples and oranges were woven in and mistletoe was suspended beneath.
This act of bringing evergreens into the home was a way to honour life and rebirth in agriculture and to give hope for the coming harvest in the darkness of midwinter.
Victorian historian Rev W Thornber recorded that the Eve of Christmas was also known as Flesh Day, with country folk flocking to Poulton-le-Fylde to purchase all the meat they needed for the forthcoming festivities. Christmas breakfast usually consisted of a feast of black puddings and jannock bread.
Lord of Misrule
The Lord of Misrule, also known as the Abbot of Unreason, the Christmas Lord or the Master of Merry Disports, would oversee all Christmastide festivities such as the Feast of Fools, local dances, musical events, mumming and plays.
A lower-ranking individual would be temporarily promoted to mock king and madcap rule would ensue. Great mischief was had capering about, issuing nonsensical laws, mocking those in rule and generally creating a topsy-turvy satire of everyday life. It is believed that the Lord of Misrule or the Father of Christmas celebrations was indeed the origin of Father Christmas.
Mummers wore ragged clothing in bright colours with bizarre animalistic masks of card or linen sacks over their heads. Bands of Mummers would appear their neighbour’s doors, they would not talk, only hum in answer to questions until they were invited inside.
To rid yourself you would have to let them trick you with a game of weighted dice or give them coins in their collection box. As late as the 1960s Mumming could still be seen in Lancashire, surviving in villages and mill-towns around the county.
The Rochdale Mummers in particular visited houses at New Year, on Old Christmas Day, with faces covered in ashes and soot collecting money for charity.
Accompanying the Lord of Misrule and Mummers was often a hobbyhorse named Old Ball. In Lancashire this pastime survived even into the 19th century in remote parts of the county and is described as ‘A huge and rude representation of a horse’s head; the eyes are formed of the bottoms of old broken wine or other “black bottles”; the lower and upper jaws have large nails put in them to serve as teeth; the lower jaw is made to move by a contrivance fixed at its back end, to be operated on by the man who plays Old Ball.’
Those operating Old Ball on sticks hidden beneath sackcloth, would clamp its jaws down on the arms of partygoers and would not release them until they dropped silver pennies into a ribbon festooned ladle.
Wassailing was the custom of toasting trees or crops with hot spiced ale or cider, in some places adorning branches with stale bread soaked in the wassail brew, from which the word toast is derived. People would bang buckets with sticks creating a ruckus to banish evil spirits from the land and ensure a plentiful harvest. This was performed in the orchards or the fields after which the Wassailing cup or vessel was brought around the village, everyone supped from it, sharing the cheer and singing Wassailing songs. The custom of Wassailing was not unique to Lancashire, many counties that were reliant on their crops honoured the fallow land in the depths of midwinter, however Lancashire does have its own Lancashire Wassail Song.
Festive celebrations drew to an end on Plough Monday, which was the first Monday after Twelfth Day.
Farm-hands and labourers would dress up, some as old women, some in skins with tails, and drag a plough through the village.
They would go door-to-door requesting ‘plough money’ which was in fact beer money and if the occupant refused, the oddly dressed procession would tear up the ground in front of the house with their plough in retribution.