Christmas Traditions And History
While the rest of the country appears to be utterly snowbound, Pembrokeshire’s barely felt a flake. It’s a bit chilly, but – round Bluestone parts at least – the sky is blue and the air is still. And anyway, it’s supposed to be cold – it’s December. And with the start of the month, comes Bluestone’s resident historian and storyteller, Terry John, to regale us once again with tales of ancient customs.
If you are visiting Bluestone during the Christmas period, expect something more than the usual festivities. This is because the staff have decided to revive some of the old traditions that were practised in Pembrokeshire in past centuries…and our ancestors had some quaint and unusual ways of celebrating Christmas.
To begin with, all farm work was suspended for a three week period. As a sign of this, the plough was carried into the farmhouse and was placed under the table. A delicious dinner of goose, beef and pudding was eaten on Christmas Day and often people from the surrounding cottages were invited. Throughout the holiday, parties of men walked from house to house, where they were offered beer warmed in small brass pans. As they drank, they always made sure to wet the plough, as a sign that it had not been forgotten and that it would soon be needed again.
In reality, by Christmas Eve the festivities had already been in full swing for several days. St Thomas’s Day fell on 21 December and was marked by an ancient custom known as ‘a-gooding’ or ‘a-mumping’. This involved groups of poor people knocking on the doors in their parish and receiving something good – usually food- as a Christmas reward.
Householders would have been scouring the woodlands and hedges for weeks in advance of Christmas in order to find the Yule Log. This was a large log, perhaps the branch of a huge tree or even the trunk of a smaller one. It was dragged into the house and had to be welcomed into the home by sprinkling it with alcohol. It was then placed carefully on the hearth and was lit with a piece of wood from the previous year’s log. It was important to make sure that the log wasn’t too close to the centre of the flames, lest it burn away too quickly, but also that it wasn’t too far away, in case it went out. It had to burn steadily and slowly for the whole twelve days of Christmas, as this ensured good fortune for the coming year.
Once the twelve days of Christmas were over, the ashes of the log were carefully gathered up and preserved. As everyone knew, the ashes had special protective powers; they guarded the house against lightning and fires, rid cattle of vermin, cured toothache and, if spread on the fields in the coming Spring, ensured a good crop.
Another widely observed custom was the Yule Candle. A large candle was specially decorated and was ceremoniously lit on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. It was said to be a symbol of the coming of the Light of the World, the birth of Jesus. The candle was treated with great respect and people often bowed or curtsied to it as it was lit for the first time.
Houses were specially decorated for Christmas, though not with the tinsel and paper decoration that we use today. Evergreen plants such as holly, ivy and mistletoe were gathered in, despite the disapproval of the Church authorities, who regarded them as having pagan associations. Most people believed that these plants had supernatural powers and the bright green of their foliage was a reminder that Spring, and a renewal of life, was not too far away.
Holly brought good luck to the home and protected it from lightning. Its red berries warded off witches, goblins and evil spirits; red had the power to detect and drive away evil and for this reason holly bushes were sometimes planted outside houses. The evergreen leaves were a reminder of the eternal life of Jesus and the white flowers were symbols of the Immaculate Conception and of the Virgin Mary’s milk that fed the baby Jesus.
Mistletoe was a popular decoration because of the belief that the cross upon which Christ died had been made from mistletoe wood. Legend claimed that the mistletoe had once been a tree, but had been so ashamed of its part in the Crucifixion that it had shrunk down into the plant we know today and was not allowed any contact with the ground. For that reason it is most often found growing on other plants, especially oaks.
Mistletoe became a symbol of fertility and in winter was fed to cattle to keep them healthy. Women often carried a sprig of mistletoe to ensure they produced many healthy children. When ground into a powder and added to wine or water, the wood was thought to be antidote to poison and was used in the treatment of epilepsy, heart disease, nervous disorders, toothache, snakebite. It also defused arguments, a useful factor when so much ale was being drunk.
Like holly, mistletoe was a deterrent against witches and lightning strikes – it was believed that it only began to grow when lightning struck a tree.
Ivy, on the other hand, though a Christmas decoration, was not brought into the house. For some reason, it was thought better to keep it outside, so it was usually placed over doorways and windows, where it helped to drive away witches and other evils.
Once the house had been decorated and the Yule Log or Candle had been lit, people turned their attention to the other traditional customs.
One unmissable tradition was the Plygain service, held at nearly every parish church in the county. This usually took place between 3am and 6am and in the dark hours before it began people gathered in in one another’s houses to make treacle toffee and decorate the rooms with mistletoe and holly.
In Tenby, the Plygain service on was quite a spectacle. Crowds gathered carrying torches, chanting verses and blowing cowhorns. Eventually they drifted towards the house of the rector, from which he was escorted to the church in a torchlight procession. The torches were extinguished at the church porch and only re-lit when the procession returned to the rectory after the service had ended.
In some areas of Wales, the Plygain service was followed by a Christmas breakfast. This might include cakes, cold meats and plenty of strong ale.
The term Plygain, by the way, is sometimes written as Pylgain or Pylgaint and is said to come from the Latin phrase pulli cantus or ‘cock’s crow’, reflecting the time at which the service started or ended.
Another tradition, which you’ll be glad to know isn’t being revived at Bluestone, was ‘holly beating’. This took place on Boxing Day, when groups of men and boys roamed the streets, thrashing the bare arms of female servants with branches of holly. This unpleasant custom may date back to the days when it was thought immodest and even indecent for women to appear in public with their arms uncovered. It may also be associated with the martyrdom of St Stephen, which is commemorated on 26 December.
Thankfully, whatever its origins, the custom had died out in Tenby by 1857, due to the ‘terrors of the law’.
Football also played its part in the Christmas festivities, but the game wasn’t anything like the present day affair. There was no limit to the size of the teams – there were instances when several hundred people took part and the game frequently lasted until dark and might be played across several miles of countryside. Limbs were broken, heads were cracked and the ball, if there was one, disappeared in the riot or was squashed flat.
Our ancestors made sure that they celebrated the whole Twelve Days of Christmas – and more.