December Traditions

By Terry John Calendar

December is upon us and there are only a finite number of shopping days left in which to complete the Christmas preparations.

Many people will have been buying and wrapping presents much earlier in the year in order to avoid a last minute panic, but our ancestors seem to have left many of the preparations until the last minute.

St Justinian

In Pembrokeshire, 5th December was the day on which St Justinian was honoured. He had set up home on Ramsey Island sometime in the 6th century, where he and a few like-minded followers lived as hermits.

Unfortunately, he was said to have been so strict in applying the rules of a religious life that his fellow hermits rebelled and beheaded him.

He is said to have picked up his severed head and then made his way back to the mainland. Only then did he drop it and at the spot where it struck the ground a spring of water burst from the ground.

The spring is now marked by a small modern well-house at St Justinian’s, the little cove near St Davids where the lifeboat is housed.

St Nicholas’ Day

The 6th December is St Nicholas’ Day. He was the Bishop of Myra in modern Turkey and is said to have died on 6th December 326. He was a kindly soul who once gave away three bags of gold for the dowries of three poor sisters. This act of generosity is remembered in the pawnbroker’s sign of three golden balls.

An ancient tradition states that St Nicholas visits the homes of children on this night and if they have been good he leaves small presents. Woe betide those who have not! He is accompanied by Black Peter, who carries a bundle of canes to punish the naughty ones.

After the Reformation, St Nicholas Day and its traditions were merged with Christmas Day, hence our jolly Santa Claus.

St Nicholas’ Day was the day on which Boy Bishops were elected in many of the cathedral towns of Britain, in commemoration of the saint‘s compassion towards children. The chosen boy would be enthroned just as a real bishop was and undertook the same duties except the celebration of Mass. The Boy Bishop held office until Holy Innocent’s Day on 28th December.

Everyone loves mince pies - except me it seems! However it was traditional not to make or eat them before 16th December. The following day was the day on which animals, especially pigs, were slaughtered for the Christmas feast.

Saturnalia

17th December was also the beginning of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, held in honour of the god of agriculture. It lasted for up to 7 days and during that time slaves were waited on by their masters, presents were exchanged, games and gambling took place, and a Master of Revels was appointed.

The name December, by the way, comes from the Roman word decem, meaning ten, as it was the tenth month of the old Roman calendar. The Anglo-Saxons called it winter month or Yule month, from the custom of burning a Yule Log.

Lord of Misrule

During the festivities held in medieval times, a Lord of Misrule directed the celebrations. As his title implies, all sorts of mischief and merrymaking took place.

The Yule Log still formed an important part of the Christmas tradition, as did the Yule Candle. This was an impressively large candle, which was specially decorated with ribbons and which was placed in churches and chapels across the land and it was ceremoniously lit on 20th December.

St Thomas’ Eve & St Thomas’ Day

The 20th December was also St Thomas’ Eve, and the following day, 21st December, was Midwinter Day, St Thomas’ Day. In the days before Christmas trees became popular, this was the time to hang up the Kissing Bough. A small holly bush was hung upside down in the kitchen, after being decorated with ribbons, tinsel, small gifts , sweets and fruit. Anyone who passed underneath could be kissed.

The Lord Mayor of Penniless Cove

In Tenby, the days leading up to Christmas Day was the time to choose the Lord Mayor of Penniless Cove. This is the name given to an area inside the old town walls overlooking the harbour where the fishermen used to gather on days when the weather was too bad to allow them to go to sea.

The fishermen would elect one of their number as Lord Mayor of Penniless Cove. He would be dressed up with ribbons, flowers and evergreens and would have a mask placed over his face.

He would be seated upon a chair with flags flying and, preceded by violins and flutes, would be carried around the town. The precession stopped in front of each house and the occupants would turn out to greet the Mayor.

He would wish them a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. If offered money, the Mayor would lead his followers in giving hearty cheers and good wishes.

Mystical Pembrokeshire

The people of Pembrokeshire were also aware that December was a supernatural time, and that strange and eerie things occurred in the dark hours.

One of the most famous involved three ancient standing stones which are still to be seen near Bosherston. It is said that  at midnight on 29th December each year they leave their places and hasten to a spot known as Saice’s or Saxon’s Ford.

A coven of witches dances in the moonlight to the music of a flute played by the Devil, who sits on top of one of the stones. At daybreak, the party is broken up and the stones return to their places.

It was well known that anyone witnessing this event would have great good fortune in the coming year.

To find out more interesting facts, book your break to Bluestone and join Terry on his complimentary walk around the resort!

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Categories:History, Christmas

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