Category Archives: Christmas

Custom contrived: Guildford Twelfth Night celebrations

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Guildford’s Twelfth Night celebrations, always held on the night is a great smorgasbord of the customs associated with the old celebrations associated with the day and a more rousing and enjoyable twelfth night celebration you couldn’t find I’d say.

The Twelfth Night at Guildford founded by Pilgrim Morris founded in 1972. The groups dressed as characters from a plough or Mummer’s Play tour a number of Guildford’s pubs injecting a necessary shot of jollity into a drab winter’s night. As they tour around a fair number of followers are attracted to their infectious fun. Their costumes in themselves were a riot of craziness and eccentricity covered with ribbons and adorned with Chrimbo iconography one even included a miniature Father Christmas!

I arrived at the first pub having travelled across the capital from the Jeffrey’s museum’s Twelfth night and came across them mid mummer’s play as St George was being speared by a Saracen in such a rather cramped location that I feared as he feel he would hit his head on a table.

At the play’s conclusion seeing the revival of St George to cheers one of the Morris mean appeared with a cake and urged people to eat. Some were rather reluctant whereas others upon finding the purpose dived in and took a piece hoping to find the pea and bean. The pea and bean, hidden in the cake, being a Twelfth Night tradition, whosever would find it would be King or Queen of Misrule. The taker was unsuccessful. However, soon a partaker looking like they’d swallowed something a bit odd, reached into his mouth and extracted a hard bean – a cheer went out and he was celebrated as the King for the night.

There was then a sword dance again in the rather small area and it was perhaps thankful the swords were not the sharp kind.  One of the Morris then moved a chair and upon standing on it began to chalking the beam as traditional for epiphany. Their version slightly different:

“Finally, at each place, three crosses are chalked onto the beams to protect the house and bring good luck for the next year.”

There were more cheers. 

Off we went to another pub and hear the wassail bowl was out. This a wooden bowl filled with spiced ale and was being offered around and drunk enthusiastically like a communion wine and in a way this was the intentions.

Phil Gorton noted in the Guildford gazette

“In each of the five places that we visited, the Guildford Mummer’s play was performed followed carols and wassail songs – not the boring standard issue ones but traditional versions, some of which are local to Surrey.”

These songs were particularly uplifting at their final pub The Royal Oak where gathered around the stairway and up on the balcony the Morris dancers and accompanied impromptu choir sung their hearts out in their mixture of traditional and not so familiar carols. The custom is so well established now that it has its own followers who regularly attend and know the words of the more obscure and localised carols much as they do around Sheffield.  As noted by Phil again:

“There are always plenty of singers who come along to bolster the unofficial choir and, as happens each year

The local newspaper recording:

“Up to 150 wassailers, traditionally celebrating twelfth night, toured some of Guildford’s pubs last night (Jan 6th) causing merriment at every venue.

One of the celebrants, morris man Phil Gorton of Farncombe said: “The pubs were packed and it was a riotous night!””

If you are in Guildford or perhaps not and are free on Twelfth Night join the wassail at Guildford for a great experience – second to none as it has something customwise for everyone – including free food and drink!!

Custom demised: Twelfth Night Moseley Dole, Walsall

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File:Walsall in Medieval Times (15th Century) Artist's Impression.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons

This demised custom had a great story behind it:

“Thomas Moseley, passing through Walsall, on twelfth eve, saw a child crying for bread, where others were feasting, and, struck by the circumstance, made over the estates at Barcott, &c., to the town of Walsall, on condition that every year one penny should be given each person on that day, so that no one might witness a like sadness.”

And as such established the Moseley Dole as recorded in An abstract of the title – of the town of Walsall, in Stafford, to valuable estates at Bascott, &c., in the county of Warwick, with remarks by James Cottrell, 1818. which reads:

“In 1453 Thomas Moseley made a feoffment of certain estates, to William Lyle and William Maggot, and their heirs, in trust, for the use of the town of Walsall; but John Lyle, son of William Lyle, to whom these estates would have descended, instead of applying the produce of the estates for the use of the town, kept them, and denied that the property was in trust, pretending it to be his own inheritance; but the inhabitants of Walsall not choosing to be so cheated, some of them went to Moxhal, and drove away Lyle’s cattle, which unjustifiable act he did not resent, because he was liable to be brought to account for the trust estate in his hands. At length a suit was commenced by the town against Lyle, and the estates in question were adjudged for the use of the town of Walsall. Accordingly, in 1515, John Lyle of Moxhal, near Coleshill, Warwickshire, suffered a recovery, whereby these estates passed to Richard Hunt, and John Ford, and they, in 1516, made a feoffment of the land, to divers inhabitants of the town of Walsall, in trust, and so it continues in the hand of trustees to this day.”

It is recorded that:

“In 1539 the first mention appears to have been made of the penny dole. On the twelfth eve, being the anniversary for the souls of Thomas Moseley, and Margaret his wife, the bellman went about with his bell, exciting all to kneel down and pray for the souls of Thomas Moseley, and Margaret, his wife; Thomas Moseley never gave this dole, either by feoffment or will; but, because he had been so good a benefactor, in giving his lands, &c., in Warwickshire, the town, by way of gratitude, yearly distributed a general dole of one penny each, to young and old, rich and poor; strangers, as well as townspeople; and this was the origin of the dole.”

However there is some discussion over where the dole really begun:

“The masters of the guild of St. John the Baptist, in Walsall, a religious fraternity, with laws and orders made among themselves, by royal licence, appear at this time to have been the trustees; for they received the rents of these estates, and kept court at Barcott. King John granted to every arch-deacon in England a power of gathering from every ‘fyer householder,’ in every parish, one penny, which were called Peter pence; therefore I am inclined to think this religious fraternity were the beginners of this penny dole, which would enable them immediately to pay their Peter Pence or, perhaps they might stop it in the same manner as the bellman does the lord of the manor’s penny.”

The author of the extract:

“It would be a good thing if this dole was given up, and the rents of these valuable estates, which are now considerable, were all applied to charitable purposes.”

The dole ceased in 1825 after some local resistance it is believed. Twelve alms-houses, were built with the money in the hands of the corporation with the money apparently.

Custom revived: Lincoln Crying Christmas

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I’ve said this before but some towns and cities lend themselves to having a plethora of customs and traditions. Lincoln is such a place but with its challenging Steep Hill, towering cathedral and Roman ruins it should have collated a number of curious customs – but bar a couple of interesting church services and its Australian breakfast – unfortunately since I reported it in this blog now in abeyance – its rather lacking. That is why the revival of perhaps one of the city’s unique and certainly colourful customs is very welcome.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

Why should anyone by crying over Christmas you may ask? Not getting the correct present was it? Indigestion from too much stuffing and pudding? Or was it the inevitable argument with the in laws that did it? Not its not the emotional type of crying but crying out as in calling out and the aim of this custom was to inform the citizens of the rules surrounding on the on coming festive period.

I arrive and climbed that famous steep hill – well at least the custom was going downwards – to see a small group assembled dressed in medieval clothing and carrying banners and traditional instruments. The party were called Waites an old English name for such civic musicians.

Waites in themselves are a curious tradition. They were a sort of municipal musicians employed by the Mayor to play at civic ceremonies. Established by Henry III in 1253 in association with watching over the citizens during the curfew and as such they died out as the curfew became redundant and were officially stopped by the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act although apparently they continued to 1857 in Lincoln.

Origin of crying.

“”Evere franchest man and dennyssen inhabite within this Citie schalle have free liberte and sayffegarde in honest mirthe and gam sportis to goo or doe what hym pleys”.

The aim of the crying event being to inform the cities that unless written permission was given by the King, during the 12 days of Christmas no man would be arrested by the city’s authorities. Thus at regular intervals through the evening of the 21st December verses would be delivered either sung or spoken by three Senatours appointed by the Mayor and possibly city Waites. In 1576 for example it was recorded that:

“Christmas myrthe to be proclaimed in ten or twelve places and every Alderman to ride with the Officers”

The first written record of the custom is the words “Crying Christmas” being written on a flyleaf of Entries of the Common Council (1565 – 1599) with the words

“Anno xxv. Officij Willelmi Hynde Communis Clerici Civitatis Lincolniensis”.

An account of 1572 records:

“The old robes which the Officers Cried Christmas withal to be made into decent cloaks for the said officers to cry the same yearly.”

One assumes the custom became obsolete as soon as the Waites died out and it was not until 2007 that it was revived.

Waite for it!

Once the Cathedral clock struck 6pm and the with the steady beat of the drum we were off down into Lincoln. Accompanied with the sound of flutes and trumpets the streets of Lincoln was immediately brightened by this archaic sounds. Understandably as the ground processed downwards they received some interest from onlookers who stopped to take photos and some joined the procession behind making it seem like a real life piped piper procession.

 

At the first place one of the Waites put a horn to his lips and blew and then another called a Senator, read a proclamation:

“The maker Allmyghtye the grounds of all grace, Save this Congregation that here be present and Bryng them all to the Celestyall place, That with paycens wyll here the effect of our intent.”

A further three times these Senators read out their proclamations

“Oure intent & purpose is Auncyent customes to declare that have ben Vsed in this Citie manye yeres ago and noew for to breake them we wysshe ye schuld beware for ther be grevous ponysshmentes for them that wyll do soo.”

and then

“At the tyme of Crystmas, mythe haith ben made throughout all nacyons, of the Crystian faith and styll so to keip it, ye nede not be affrayde for then, was our Savyour bourn as the Scripture saith.”

It was all a bit confusing for the onlookers and indeed this being Friday night there were a few rowdy characters who sought to interject with their views, some somewhat colourful and in all cases fell flat. Indeed the concern with the possible conflict with the large night time economy meant that one year when the 21st fell on a Saturday it was decided not to entertain the notion!

In the market square beneath the shadow of the cathedral some of the Waites then danced weaving in and out of each other. I continued with them until we reached the Mayors parlour when the musicians played and a final proclamation made by the city cryer:

“The eternall Lord, have mercy on your souls this day. vnto other place to bear our tidings we must now away power upon you that ye may do good, the Lord bestow he, that all thynges both good and evil doth well know.”

Then we were all invited in for some festive food and the procession ended for another year. The city informed of the coming of Christmas and their rights and the dark and cold December nights made much better for it.

Custom contrived: Tenby Boxing Day swim

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Boxing Day dips and swims have become a modern phenomena and the desire to throw oneself into the icy cold waters around Britain just as the Christmas excesses has worn off can be found all around the country. Perhaps the oldest now over 50 years old is that at Tenby. A local news website stated:

“Named as one of Britain’s top ten barmiest winter dips, TENBY’s famous Boxing Day Swim has been an institution in the small West Wales town for decades and has recently featured in the ITV Wales series The Harbour, which was filmed in Tenby and shows a year in the life of the seaside community.”

The Tenby Boxing Day Swim is organised by the Tenby Sea Swimming Association, which dates back to the early 1900s as the organisers website states:

” In 1910, Arthur Dickinson – Quaker, lay preacher, artist and keen swimmer – brought his family from Yorkshire to live in Ruabon House, South Parade. Arthur was a year-round swimmer, and family legend has it that he was the first person to swim to Caldey. His son-in-law, Ossie Morgan, who was appointed as headmaster of the Tenby Council School, carried on the family tradition of teaching children to swim. When Mr Morgan retired, his own offspring decided to get non-swimmers afloat, and in the 1960s, Idris Morgan, Gly Osborne, Alan Morgan and Ray Lowe formed the Tenby Sea Swimming Association (TSSA). The opening of Tenby’s first indoor swimming pool could have spelled the end of TSSA, but the organisation then took on a new lease of life in 1970 when Tenby’s publicity officer, John Evans, came up with the idea of a charity Boxing Day Swim to put Tenby on the map. “

And pandemic aside it has thrived every since with numbers reaching the high 100s with around 800 in 2019 all amassed on the town’s North Beach excitedly staring into the grey waters. The event is of course a charity one and one which attracts a fair bit of eccentricity! Lined up on the beach awaiting its less than inviting waters are a wide range of young and old, some just in shorts and bikinis, some in full body costume – giant bananas appear to be popular – an Father and more often Mrs Claus. In 2020 Wales online recorded that the theme was Climate change:

“Ahead of the mad dash into the ocean, swim chairman Chris Osborne said: “Our seaside environment, which we proudly treasure, is under threat so it seems absolutely right that we support efforts to raise awareness of climate change and its impact. We hope our swimmers’ imaginative fancy dress will help in this cause.”

Indeed they did as:

“People embraced the theme of climate change for what was the 49th event, with even a polar bear spotted marching into the water complete with a sign proclaiming “Lost home to climate change”….There was even a Swedish-style ark, complete with endangered species, inspired by teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg.”

Large crowds watch on with the compulsory local photographers who encourage the usual high activity types of photos – often with the more glamorous members of the local community! Boxing day swim was for many just a dip in, although some plunged deeper into the waters watched with eagle eyes by boats from the RNLI for safety sake, Sensibly a large bonfire was set up on the beach and hot soup handed out – which was very welcomed. Perhaps less out of place with their full regalia the town’s Mayor than presents each of the  swimmers with a commemorative medal which this year. In the year of recognising the impact of climate change these were made out of wood instead of plastic or metal. For the 50th the theme of Golden was chosen and with its triumphant post lockdown return the beach was awash with shiny yellow suits and yes more bananas of course.

Custom demised: Biddenham Parish Bull on St Thomas’s Day

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Edwards in his 1842 Old English Customs and Charities notes:

“An ancient annual payment of 5l. out of an estate at Biddenham, formerly belonging to the family of Boteler, and now the property of Lord Viscount Hampden, is regularly paid on St. Thomas’s Day to the overseers of the poor for the purchase of a bull, which is killed, and the flesh thereof given amongst the poor persons of the parish.”

This is an unusual bequest because it was usually St. Martin’s Day that spare cattle were slaughtered and this may have been an issue. It is recorded that the churchwardens overseers and principal inhabitants assist at the distribution of the meat the portions being given to those who have the families. The report considers:

“For many years past the annual fund, being insufficient to purchase a bull, the deficiency has been made good out of other charities belonging to the parish. “

Tunnicliffe, C. F. (1901-1979), 'The Chartley Bull', Wood Engraving, 1939/2007 £300.00 - Fine Art prints paintings drawings sculpture uk

 

It was noted that the value of the bull has varied in the 1800s from £9 to £14 which may have resulted in the customs disappearance however a suggestion was made:.  

It was proposed some years ago by the vicar that the 5l. a year should be laid out in buying meat, but the poor insisted on the customary purchase of a bull being continued, and the usage is accordingly kept up.”

 It was said that the money came from a transfer of £200 from the trustees. This is possibly linked to land bought in 1706 by Elizabeth Boteler. Sadly the custom did not survive the 20th century. 

Custom contrived: Chocolate advent calendars

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Advent calendar - Wikipedia

Each year in November parents run around the shops preparing for Christmas and the first thing perhaps that needs to be purchased is the advent calendar. However these are not the card board ones which I remembered and are worthy of a separate discussion, no these are the chocolate ones. But how did the paper ones turn into the chocolate ones and when?

It is thought that advent calendars first started in German around the early 1900s although the company which first made these appeared to cease production during the Second World War but it was revived in 1946 and by the 1950s it had arrived in the US.

A date for the choco-holic?

It was not long into the 1950s that some had the idea of replacing the images in the advent windows with chocolate and secularisation begun. The first chocolate Advent calendar appeared in 1958. These continue to be made during the 1960s but it did not appear to catch on and I remember in the 1980s in the UK the advent calendar we purchased just had the scenes of the nativity in it – and to be honest I was quite excited to see them as well.

The beginning of the dominance perhaps could be traced to 1971 when chocolate giant Cadbury introduced one in the UK. However, they still not catch on and they were only produced intermittently between 1972 and 1986. They were not put into continuous production until 1993. By the 2000s they appear to have become the mainstay and the excepted. Such that it is now difficult to find the original none chocolate ones. Indeed, Martin Johnes in his Research notes and resources on the histories of Wales and popular culture blog notes:

“It is tempting to see the move to giving children a chocolate every day as another sign of the commercialisation of Christmas and ever growing levels of festive consumption. The emergence in of the past few years of luxurious calendars with toys and even food, drink and gifts aimed at adults has added to this sense and led to accusation that religious ideas are being colonised and trampled.”

Of course one could criticise the commercialisation of the original cardboard ones but somehow the addition of chocolate is somewhat more commercial. However, like the original card one, the countdown to Christmas day is still the principle role and children still get excited to see the windows open and see that they are one day closer to the big day itself and the joy that that brings.

For the folklorist the fact that it was not until the 1990s and 00s that this custom became established and then becoming the expected tradition just shows how quickly a custom can establish itself and become part of the smorgasbord of Christmas. Of course, that is if you can stop your children from eating them all in one go! Perhaps they are trying to win the record set by Kevin Strahle. He holds the record for eating the advent chocolates for the fastest time: 1 minute 27.84 seconds. A record which definitely flies in the face of the spirit of the custom!

Custom survived: Eating mince pies on every day for the Twelve days of Christmas

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“And if you wanted to be ensure good health and happiness in the upcoming year, you should eat one mince pie every day for the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Eve until the 5th of January.”

Walkers Shortbread

Every year some mentions it as they open a box of mince pies as the festive season begins. Then I think I’ll try and eat one for each day of twelfth night and then fail miserably!! But it seems so easy. However, it looks like I’ve been failing before I begin as research shows I needed to do more than eat them!

Mince your words!

The earliest reference to this custom appears to by from 1853 Denham Christmas

“As many mince pies as you taste at Christmas so many happy months you will have….general though..Westermorland and Cumberland counties celebrated extreme hospitality.”

What is interesting is that it is not found before the 1850s but becomes widespread soon after. Furthermore the basic concept behind the tradition is outlined  twelve mince pies one for each day.

However soon after a variant appears. Within the decade, a copy of the 1861 Notes and queries 2nd Series states that:

“Eating mince pies in different houses. This saying is so well known that it need not relate it at length.”

Well perhaps it would have been good if it had because the appearance of different houses appears new but is it hinted by Denham when discussing the hospitality of those households. Certainly by 1883 Charlotte Sophia Burne’s Shropshire: A Sheaf of Gleanings stated that:

“There is ‘luck’ about mince pie damd iit is this. For every house during the Twelve days he will enjoy a happy month in the ensuing twelve months.”

By the 1921 Notes and Queries 12 Series an anonymous reported stated:

“Fifty years ago I was taught that the first mince pie should be eaten on Stirrup Sunday’ and every ne eaten between then and Twelfth night, in a different house, meant one month of happiness in the New Year.”

However, in 1908 Arnold Bennett Old Wives Tale had immortalised it in fiction in the following:

“Now Mr Scales, you must taste my mine A happy month for every tart you eat, you know’ Mrs Barnes reminded him.”

Wiltshire Folklore by Kathleen Wiltshire in 1975 notes:

“Mince pies too, have their own magic; if you eat twelve of them, from twelve, separate friends, during the twelve days of Christmas, you are promised a lucky twelve months to follow.”

Again suggesting the simpler tradition. But why mince pieces?

Having your pie and eat it

An account of 1923 from Martock Somerset in Folklore records a confused account:

“Even if a currant of each, taste as many mince-pies and Christmas puddings as possible between Christmas Day and the 6th January – each is a happy month.”

By 1960 another proviso had occurred. A woman from Steep Hampshire states that:

 “You will get a happy month for each mince pie you eat, as long as you don’t speak whole you are eating it.”

Yet another reason why I haven’t been successful. I would have to be careful though because when I had opened those mince pies in early December I was already going against my luck. John Symonds Udal’s 1922 Dorsetshire folklore

“Amongst strict observers of old customs…no one would think of eating a mince-pie before Christmas Eve or later than Twelfth Night.”

Pie in the sky

The luck associated appeared to be associated with the need to wish as an account from 1923 notes:

“When you eat the first mince pie you must wish.”

Finally, in the 1932 G.K. Chesterton New Poems he says:

“Some wishes at Xmas: Mince-pieces grant wishes, let each name his prize; but as for us, we wish for more Mince pies.”

More mince pieces surely not!

Custom contrived: The Elf on the Shelf

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The Elf on the Shelf - Wikipedia

“Like most things that get big in America, the Elf on the Shelf was bound to cross to these shores eventually. Now it’s available in the UK, the Elf on the Shelf is spreading like wildfire.”

Kate Whiting What is Elf on the Shelf? All you need to know about the Christmas craze

“Horrible passive aggressive doll that ‘watches you’ then tells on you to Santa.”

Amazon review

For many years we had plastic Elf sitting with his knees firmly tucked under his chin. He sat – because he had loop in his head – firmly hanging from one of the branches of our annual Christmas tree. He was a bauble like many of the others – currently the weirdest one on the tree is a pickled gherkin but that’s another story! Then as the current millennium developed a new Elf appeared on the Christmas roster and the term Elf on the Shelf became more and more frequently heard. Why?

Another book on the she-Elf-ie!

In the Strange and Sweet history of Elf on the Shelf the Huffpost summaries the story as follows:

“According to the book, the elf is a “scout elf” who sits on a shelf or table or another part of a family’s home to observe the children’s behavior during the holiday season.

Each night, the elf flies back to the North Pole and reports the kids’ actions to Santa Claus to inform his naughty and nice list picks. The elf then returns before the children wake up and settles in a new part of the house, creating a hide-and-seek game each morning.”

The Elf would visit from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve suggesting that parents would set up the Elf between these areas.The authors, Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell of thisT 2005 children’s picture book appear to be almost single handedly created their own custom – developed and spread by social media. Carol Aebersold stated that they got the idea from a family tradition that she Carol started for her two children in Georgia USA in the 1970s:.

“We had an elf growing up for as long as we can remember. Our elf was named Fisbee, and Fisbee of course would report to Santa Claus at night and be back in a different position in our house the next day,” Pitts explained. “We loved it. It was a chance for us to tell Santa directly what maybe we might want for Christmas, or to do good deeds so that Santa would know about them.”

When Aebersold was a child herself, Fisbee was more like an ornament that stayed on the Christmas tree and didn’t move. But the tradition morphed over time, and when she became a mother, she told her kids the elf would magically fly around at night and mustn’t be touched or it would lose its magic ― likely “to protect it, because we were pretty rambunctious children,” said Pitts.

The idea of a magical elf that flies to the North Pole at night and reappears in a surprise location was “super fun and whimsical” to the twins and their brother, Brandon, Pitts recalled. “It had all of us racing out of bed in the morning to find our elf!”

Help your Elf

As the custom developed it appears rules developed now on the book’s website:

  1. “A scout elf cannot be touched. Christmas magic is very fragile and if a scout elf is touched it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole.”
  2. “A scout elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake! A scout elf’s job is to watch and listen.”

Of course each night once the children have gone to bed the parents would have to find new places to place the Elf; which has resulted in some amusing locations and a whole range of images shared on social media.

It is thought that 2007 was an important point when actress Jennifer Garner was photographed with the Elf on the shelf box and soon the booksellers were flooded with orders and toy stores started selling the product. Now over 11 million elves have been sold and it has spread across the world including Great Britain.

Elf and safety warning

The custom hasn’t always been welcomed. Notwithstanding the hundreds of parents who have had to think about where to place the Elf each night and the horrendous middle of the night moment when a parent has just remembered they have not moved it, the have been other concerns.

In Who’s the Boss? “The Elf on the Shelf” and the normalization of surveillance Professor Laura Pinto reports that:

“Although The Elf on the Shelf has received positive media attention and has been embraced by millions of parents and teachers, it nevertheless represents something disturbing and raises an important question. When parents and teachers bring The Elf on the Shelf into homes and classrooms, are they preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance?”

But psychological impact aside many such as The Atlantic columnist Kate Tuttle have questioned its position as a tradition, seeing it as:

“a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a tradition.”

But then I would say so are virtually half of our current customs and traditions – divorced as they are from what they really stood for!

This has ranged from reports on Amazon which states it is a

“My 4 year old cried and didn’t want it in the house.”

Custom survived: Christmas Crackers

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“Thomas Smith and company have endeavoured by employing special artists to produce designs, the finest modern appliances to interpret their work, and combining Art with Amusement and Fun with Refinement, to raise the degenerate cosaque from its low state of gaudiness and vulgarity to one of elegance and good taste….the mottoes, instead of the usual doggerel, are graceful and epigrammatic, having been specifically written for Tom Smith’s Crackers by well-known authors, among whom may be mentioned the late Tom Hood Esq., Charles H Ross Esq., Editor of Judy, Ernest Warren Esq., Author of Four Flirts, Laughing eyes etc.”

 

No Christmas table feels complete without them but they provide no sustenance and little ornament in a way. The cracker and its strange rituals around them has become a mainstay of the Christmas period. But how did a gunpowder and toy filled device end up being so ubiquitous? Instead

The cracker’s origin can be traced back to the 1840s but it has soon become a staple. It’s a simple idea a cardboard paper tube wrapped in brightly coloured paper and twisted at each end. It is what is inside that makes it special – two strips of gunpowder coated card, a paper crown, a gift and a joke. Often the latter being unfunny and possibly decades old.

That’s a cracker

The tradition thus has developed that at the start of the meal the arms are crossed over with each hand taking a cracker firmly. Each person pulls at the same time, the aim being to be one of the lucky recipients of the end with the hat, gift and joke. As they do so the friction on the paper as they pull apart causing the bang.  How and why this developed is unknown but it is not dissimilar to that done at New Year’s Eve.

It’s all gone crackers

The history of crackers can be traced back to one sweet manufacture called Tom Smith who in London had developed bon bon sweets which he made by a twist of sweet wrappers around. As the sales of these sweets began to drop he looked at novel ways to increase his sales. At first he added love poems and marketed them as gifts men gave to their wives and girlfriends at Christmas this later developed into the corny jokes and mottos. An example of an 1891 motto is:

“The sweet crimson rose with its beautiful hue,

Is not half so deep as my passion for you,

‘Twas wither and fade, and no more will be seen

But whilst my heart lives you will still be its queen,”

Then in 1847 he came across the idea of adding the banger mechanism after being influenced by he had heard the sound of a log crackling in a fire. He continued placing sweets into the bon bons but in time these themselves were abandoned and small items were placed inside. These were described as:

“Grotesque and Artistic Head dresses, Masks, Puzzles, Games, Conundrums, Jewels, Toys, Bric a Brac, Fans, Flowers, Tiny Treasures, Japanese curiosities, Perfumery, Scientific and Musical Toys, and many other surprises.”

This new product he marketed as Cosaque apparently from the erratic dancing of the cossacks or the sound of the horses depending where you read it, but soon as other makers decided to adopt the idea. It is said that as overseas manufacturer copied the original design, Tom decided to develop eight different types and distributed these throughout.  He successfully saw off the competition and his business spread but the name ‘cracker’ had by this time stuck, clearly describing the sound of the pulled cracker. Finally Tom’s son Walter Smith added the paper hats in 1910 and then the jokes in the 1930s.

Now you get virtually anything in a cracker from an Aston Martin Vanquish Coupe, a Cartier Diamond necklace and even a Sunseeker yacht valued at over $3 million but in most some combs, bottle openers and plastic flappy fish!

Custom contrived: Cotehele House Garland

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Living in an old Georgian house I felt the need to establish my old customs as befits it; so at Christmas I have revived the Kissing Bush and placed garlands of evergreen materials over the fire places and up the stairwells. It is a mammoth – and frustrating – task so I feel empathy for the volunteers at Cornwall’s Cotehele House who since the 1950s have established their own – and far more complicated garland.

46,000 dried flowers grown on the house estate are tied together into one hundred feet of rope. Although it takes the staff and volunteers two weeks to construct in reality it takes all year, seeds are ordered in December, grow through spring and summer, picked and dried in the autumn ready for its November construction. In its construction are 60 evergreen pittosporum tree cuttings as its base, with grasses, statice, helichrysum, acrolineum and helipterum being added to it.

In 2013 a BBC news webpage National Trust’s Cotehele creating 90ft flower garland recorded:

Gardeners at a stately home are creating a garland that is more than 90ft (27m) long, following a bumper year for flowers.

Garlands have been made at Cotehele, in south-east Cornwall, since the 1950s and are normally about 60ft (18m) long.

David Bouch, head gardener at the National Trust property, said that more than 40,000 flowers were collected compared to an average of 22,000.

He added that “brilliant growing season” had prompted the increase.

Mr Bouch said he believed the garland was the longest created at a National Trust property.

“Normally, loops go along the centre of the Great Hall, but because of the bumper crop an additional 33ft (10m) of garland will also frame the door,” he said.”

The result is indeed impressive and unique and attracts visitors far and wide to observe it as it sways across the old hall cafe. It certainly puts my efforts to shame.