Many ancient festive customs, such as lighting the yule log and going out carolling, still exist. Others, however, have disappeared into the mists of time.
Most families have their own customs without which Christmas just wouldn’t seem like Christmas, whether it’s carols round the tree, eating till we pop or snoozing in front of a Morecambe and Wise repeat. But for our ancestors, the festive season wouldn’t have seemed quite right without some traditions now long forgotten.
Well before Charles Dickens was sending shivers down spines with his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol – the tale of how miser Ebenezer Scrooge is shown the error of his ways by a ghostly visitation on Christmas Eve, which Dickens wrote in just six weeks as a way of quickly earning some cash – the telling of ghost stories on the night before Christmas was considered a traditional part of the festive celebrations.
Families would gather round the fireplace and tell a spooky story apiece by candlelight, in a custom that may date as far back as Tudor times. Both Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe mention “winter’s tales”: ghost stories told on long winter evenings when other amusements were scarce. Nowadays, this custom has become more associated with Halloween.
The Kissing Bough
Kissing under mistletoe is now all that remains of the customary “holy bough”, a ball woven from ash, willow or hazel twigs with a figure of the Christchild in the centre. This “Sacramental” was blessed by a priest and hung inside the threshold of a house, symbolising goodwill and peace to all visitors. The custom goes back to Viking times, when mistletoe – considered sacred by the Druids – was hung outside Viking homes as a sign of welcome to strangers.
Ribbons, candles, gilded nuts and small apples or dried fruit were often hung from the bough in later years, not without a certain “keeping up with the Joneses” element as neighbours vied with one another for the best-decorated bough. However, this and many other Christmas customs fell from favour in the Puritan era, when they were seen as having heathen associations and the Christchild figure denounced as an effigy.
By the time the custom was remembered and revived by the Victorians, it had become the simpler “kissing bough” – a bunch of mistletoe and other evergreens hung overhead, with those caught standing underneath obliged to reward their captor with a kiss.
Vessel Maids and Wassail Bob
These traditions are specific to our Yorkshire area, and share a common origin.
They derive from a custom observed in honour of the pre-Christian deity Dionysius, in which an effigy of the baby Dionysius was placed in a cradle and surrounded by flowers. This continued to be observed in Yorkshire well into the 19th century, where it had developed into a Christian crib tradition.
Two girls would be chosen during Advent as the “vessel maids”. They would carry a box containing figures of the Holy Family from home to home, covered in a sacred white cloth. The box was known as a Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box or a Milly Box. Local people would make decorations to surround the holy figures, using evergreens and delicacies such as fresh fruit and spices.
The vessel maids would carry the Wassail Bob to each home in the area, singing a carol and charging a penny to see inside the box. It was considered very bad luck if the girls didn’t call in the run-up to Christmas.