Christmas Cracker!

‘Time to Put Up the Christmas’ by Suzanne

Monday, December 29, 2014

At one time in Bishops Stortford and the surrounding villages, people would decorate at Christmas with holly and evergreens; this was known as ‘the time to put up the Christmas’.

We, the volunteers, have recently been looking at local old customs and traditions, so here are some of the things that went on at this time of year in the past.

Many will recognise this account from 1553;

‘The mothers all their children on the Eeve doe cause to fast, and when they every one at night in senselesse sleepe are cast, both apples, nuttes, and peares they bring, and other things beside, as caps and shooes, and petticotes, which secretlie they hide, and in the morning found, they say, that this saint Nicholas brought…’  

However this isn’t from Christmas Eve. St Nicholas, the patron saint of children, in those days, visited on the 5th December the night before his feast day.

As the days became shorter and the evenings grew dark and cold, it seems that Hertfordshire people were very keen on smoking pipes, drinking a mug of hot spiced and mulled elderberry wine and telling ghost stories.

19th Century Clay Pipe, Bishop’s Stortford Museum Collection

The winter solstice, 21st December, was the feast day of St Thomas. Widows, the sick and poor would go round to local houses and ask for help. This had various names locally: Going a’Thomasing, mumping day and doleing day.

In the 18th century at large important houses on Christmas Eve there would often be a performance by a group of mummers, who would act out old favourites such as George and the Dragon. In the 19th century, carol singers would be heard on Christmas Eve, often singing ‘The Seven Good Joys that Mary Had’, a popular carol in this area. Children were also told that on this one night of the year they might hear the bees singing in their hives and even the sound of subterranean bells. Certainly the local church bells were often heard at night, ringing in Christmas day.

On Christmas Day itself in some villages there were communal ovens. One account from Ware in 1835 notes that ‘from the bakehouses there soon streamed forth a procession of working-men’s wives carrying home the steaming Christmas joint.‘. The traditional Hertfordshire pumpkin pie, made with apples, currants, sugar and spices was popular, although in the 18th century, the Apple Florentine was preferred. This was very similar to apple pie but with a quart of well-spiced very hot ale added.

New Year’s Eve would be another cause for celebration, when a bowl of spiced ale, the wassail bowl, would be offered around the community. One account from 1826 says that their aim was to ‘end the year merrily, and begin the new one well, and in friendship‘. Something which I’m sure we would still try to do today.

This blog is based on stories from the book ‘Old Hertfordshire Calendarby Doris Jones-Baker



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