As the festive season draws to a close with many of us taking down our decorations on Twelfth Night, we’re having a look at some of the traditions that might appear in written records or photographs from Christmas celebrations past.
Christmas celebrations as we know them today were formed around the Victorian period. But what did people do before the Victorians?
A lot, it turns out!
In the Regency period (1795-1837), celebrations started on the 6th December, or St Nicholas’s Day, when small gifts were exchanged following the Northern European tradition. Serious celebrations started on Christmas Eve and lasted over the period of Christmastide until Twelfth Night (the 6th January).
The run up to Christmastide began at the start of Advent (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), Christmas puddings were prepared and plans made for the celebrations. On Christmas Eve decorations were put up.
Regency period decorations were much simpler than the decorations used today. They were gathered from local fields and woods or from gardens, and were essentially evergreen plants. They included the traditional holly with its red berries and mistletoe with its white ones but also rosemary, bay, laurel, box, yew and fir. These were used because of their pagan symbolism associated with everlasting life. It must have smelt wonderful!
When the decorations should be taken down varied from region to region around the country. In some places they were taken down on Twelfth Night, in others on Candlemas Eve (2nd February) and in other places, it was on the 40th day of Christmas.
How the decorations were disposed of also varied depending on where you lived. In some places they could just be removed from the house. In other places they had to be burnt.
At the end of Christmastide, on Twelfth Night, the party was bigger than the Christmas Day celebrations. People exchanged gifts and held fancy dress balls with every guest having a character and a part to play. Guests were either told beforehand who to come dressed as or the hostess provided dressing-up items for guests on arrival. If someone broke out of character there was a forfeit to pay later!
The Tudors did things a little differently. The lead-up to Christmas for a good Tudor citizen was a time for fasting. Definitely, no meat, cheese or eggs to be eaten during Advent. But they made up for it from Christmas Day onwards. The 12 days of Christmas were days when no work (apart from looking after animals) was to be done by men who worked on the land, which was a lot of people in the days before the Industrial Revolution. No one could be compelled to work - women were banned from doing any spinning.
Mulled wine and ‘minced’ pies were eaten. Ghost-stories were traditionally told to while away long winter nights around the fire. This was also the time when Turkeys were introduced as fine Christmas food – Henry VIII was one of the first people in this country to eat a turkey as part of the Christmas Day feast.
A little while after the Tudors, the Puritans were the people who banned Christmas. Parliament passed laws in the period from 1644-1647 making it illegal to celebrate Christmas, saints’ days and other holy days. Fortunately, Charles II reinstated Christmas in 1660.
From the 4th century onwards Christmas was celebrated in Europe anywhere in the year between the beginning of January through to late September. It was settled on 25th December by Pope Julius 1, making the most of pagan festivals that occurred at about this time.
It may have been Viking invaders who were responsible for bringing the tradition of the Yule Log to British celebrations. Large bonfires were traditionally built in midwinter to celebrate the traditional Viking festival of light.
All over the UK last night there were parties, fireworks, singing and dancing, to ring out the old year and ring in the new. As the clock struck midnight, people crossed their arms and joined hands to sing Auld Lang Syne (a traditional song dating back to the 1700s, about times gone by and good friendships). These are the traditional celebrations that the majority of UK inhabitants share.
But what about the individual new year customs that are peculiar to specific towns, regions or countries of the UK? Read on to find out the very different ways that some of us celebrate!
As a young child, I recall being woken just before midnight on New Year’s Eve by loud whispering in the hallway (we lived in a bungalow and my bedroom was by the front door). The adults in the house were clearly organising something. The next moment, my (tall, dark) father burst through the front door brandishing a lump of coal – and then clattered out again moments later with a pan of ashes. I thought they had gone mad! But I was told not to worry; it was called First Footing, and it was “very important” that it took place if we were to have good luck. Until this moment, I had not considered my parents to be superstitious at all!
For the uninitiated, First Footing is a custom whereby as soon as midnight passes, people wait behind their doors for a 'dark-haired person' to arrive. It is thought that the custom may date back to the Viking invasion of Britain when the arrival of a blond-haired person signified bad news. The visitor carries a piece of coal, and sometimes other items such as bread, whisky, and money, to bring good luck. The coal ensures the house will always be warm this year, the bread that everyone will be fed, and so on. The visitor is then required to take a pan of dust or ashes out of the house with him, signifying the departure of the old year.
Calennig and Mari Lwyd
While First Footing hails from Scotland but is performed all around the UK, there is a popular tradition carried out only in Wales known as Calennig. Meaning ‘New Year's gift’, according to the Calennig tradition, children call from door to door bearing good wishes for the year to come and sometimes offering a good-luck symbol (also called the Calennig) to display in the home. It comprises an apple skewered with dried fruit, cloves and sprigs of evergreen.
From dawn until dusk on 1 January they pass from house to house in the village or town, and sometimes sing to receive small gifts of food or money for their troubles. In the old days, for many children in rural Wales, the gifts of Calennig were far more important than Christmas.
Another ancient Welsh tradition that celebrates the end of the Christmas season and the start of the new year is Mari Lwyd, or ‘Grey Mare’ in English. This is a wassailing folk custom that involves a group of singers going from house to house with the Mari Lwyd (a mare’s skull dressed in a sheet and ribbons or, more likely today, a dressed hobby-horse). The origins of the custom are unknown, but some link Mari Lwyd to legend connected to the nativity - a pregnant horse sent out of the stables when Mary arrives to give birth to Jesus, who then spends dark days roaming the land to find somewhere new to give birth.
When the singers arrive at a house with Mari Lwyd, they sing Welsh language songs or wassails, or more traditionally indulge in a ritual called pwnco: an exchange of rude rhymes with the person who lives there. If the Mari and her gang gain entry, the household is said to have good luck for the year. The Mari is well-known for being mischievous – trying to steal things and chase people she likes – as she goes about her bidding.
In Northern England and Scotland, fire festivals are often held to mark the new year. These have their origins in Celtic times when smoke was believed to ward off evil spirits and fire to entice the sun’s return.
At the Allendale Tar Barrel Festival in Northumberland, for example, 45 whisky barrels filled with burning tar are balanced on the heads of local people (known as 'guisers') and paraded around the town. At midnight, the parade culminates in the centre of the town as the barrels are thrown onto a bonfire with the cry of “be damned to he who throws last!”
The Flamborough Fire Festival in Yorkshire is another example. Viking tradition states that the air could be cleansed of the old year’s spirits with fire, so the locals to this day take part in a ceremony which involves swinging fire around their heads!
In Scotland, the Hogmanay Fireball Procession takes place in the fishing village of Stonehaven, where 60 fireball swingers dressed in costume parade down the High Street swinging lit cages filled with paraffin-soaked rags in a spectacular display.
The Flambeaux Procession in Comrie involves a group of select locals gathering just before midnight bearing 10-foot poles each topped with sacking which is set on fire and paraded through the streets after midnight strikes. Pipers lead the procession and the torches are then cast into River Earn to rid the town of the year's evil spirits and bring good luck for the new year.
There are many traditions followed in Ireland to mark the new year, too. Those seeking good luck are encouraged to go in through the front door at the stroke of midnight, and then out through the back door. In addition, a special ‘Christmas bread’ is baked and then used to bang on the doors and walls of the family home to chase out bad luck and invite in good spirits.
Other customs include performing a thorough spring clean of the house, and honouring the dead by setting a place at the dinner table for those who have died in the previous year (and leaving the door off the latch, so they can enter). Per Irish tradition, the dinner should comprise corned beef and cabbage, along with potatoes, carrots and onions for a new year filled with luck and abundance.
Rabbits and wind!
Some of our other customs and superstitions are very simple. In Yorkshire, for example, to bring good luck, people say 'black rabbits, black rabbits' in the closing seconds of the old year, then 'white rabbits, white rabbits' as their first utterance of the new year.
In various parts of the country, superstitious farmers take note of which direction the wind is blowing, as it is said to affect the next year's weather. According to tradition, a wind from the south means a good harvest, while one from the east means a good year for fruit, but a wind from the north foretells a year of storms.
Underpants and grapes!
Of course, the UK is not alone in its unusual new year customs, traditions and superstitions. The occasion is marked in a myriad of ways around the world, too.
Fire is the theme in Ecuador, South America: to banish any ill-fortune from the past year, people there set fire to scarecrows filled with paper at midnight on New Year's Eve. They also burn photographs of things that represent the past year, as a way of putting the past to one side and looking forward. However, in Puerto Rico, water is preferred: they believe that dumping a bucket of water out the window drives away evil spirits.
In other South American countries, such as Mexico, Bolivia and Brazil, people’s fortunes for the year ahead are all decided by the colour of their underpants! On New Year’s Eve, they must wear red to find love; yellow if they want to get rich; or white if they’d like some peace and quiet!
But it’s grapes which represent good luck for people in Spain. According to the travel website Atlas Obscura: "Eating one grape at each of midnight’s 12 clock chimes guarantees you a lucky year — but only if you simultaneously ruminate on their significance. (Each grape represents an upcoming month.) If you fail to conscientiously finish your grapes by the time the clock stops chiming, you’ll face misfortune in the new year."
In Denmark, people stand on their chairs and "leap" into January at midnight to bring good luck and banish bad spirits.
In Germany and Austria, people give gifts of lucky tokens to friends and family to bring them good fortune. These include pigs, mushrooms, clovers and chimney sweeps! They can be bought at Christmas markets, and include edible versions made from marzipan.
I found it interesting to research all these very different traditions, customs and superstitions – but I’m sure you will notice that they do have one element in common: a belief that what you do on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day will affect the year ahead, for good or for bad.
So, whether it’s first-footing, a fire festival or banging the Christmas bread, however you celebrate or mark the occasion, all of us at Free UK Genealogy would like to wish you good luck – and a very Happy New Year!
In our series of blogs on ‘dating photography from fashion’, we have reached the 1920s.
The conclusion of World War 1 and the Spanish Flu pandemic meant this was a decade of relative economic prosperity. Social customs and morals were relaxed in a wave of optimism, and women were entering the workforce in record numbers.
Reflecting the era’s social, artistic and cultural dynamism, the decade is known as the 'Roaring Twenties'. Jazz music sparked the need to dance, and dance sparked the need for appropriate clothing – particularly for women. Men also abandoned highly formal daily attire and even began to wear athletic clothing for the first time. Children’s clothes became more stylish and comfortable, too.
Great strides were also made in terms of photography and cameras in the 1920s. Single lens reflex (SLR) technology enabled the photographer to view an image as it will appear on film before the shot is taken. Kodak created many widely used pieces of photographic equipment and, in 1927, General Electric invented the modern flash bulb. As a result, many family historians have a comprehensive record of this decade. Of course, this was also the decade of the first motion pictures.
So, let’s take a closer look at the fashions.
In this decade, the development of new fabrics such as rayon (a silk substitute) and new means of fastening clothing (metal hooks and eyes) had an impact on women’s fashion. And the use of mannequins became widespread, showing shoppers how to combine and accessorise the new fashions – which were all about ‘letting loose’.
Day dresses had a dropped waist and a pleated or tiered skirt that hung anywhere from the ankle up to the knee, with sleeves that were long to mid-bicep. Hair was often bobbed, giving a boyish look, and the Cloche hat was a key accessory, sitting snugly over the new hairstyle. Take this image of my great aunt Irene. From the above description, it’s easy to name the decade. (It was actually taken in 1927, and the dog’s name is ‘Chum’, according to my grandmother’s pencilled note on the back!)
Shorter skirts meant that shoes were finally visible – and women needed different shoes for different events, giving rise to the shoe market as we know it today. The ‘bar’ shoe, which fastened with a strap and a single button, was particularly popular for dancing.
For evening wear, the term "cocktail dress" was coined, which was typically slightly longer than the day dress, in satin or velvet, and embellished with beads or a fringe. And makeup became popular for women, particularly for evenings and events, where the look was a smokey eye with long lashes, rosy cheeks and a bold lip – no doubt as a result of the first ‘walkie, talkie’ films. Both women and men looked to emulate movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino as their fashion icons.
The suits men wear today are still based on those worn in the late 1920s. The early part of the decade was characterised by extremely high-waisted jackets, often worn with belts. Lapels on suit jackets were not very wide as they tended to be buttoned up high. Trousers were relatively narrow and straight, worn rather short and sometimes cuffed at the bottom. By 1925, however, wider trousers commonly known as ‘Oxford bags’ came into fashion (as sported by my grandfather in the photograph below), while suit jackets returned to a normal waist and lapels became wider and were often worn peaked.
For formal occasions in the daytime, a morning suit was usually worn, but the short tuxedo was preferred for evening wear. Sporting clothes included sweaters and short trousers.
Men's hats were usually worn depending on their class: a top hat or homburg hat for the upper classes; and a fedora, bowler or trilby hat for the middle classes. During the summer months, a straw boater was popular for both. Working-class men wore a standard flat cap, all year round.
Fashion for children started to become more stylish and comfortable in the 1920s. Clothes were made out of cotton and wool rather than silk, lace, and velvet. Clothes were also made more sturdy to withstand play, and minimal layers became the new standard.
Dresses and skirts for girls became looser and shorter (knee length), and shoes were made out of canvas, making them lighter and easier to wear. For boys, knee-length trousers were worn all year long, accompanied by ankle socks and canvas shoes, with pullovers and cardigans when the weather turned cold.
Next time, we’ll look at the 1930s: a decade in which the fashions of the late 1920s lingered, but were then impacted by the Great Depression, leading to more conservative styles.
In our series of blogs on ‘dating photography from fashion’, we have reached the 1910s. This decade can be divided into two main periods: before the war and during the war.
The war in question was World War I, of course; but let’s focus on the fashion...
At the start of the decade for women’s fashion, the S-curve of the 1900s softened, although it was still focused on the top half of the body. As the decade progressed, the straight skirts of the earlier years of the 20th century started to taper in at the bottom. Some of these were so tight it made it difficult for the wearer to walk! They were often worn with tunics or jackets over the top.
Other than this there were some new fashions that came into being – one of which was wide-brimmed, stylish hats. These were embellished with feathers, ribbons, veils or other decorative features.
Women’s boots with high, curved heels resembling men’s church shoes, but in a feminine style, became popular. They commonly had a rounder shape, or bows, with slimmer heels. In the evening, women often wore shoes with small heels, or slippers, similar to court shoes.
The fashion designer Paul Poiret introduced a playful side to fashion in the USA, and he also credits himself with getting rid of the corset (however, other designers were moving in that direction, too). This meant that clothes started to fit the contours of the female body more naturally.
In the UK, corsets were still worn but they became longer and less restrictive. Part of this was due to women becoming more aware of the effect of their clothes on their health. Feminism also started to influence fashion with men supporting women in developing less restrictive clothing. Women started entering professions and adapted men’s work-clothes as part of this process.
Men’s fashion was similar to that of the previous decade. Trousers were becoming narrower and shorter, with creases down the front and turn-ups starting to appear. This was possible due to the invention of the trouser-press in the mid-1890s.
From 1914 until the end of the decade, men were most often photographed in military uniform but during this time the trench coat also became popular (fashionable is probably not the right word). As the name suggests, the coat was named after the trenches of the First World War. A water-resistant, khaki coloured coat that was lighter than the official coat issued by the British Army, it kept the wearer warm and dry. It was worn by women, as well as men, during the war. After the war, the trench coat became popular as everyday wear, particularly in the USA.
In this decade the constraints of the war led to material rationing. This meant the smock dresses, which had been popular for young girls since the 1890s, became shorter and less embellished. Many girls wore light-coloured, dropped-waist dresses. One effect of this was that girls looked less like small women. This trend was similar for boys too with school uniforms appearing and shorts rather than trousers becoming popular for younger boys (being a more practical type of dress). Teenagers started dressing like adults.
For younger children knitted fabrics were popular. They were comfortable, stretchy, easy-to-make and gave greater freedom of movement than other types of fabric.