Christmas Customs


A writer in the People's Magazine remarks:

There are some customs peculiar to Christmas Eve, that busy time both in the church and private households, which ought not to be passed over in silence.
A very pretty superstition-if superstitions can be called pretty-seems to have had its origin with medieval painters.  In their pictures of the Nativity they were prone to represent the oxen in the stall, near the Blessed Virgin and Holy Child, upon their knees in a suppliant posture.  From this, it is inferred, came the superstitution alluded to.  Many old people in the last century used to assert that at twelve o'clock at night on Christmas Eve-and what is still singular, since the introduction of the new style it is said that the same is only to be witnessed on the eve of old Christmas Day-this adoration of the oxen was seen by many.  A countryman living on St. Stephen;s Down, near Lauceston, in Cornwall, informed Brand, the antiquary, on October 28, 1790, that he once, with some others, watched and saw the two oldest oxen fall upon their knees on a Christmas Eve at twelve o;clock at night, and  "make a cruel moan like Christians."  Upon which relation Brand says, "I could not but with great difficulty keep my countenance; he saw this, and seemed angry I gave so little credit to his tale, and, walking off in a pettish humour, seemed to marvel at my unbelief."  Christmas Eve is generally devoted to decking the church and private houses with evergreens, and as before cited, the custom is a very ancient one. 

Stowe tells in his "Survey," "Against the feast of Christmas every man's house, as also the parish churches, was decked with holy, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green. "  Gossiping old Aubrey states that in several portions of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, particularly in the neighbourhood of Launton, it was the regular custom for the maid-servant to ask the man-servant for ivy, to dress the house, and if he neglected or refused to supply her, she stole away a pair of his small clothes, and nailed them to the gate nearest the highway. 

In Wiltshire a similar custom prevailed, but the punishment was effectual, for no such churl as he who would not bring in evergreens, was allowed to kiss any women under the mistletoe that Christmas .  Holly, bay, rosemary and ivy  were the principal evergreens used but although the dwellers in towns preferred holly, the rural population steadily stuck to ivy.  Of late years much discussion has been raised as to whether the mistletoe was allowed to be included in decorating churches, and the majority of those who have considered the subject have pronounced against it.  However, up to the middle of the last century it is indisputable that mistletoe was regularly placed upon the altar at Christmas in York Minster; but whether that was a local usage, derived most likely from the Culdees, who held their meetings in the crypt, or whether it was general, cannot now be decided by what may have been exceptional.