Traditions from Christmas Eves past

With the most wonderful time of the year almost upon us, we thought it was time to bring The Larger Dumpy Books for Children: Holidays and Happy Days (1901) out for a read. We hope you enjoy the following extract from the book, which offers a fascinating insight into the Christmas Eves of times gone by. 

Of all nights of the year there is not one that is more anxiously awaited by young people than the night that precedes Christmas. Then begins the great festival of the year; the festival in honour of the birth of Christ; the festival that reminds us of the Child born in a manger, of the shepherds near Bethlehem watching their flocks by night, and of the angels that sang of peace and goodwill to men.

It is the most joyous of all holiday seasons; prepared for long before and remembered pleasantly long afterwards. This is true of England to-day, and it was even more true of the England of the olden times – as you will find if you read Sir Walter Scott’s poem of Marmion:

“England was merry England, when

Old Christmas brought his sports again.

‘Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale;

“Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;

A Christmas gambol oft would cheer

The poor man’s heart through half the year.”

At midnight on Christmas Eve the bells are rung, and in Roman Catholic churches the first of the three masses [are] celebrated, Christ’s masses.

But although this is a Christian festival there are curious customs observed which take us back into the old heathen world. There is the mistletoe bough, for instance, which you hang up in the hall; and there is the Yule log. The old Druids had a feast at this season—the time of the winter solstice—when the chief Druid cut the mistletoe from the oak-tree, where it grew, and divided it among the people, who hung it up over their doorways as a charm to bring good-fortune.

Then, again, the Yule log is a relic of the ceremony in which the Norsemen lighted great bonfires in honour of their gods. To bring home the Yule log on Christmas Eve is not so common as it used to be, but it deserves to be remembered as one of the most joyous of old English customs.

So, also, are the carols, the waits, the mummers, and the games of Christmas time. Some of these games and mummeries were a little too boisterous for our modern taste, probably because they had their origin in the heathen Saturnalia of old Rome. But we still love to hear the waits tuning up on a clear frosty night, the game of snap-dragon is still a noisy joy, and the carol-singers are still welcome.

I am sure you like that old carol which begins:

“God rest you merry, gentlemen,

Let nothing you dismay

For Jesus Christ our Saviour

Was born upon this day

To save us all from Satan’s power

When we were gone astray.”

But probably the best thing you children like about Christmas Eve is the ceremony of hanging up your stockings in expectation of all the things that are to come to you from the wallet of Santa Claus. That is the great event. Some of you, I believe, try to lie awake until Santa Claus comes with the fruit and the toys. But that is never a success. All the best gifts come to us when we do not peep and watch.