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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, [1912], at



Prominence of Eating in the English Christmas—The Boar's Head, the Goose, and other Christmas Fare—Frumenty, Sowens, Yule Cakes, and the Wassail Bowl—Continental Christmas Dishes, their Possible Origins—French and German Cakes—The Animals’ Christmas Feast—Cakes in Eastern Europe—Relics of Animal Sacrifice—Hunting the Wren—Various Games of Sacrificial Origin.

Feasting Customs.

In the mind of the average sensual Englishman perhaps the most vivid images called up by the word Christmas are those connected with eating and drinking. “Ha più da fare che i forni di Natale in Inghilterra,” 108 an Italian proverb used of a very busy person, sufficiently suggests the character of our Christmas. 109 It may be that the Christmas dinner looms larger among the English than among most other peoples, but in every country a distinctive meal of some kind is associated with the season. We have already seen how this illustrates the immemorial connection between material feasting and religious rejoicing.

Let us note some forms of “Christmas fare” and try to get an idea of their origin. First we may look at English feasting customs, though, as they have been pretty fully described by p. 284 previous writers, no very elaborate account of them need be given.

The gross eating and drinking in former days at Christmas, of which our present mild gluttony is but a pale reflection, would seem to be connected with the old November feast, though transferred to the season hallowed by Christ's birth. The show of slaughtered beasts, adorned with green garlands, in an English town just before Christmas, reminds one strongly of the old November killing. In displays of this kind the pig's head is specially conspicuous, and points to the time when the swine was a favourite sacrificial animal. 13-1 We may recall here the traditional carol sung at Queen's College, Oxford, as the boar's head is solemnly brought in at Christmas, and found elsewhere in other forms:—

“The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary;
And I pray you, my masters, be merry,
Quot estis in convivio.
Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino. ” 13-2

The Christmas bird provided by the familiar “goose club” may be compared with the German Martinmas goose. The more luxurious turkey must be relatively an innovation, for that bird seems not to have been introduced into England until the sixteenth century. 13-3

Cakes and pies, partly or wholly of vegetable origin, are, of course, as conspicuous at the English Christmas as animal food. The peculiar “luckiness” attached to some of them (as when mince-pies, eaten in different houses during the Twelve Days, bring a happy month each) makes one suspect some more serious original purpose than mere gratification of the appetite. A sacrificial or sacramental origin is probable, at least in certain cases; a cake made of flour, for instance, may well have been regarded as embodying the spirit immanent in the corn. 13-4 Whether any mystic significance ever belonged to the plum-pudding it is hard to say, though the sprig of holly stuck into its p. 285 top recalls the lucky green boughs we have so often come across, and a resemblance to the libations upon the Christmas log might be seen in the burning brandy.

A dish once prominent at Christmas was “frumenty” or “furmety” (variously spelt, and derived from the Latin frumentum, corn). It was made of hulled wheat boiled in milk and seasoned with cinnamon, sugar, &c. 13-5 This too may have been a cereal sacrament. In Yorkshire it was the first thing eaten on Christmas morning, just as ale posset was the last thing drunk on Christmas Eve. Ale posset was a mixture of beer and milk, and each member of the family in turn had to take a “sup,” as also a piece of a large apple-pie. 13-6

In the Highlands of Scotland, among those who observed Christmas, a characteristic dish was new sowens (the husks and siftings of oatmeal), given to the family early on Christmas Day in their beds. They were boiled into the consistence of molasses and were poured into as many bickers as there were people to partake of them. Everyone on despatching his bicker jumped out of bed. 13-7 Here, as in the case of the Yorkshire frumenty, the eating has a distinctly ceremonial character.

In the East Riding of Yorkshire a special Yule cake was eaten on Christmas Eve, “made of flour, barm, large cooking raisins, currants, lemon-peel, and nutmeg,” and about as large as a dinner-plate. 13-8 In Shropshire “wigs” or caraway buns dipped in ale were eaten on Christmas Eve. 13-9 Again elsewhere there were Yule Doughs or Dows, little images of paste, presented by bakers to their customers. 13-10 We shall see plenty of parallels to these on the Continent. When they are in animal or even human form they may in some cases have taken the place of actual sacrificial victims. 13-11

In Nottinghamshire the Christmas cake was associated with the wassail-bowl in a manner which may be compared with the Macedonian custom described later; it was broken up and put into the bowl, hot ale was poured over it, and so it was eaten. 13-12

The wassail-bowl—one cannot leave the subject of English Yuletide feasting without a few words upon this beloved beaker of hot spiced ale and toasted apples (“lambswool”). Wassail is p. 286 derived from the Anglo-Saxon wes hál = be whole, and wassailing is in its essence the wishing of a person's very good health. The origin of drinking healths is not obvious; perhaps it may be sacramental: the draught may have been at first a means of communion with some divinity, and then its consumption may have come to be regarded not only as benefiting the partaker, but as a rite that could be performed for the welfare of another person. Apart from such speculations, we may note the frequent mention of wassailing in old English carols of the less ecclesiastical type; the singers carried with them a bowl or cup which they expected their wealthier neighbours to fill with drink. 13-13 Sometimes the bowl was adorned with ribbons and had a golden apple at the top, 13-14 and it is a noteworthy fact that the box with the Christmas images, mentioned in Chapter IV. (p.  118), is sometimes called “the Vessel [Wassail] Cup.” 13-15

The various Christmas dishes of Europe would form an interesting subject for exhaustive study. To suggest a religious origin for each would be going too far, for merely economic considerations must have had much to do with the matter, but it is very probable that in some cases they are relics of sacrifices or sacraments.

The pig is a favourite food animal at Christmas in other countries than our own, a fact probably connected with sacrificial customs. In Denmark and Sweden a pig's head was one of the principal articles of the great Christmas Eve repast. 13-16 In Germany it is a fairly widespread custom to kill a pig shortly before Christmas and partake of it on Christmas Day; its entrails and bones and the straw which has been in contact with it are supposed to have fertilizing powers. 13-17 In Roumania a pig is the Christmas animal par excellence, 13-18 in Russia pigs’ trotters are a favourite dish at the New Year, 13-19 and in every Servian house roast pig is the principal Christmas dish. 13-20

In Upper Bavaria there is a custom which almost certainly has at its root a sacrifice: a number of poor people club together at Christmas-time and buy a cow to be killed and eaten at a common feast. 13-21

More doubtful is the sacrificial origin of the dishes of certain p. 287 special kinds of fish on Christmas Eve. In Saxony and Thuringia herring salad is eaten—he who bakes it will have money all the year—and in many parts of Germany and also in Styria carp is then consumed. 13-22 Round Ercé in Brittany the family dish is cod. 13-23 In Italy the cenone or great supper held on Christmas Eve has fish for its animal basis, and stewed eels are particularly popular. It is to be remembered that in Catholic countries the Vigil of the Nativity is a fast, and meat is not allowed upon it; this alone would account for the prominence of fish on Christmas Eve.

We have already come across peculiar cakes eaten at various pre-Christmas festivals; at Christmas itself special kinds of bread, pastry, and cakes abound on the Continent, and in some cases at least may have a religious origin.

In France various sorts of cakes and loaves are known at the season of Noël. In Berry on Christmas morning loaves called cornabœux, made in the shape of horns or a crescent, are distributed to the poor. In Lorraine people give one another cognés or cogneux, a kind of pastry in the shape of two crescents back to back, or else long and narrow in form and with a crescent at either end. In some parts of France the cornabœux are known as hôlais, and ploughmen give to the poor as many of these loaves as they possess oxen and horses. 13-24 These horns may be substitutes for a sacrifice of oxen.

Sometimes the French Christmas cakes have the form of complete oxen or horses—such were the thin unleavened cakes sold in the early nineteenth century at La Châtre (Indre). In the neighbourhood of Chartres there are cochenilles and coquelins in animal and human shapes. Little cakes called naulets are sold by French bakers, and actually represent the Holy Child. With them may be compared the coignoles of French Flanders, cakes of oblong form adorned with the figure of the infant Jesus in sugar. 13-25 Sometimes the Christmas loaf or cake in France has healing properties; a certain kind of cake in Berry and Limousin is kept all through the year, and a piece eaten in sickness has marvellous powers. 13-26

Cortet gives an extraordinary account of a French custom p. 288 connected with eating and drinking. At Mouthe (Doubs) there used to be brought to the church at Christmas pies, cakes, and other eatables, and wine of the best. They were called the “De fructu,” and when at Vespers the verse “De fructu ventris tui ponam super sedem tuam” was reached, all the congregation made a rush for these refreshments, contended for them, and carried them off with singing and shouting. 13-27

The most remarkable of Christmas cakes or loaves is the Swedish and Danish “Yule Boar,” a loaf in the form of a boar-pig, which stands on the table throughout the festal season. It is often made from the corn of the last sheaf of the harvest, and in it Dr. Frazer finds a clear expression of the idea of the corn-spirit as embodied in pig form. “Often it is kept till sowing-time in spring, when part of it is mixed with the seed corn and part given to the ploughman and plough-horses or plough-oxen to eat, in the expectation of a good harvest.” In some parts of the Esthonian island of Oesel the cake has not the form of a boar, but bears the same name, and on New Year's Day is given to the cattle. In other parts of the island the “Yule Boar” is actually a little pig, roasted on Christmas Eve and set up on the table. 13-28

In Germany, besides stollen—a sort of plum-loaf—biscuits, often of animal or human shape, are very conspicuous on Christmas Eve. Any one who has witnessed a German Christmas will remember the extraordinary variety of them, lebkuchen, pfeffernüsse, printen, spekulatius biscuits, &c. In Berlin a great pile of biscuits heaped up on your plate is an important part of the Christmas Eve supper. These of course are nowadays mere luxuries, but they may well have had some sort of sacrificial origin. An admirable and exhaustive study of Teutonic Christmas cakes and biscuits has been made, with infinite pains, by an Austrian professor, Dr. Höfler, who reproduces some curious old biscuits, stamped with highly artistic patterns, preserved in museums. 13-29

Among unsophisticated German peasants there is a belief in magical powers possessed by bread baked at Christmas, particularly when moistened by Christmas dew. (This dew is held to be peculiarly sacred, perhaps on account of the words “Rorate, coeli, p. 289 desuper” used at the Advent Masses.) In Franconia such bread, thrown into a dangerous fire, stills the flames; in the north of Germany, if put during the Twelve Days into the fodder of the cattle, it makes them prolific and healthy throughout the year. 13-30

It is pleasant to note that animals are often specially cared for at Christmas. Up till the early nineteenth century the cattle in Shropshire were always better fed at Christmas than at other times, and Miss Burne tells of an old gentleman in Cheshire who used then to give his poultry a double portion of grain, for, he said, “all creation should rejoice at Christmas, and the dumb creatures had no other manner of doing so.” 13-31 The saying reminds one of that lover of Christmas and the animals, St. Francis of Assisi. It will be remembered how he wished that oxen and asses should have extra corn and hay at Christmas, “for reverence of the Son of God, whom on such a night the most Blessed Virgin Mary did lay down in the stall betwixt the ox and the ass.” 13-32 It was a gracious thought, and no doubt with St. Francis, as with the old Cheshireman, it was a purely Christian one; very possibly, however, the original object of such attention to the dumb creatures was to bring to the animals, by means of the corn, the influence of the spirit of fertility.

In Silesia on Christmas night all the beasts are given wheat to make them thrive, and it is believed that if wheat be kept in the pocket during the Christmas service and then given to fowls, it will make them grow fat and lay many eggs. 13-33 In Sweden on Christmas Eve the cattle are given the best forage the house can afford, and afterwards a mess of all the viands of which their masters have partaken; the horses are given the choicest hay and, later on, ale; and the other animals are treated to good things. 13-34

At Loblang in Hungary the last sheaf at harvest is kept, and given on New Year's morning to the wild birds. 13-35 In southern Germany corn is put on the roof for them on Christmas Eve, or, 13-36 as also in Sweden, 13-37 an unthreshed sheaf is set on a pole. In these cases it is possible that the food was originally an offering to ancestral or other spirits.

Revenons à nos gâteaux. In Rome and elsewhere in Italy an important article of Christmas food is the panettone, a currant loaf. p. 290 Such loaves are sent as presents to friends. In eastern Europe, too, Christmas loaves or cakes are very conspicuous. The chesnitza and kolatch cakes among the southern Slavs are flat and wheel-like, with a circular hole in the middle and a number of lines radiating from it. In the central hole is sometimes placed a lighted taper or a small Christmas-tree hung with ribbons, tinsel, and sweetmeats. These cakes, made with elaborate ceremonial early in the morning, are solemnly broken by the house-father on Christmas Day, and a small piece is eaten by each member of the family. In some places one is fixed on the horn of the “eldest ox,” and if he throws it off it is a good sign. 13-38 The last practice may be compared with a Herefordshire custom which we shall meet with on Twelfth Night (p.  346).

In southern Greece a special kind of flat loaves with a cross on the top is made on Christmas Eve. The name given is “Christ's Loaves.” “The cloth is not removed from the table; but everything is left as it is in the belief that ‘Christ will come and eat’ during the night.” 13-39 Probably Christ has here taken the place of ancestral spirits.

In Tyrol peasants eat at Christmastide the so-called zelten, a kind of pie filled with dried pear-slices, nuts, figs, raisins, and the like. It is baked on the Eve of St. Thomas, and its filling is as important an event for the whole family as was the plum-pudding and mincemeat making in old-fashioned English households. When the zelten is filled the sign of the cross is made upon it and it is sprinkled with holy water and put in the oven. When baked and cooled, it is laid in the family stock of rye and is not eaten until St. Stephen's Day or Epiphany. Its cutting by the father of the family is a matter of considerable solemnity. Smaller pies are made at the same time for the maid-servants, and a curious custom is connected with them. It is usual for the maids to visit their relations during the Christmas holidays and share with them their zelten. A young man who wishes to be engaged to a maid should offer to carry her pie for her. This is his declaration of love, and if she accepts the offer she signifies her approval of him. To him falls the duty or privilege of cutting the zelten. 13-40

p. 291 Other cake customs are associated with the Epiphany, and will be considered in connection with that festival. We may here in conclusion notice a few further articles of Christmas good cheer.

In Italy and Spain 13-41 a sort of nougat known as torrone or turron is eaten at Christmas. You may buy it even in London in the Italian quarter; in Eyre Street Hill it is sold on Christmas Eve on little gaily-decked street stalls. Its use may well be a survival of the Roman custom of giving sweet things at the Kalends in order that the year might be full of sweetness.

Some Little Russian feasting customs are probably pagan in origin, but have received a curious Christian interpretation. All Little Russians sit down to honey and porridge on Christmas Eve. They call it koutia, and cherish the custom as something that distinguishes them from Great and White Russians. Each dish is said to represent the Holy Crib. First porridge is put in, which is like putting straw in the manger; then each person helps himself to honey and fruit, and that symbolizes the Babe. A place is made in the porridge, and then the honey and fruit are poured in; the fruit stands for the body, the honey for the spirit or the blood. 13-42

Something like this is the special dish eaten in every Roumanian peasant household on Christmas Eve—the turte. It is made up of a pile of thin dry leaves of dough, with melted sugar or honey, or powdered walnut, or the juice of the hemp-seed. The turte are traditionally said to represent the swaddling clothes of the Holy Child. 13-43

In Poland a few weeks before Christmas monks bring round small packages of wafers made of flour and water, blessed by a priest, and with figures stamped upon them. No Polish family is without these oplatki; they are sent in letters to relations and friends, as we send Christmas cards. When the first star appears on Christmas Eve the whole family, beginning with the eldest member, break one of these wafers between themselves, at the same time exchanging good wishes. Afterwards the master and mistress go to the servants’ quarters to divide the wafer there. 13-44

p. 292 Relics of Sacrifice.

We have noted a connection, partial at least, between Christmas good cheer and sacrifice; let us now glance at a few customs of a different character but seemingly of sacrificial origin.

Traces of sacrifices of cats and dogs are to be found in Germany and Bohemia. In Lauenburg and Mecklenburg on Christmas morning, before the cattle are watered, a dog is thrown into their drinking water, in order that they may not suffer from the mange. In the Uckermark a cat may be substituted for the dog. In Bohemia a black cat is caught, boiled, and buried by night under a tree, to keep evil spirits from injuring the fields. 13-45

A strange Christmas custom is the “hunting of the wren,” once widespread in England and France and still practised in Ireland. In the Isle of Man very early on Christmas morning, when the church bells had rung out midnight, servants went out to hunt the wren. They killed the bird, fastened it to the top of a long pole, and carried it in procession to every house, chanting these words:—

“We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can,
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for every one.”

At each house they sought to collect money. At last, when all had been visited, they laid the wren on a bier, carried it to the churchyard, and buried it with the utmost solemnity, singing Manx dirges. Another account, from the mid-nineteenth century, describes how on St. Stephen's Day Manx boys went from door to door with a wren suspended by the legs in the centre of two hoops crossing one another at right angles and decorated with evergreens and ribbons. In exchange for a small coin they would give a feather of the wren, which was carefully kept as a preservative against shipwreck during the year. 110 13-46 p. 293 There are also traces of a Manx custom of boiling and eating the bird. 13-48

The wren is popularly called “the king of birds,” and it is supposed to be highly unlucky to kill one at ordinary times. Probably it was once regarded as sacred, and the Christmas “hunting” is the survival of an annual custom of slaying the divine animal, such as is found among primitive peoples. 13-49 The carrying of its body from door to door is apparently intended to convey to each house a portion of its virtues, while the actual eating of the bird would be a sort of communion feast. Perhaps the custom, in a Cornish village, of eating blackbird pie on Twelfth Day should be explained in the same way. 13-50

I can here hardly do more than allude to the many games 13-51 that were traditional in England at Christmas—hoodman-blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, snap-dragon, and the rest. To attempt to describe and explain them would lead me too far, but it is highly probable that some at least might be traced to an origin in sacrificial ritual. The degeneration of religious rites into mere play is, indeed, as we have seen, a process illustrated by the whole history of Christmas.

Only two British Christmas games can be discussed in this book: blindman's buff and football. An account of a remarkable Christmas football match will be found in the chapter on Epiphany customs, where it is brought into connection with that closely related game, the “Haxey hood.”

As for blindman's buff, it is distinctly a Christmas sport, and it is known nearly all over Europe by names derived from animals, e.g., “blind cow” and “blind mouse.” Mr. N. W. Thomas has suggested that “the explanation of these names is that the players originally wore masks; the game is known in some cases as the ‘blinde Mumm,’ or blind mask.... The player who is ‘it’ seems to be the sacrificer; he bears the same name as the victim, just as in agricultural customs the reaper of the last corn bears the same name as the last sheaf.” 13-52

The Scandinavian countries are very rich in Christmas games and dances, 13-53 of which it would be interesting to attempt explanations if space allowed. One Swedish song and dance game—it p. 294 may be related to the sword-dance (see  XIII)—is obviously sacrificial. Several youths, with blackened faces and persons disguised, are the performers. One of them is put to death with a knife by a woman in hideous attire. Afterwards, with gross gestures, she dances with the victim. 13-54 According to another account, from Gothland, the victim sits clad in a skin, holding in his mouth a wisp of straw cut sharp at the ends and standing out. It has been conjectured that this is meant to resemble a swine's bristles, and that the man represents a hog sacrificed to Frey. 13-55

Lastly a Russian game may be mentioned, though it has no sacrificial suggestion. During the Christmas season girls play at what is called “the Burial of the Gold.” They form a circle, with one girl standing in the centre, and pass from hand to hand a gold ring, which the maiden inside tries to detect. Meanwhile a song is sung, “Gold I bury, gold I bury.” Some imaginative mythologists interpret the ring as representing the sun, buried by the clouds of winter. 13-56

p. 295 p. 296 p. 297 

Next: Chapter XIII. Masking, the Mummers' Play, the Feast of Fools, and the Boy Bishop