Britain has a weird and wonderful past, in which festive celebrations play a big part.
We’ve dipped into the history books and discovered 10 of the UK’s most unusual Christmas traditions, facts and superstitions, from mistletoe and pies to barrel-burning festivals.
On average, one Christmas tree houses some 30,000 insects ©Getty
World’s Oldest Christmas Tree?
Wrest Park in Bedfordshire might be the site of the world’s oldest surviving Christmas tree. Planted in 1856 by Thomas de Grey, the tree was brought into the mansion every year and decorated for the family’s festivities, and then re-planted in the park once the holiday was over. Eventually the tree grew too big to be moved and now stays out in the park all year round, but English Heritage (who own the site) have this year revived the tradition of decorating it.
Mari Lwyd is a Welsh tradition that had almost died out, but is now being revived by students at the University of Wales. The tradition consists of a model horse’s skull being carried from door-to door on a pole by a young man, accompanied by his friends; Sergeant, Merryman, Punch and Judy. At each house the team recites a series of ‘impromptu’ verses begging admittance, while the occupants refuse (also in verse). Once the visitors inevitably win the contest and gain admittance, the Mari chases the young ladies, Judy pretends to clean the house and Punch engages in all kinds of mischief until they are offered food and drink to pacify them. Once they have feasted they go to the next house and begin all over again.
Even some of our most established traditions have unusual origins. In 1843 John Calcott Horsley sent the first printed Christmas card for his friend, Sir Henry Cole. The card caused some controversy at the time because it depicted a small child drinking wine, but in spite of this the idea of sending festive cards soon caught on. One of 12 surviving cards from the original print run, sent by Henry Cole to his grandmother, was sold for £20,000 in 2001.
Who ate all the pies?
Traditional homemade mince pies with candy canes and star anis and cinnamon sticks © Getty
For good luck it is recommended to eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. Tradition states that anyone who refuses one of their twelve pies will suffer a year of misfortune (you have been warned!). Treat your friends and family to a hot mince pie this Christmas with this easy recipe.
In England the Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551 stated that every citizen must attend a church service on Christmas Day, and must not use any kind of vehicle to get to the service. It is unclear whether this law was designed to remind the wealthy of those less fortunate by forcing them to attend on foot, or whether it was simply an effort to avoid traffic jams as a result of universal attendance. As this act has not yet been repealed there must be a large number of us who are breaking the law every 25th of December!
Tarred and feathered
In the Victorian era birds raised in East Anglia were often herded along Drovers’ roads to London, to be sold fresh in time for Christmas. Daniel Defoe recorded that 150,000 turkeys were driven from East Anglia to London each year, a journey that took three months to complete. To protect their feet turkeys were fitted with leather or sacking boots, while geese had theirs tarred and sanded.
In London itself, many working-class citizens banded together to form ‘goose clubs’ as a way to make the Christmas meal more affordable. Each individual paid a few pence a week towards the purchase, which was then shared out between them.
Evergreen semi-parasitic shrub in the family Santalaceae, growing on hawthorn ©Getty
Before it became a romantic symbol, Mistletoe was considered so sacred in ancient Britain that it could only be cut by druids with a golden sickle. The plant had connotations of peace, and people who met underneath it were forbidden from fighting, even if they were bitter enemies. Homes decorated with mistletoe offered shelter and protection to anyone who entered. Five facts about mistletoe.
For those who don’t find December cold enough for their liking, there is always the option of a bracing 100-yard swim in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake on Christmas morning (temperatures usually below 4ºC!). This tradition dates back to 1864, but in 1904 playwright J.M Barrie donated a prize cup, and the event has been known as the ‘Peter Pan Swim’ ever since. (Participation in the race is only open to members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, but there is no charge to spectate.)
If you need to warm up after that icy swim, then head up to Allendale in Northumberland on New Years Eve to take part in the Tar Barl (Barrel) festival. The origins of the festival are unclear, but today locals and visitors alike (men only, unfortunately) parade through the streets in fancy dress, carrying barrels of flaming tar on their heads. After processing round the village they return to the square at midnight and throw their barrels onto the waiting bonfire to ignite it, and welcome in the new year in style. (Northumberland Fire and Rescue are on standby, just in case.)
Rewarding the plough
Last but not least for all the farmers out there: don’t forget to bring your plough inside and put it under the dining table as a way of marking the holiday season. You can also pour beer over the plough as a reward for all its hard work.