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



The Twelfth Cake and the “King of the Bean”—French Twelfth Night Customs—St. Basil's Cake in Macedonia—Epiphany and the Expulsion of Evils—The Befana in Italy—The Magi as Present-bringers—Greek Epiphany Customs—Wassailing Fruit-trees—Herefordshire and Irish Twelfth Night Practices—The “Haxey Hood” and Christmas Football—St. Knut's Day in Sweden—Rock Day—Plough Monday—Candlemas, its Ecclesiastical and Folk Ceremonies—Farewells to Christmas.

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The Epiphany.

Though the Epiphany has ceased to be a popular festival in England, it was once a very high day indeed, and in many parts of Europe it is still attended by folk-customs of great interest. 116 For the peasant of Tyrol, indeed, it is New Year's Day, the first of January being kept only by the townsfolk and modernized people. 17-1

To Englishmen perhaps the best known feature of the secular festival is the Twelfth Cake. Some words of Leigh Hunt's will show what an important place this held in the mid-nineteenth century:—

“Christmas goes out in fine style,—with Twelfth Night. It is a finish worthy of the time. Christmas Day was the morning of the season; New Year's Day the middle of it, or noon; Twelfth Night is the night, brilliant with innumerable planets of Twelfth-cakes. The whole island keeps court; nay, all Christendom. All the world are p. 338 kings and queens. Everybody is somebody else, and learns at once to laugh at, and to tolerate, characters different from his own, by enacting them. Cakes, characters, forfeits, lights, theatres, merry rooms, little holiday-faces, and, last not least, the painted sugar on the cakes, so bad to eat but so fine to look at, useful because it is perfectly useless except for a sight and a moral—all conspire to throw a giddy splendour over the last night of the season, and to send it to bed in pomp and colours, like a Prince.” 17-2

For seventeenth-century banqueting customs and the connection of the cake with the “King of the Bean” Herrick may be quoted:—

“Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean's the king of the sport here;
Besides we must know,
The pea also
Must revel as queen in the court here.
Begin then to choose
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here
Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg'd will not drink,
To the base from the brink,
A health to the king and the queen here.” 17-3

There are many English references to the custom of electing a Twelfth Day monarch by means of a bean or pea, and this “king” is mentioned in royal accounts as early as the reign of Edward II. 17-4 He appears, however, to have been even more popular in France than in England.

p. 339 The method of choosing the Epiphany king is thus described by the sixteenth-century writer, Étienne Pasquier:—

“When the cake has been cut into as many portions as there are guests, a small child is put under the table, and is interrogated by the master under the name of Phebé [Phoebus], as if he were a child who in the innocence of his age represented a kind of Apollo's oracle. To this questioning the child answers with a Latin word: Domine. Thereupon the master calls on him to say to whom he shall give the piece of cake which he has in his hand: the child names whoever comes into his head, without respect of persons, until the portion where the bean is given out. He who gets it is reckoned king of the company, although he may be a person of the least importance. This done, everyone eats, drinks, and dances heartily.” 17-5

In Berry at the end of the festive repast a cake is brought before the head of the household, and divided into as many portions as there are guests, plus one. The youngest member of the family distributes them. The portion remaining is called la part du bon Dieu and is given to the first person who asks for it. A band of children generally come to claim it, with a leader who sings a little song. 17-6 There was formerly a custom of dressing up a king in full robes. He had a fool to amuse him during the feast, and shots were fired when he drank. 17-7

Here is a nineteenth-century account from Lorraine:—

“On the Vigil of the Epiphany all the family and the guests assemble round the table, which is illuminated by a lamp hanging above its centre. Lots are cast for the king of the feast, and if the head of anyone present casts no shadow on the wall it is a sign that he will die during the year. Then the king chooses freely his queen: they have the place of honour, and each time they raise their glasses to their mouths cries of ‘The king drinks, the queen drinks!’ burst forth on all sides.... The next day an enormous cake, divided into equal portions, is distributed to the company by the youngest boy. The first portion is always for le bon Dieu, the second for the Blessed Virgin (these two portions are always given to the first poor person who presents himself); then come those of relations, servants, and visitors. He who finds a bean in his portion is proclaimed king; if it is a lady she chooses her p. 340 king, and he invites the company to a banquet on the Sunday following, at which black kings are made by rubbing the face with a burnt cork.” 17-8

The use of the gâteau des Rois goes pretty far back. At the monastery of Mont-St.-Michel in the thirteenth century the Epiphany king was chosen from among the monks by means of a number of cakes in one of which a bean was placed. At Matins, High Mass, and Vespers he sat upon a special throne. 17-9

It may be added that there is a quaint old story of a curate “who having taken his preparations over evening, when all men cry (as the manner is) the king drinketh, chanting his Masse the next morning, fell asleep in his Memento: and, when he awoke, added with a loud voice, The king drinketh.” 17-10

One more French “king” custom may be mentioned, though it relates to Christmas Day, not Epiphany. At Salers in the centre of France there were formerly a king and queen whose function was to preside over the festival, sit in a place of honour in church, and go first in the procession. The kingship was not elective, but was sold by auction at the church door, and it is said to have been so much coveted that worthy citizens would sell their heritage in order to purchase it. 17-11

It may be remarked that Epiphany kings and cakes similar to the French can be traced in Holland and Germany, 17-12 and that the “King of the Bean” is known in modern Italy, though there he may be an importation from the north. 17-13

How is this merry monarch to be accounted for? His resemblance to the king of the Saturnalia, who presided over the fun of the feast in the days of imperial Rome, is certainly striking, but it is impossible to say whether he derives directly from that personage. No doubt his association with the feast of the Three Kings has helped to maintain his rule. As for the bean, it appears to have been a sacred vegetable in ancient times. There is a story about the philosopher Pythagoras, how, when flying before a host of rebels, he came upon a field of beans and refused to pass through it for fear of crushing the plants, thus enabling his pursuers to overtake him. Moreover, the flamen dialis in Rome was forbidden to eat or even name the vegetable, and the p. 341 name of the Fabii, a Roman gens, suggests a totem tribe of the bean. 17-14

In eastern Europe, though I know of no election of a king, there are New Year customs with cakes, closely resembling some of the French practices described a page or two back. “St. Basil's Cake” on New Year's Eve in Macedonia is a kind of shortbread with a silver coin and a cross of green twigs in it. When all are seated round the table the father and mother take the cake, “and break it into two pieces, which are again subdivided by the head of the family into shares. The first portion is destined for St. Basil, the Holy Virgin, or the patron saint whose icon is in the house. The second stands for the house itself. The third for the cattle and domestic animals belonging thereto. The fourth for the inanimate property, and the rest for each member of the household according to age. Each portion is successively dipped in a cup of wine.” He who finds the cross or the coin in his share of the cake will prosper during the year. The money is considered sacred and is used to buy a votive taper. 17-15

In Macedonia when the New Year's supper is over, the table, with the remnants of the feast upon it, is removed to a corner of the room in order that St. Basil may come and partake of the food. 17-16 He appears to have been substituted by the Church for the spirits of the departed, for whom, as we have seen, food is left in the West on All Souls’ and Christmas Eves. Probably the Macedonian practice of setting aside a portion of the cake for a saint, and the pieces cut in France for le bon Dieu and the Virgin or the three Magi, have a like origin. One may compare them with the Serbian breaking of the kolatch cake in honour of Christ “the Patron Namegiver.” Is it irrelevant, also, to mention here the Greek Church custom, at the preparation of the elements for the Eucharist, of breaking portions of the bread in memory of the Virgin and other saints?

In many countries the Epiphany is a special time for the expulsion of evils. At Brunnen in Switzerland boys go about in procession on Twelfth Night, with torches and lanterns, and make a great noise with horns, bells, whips, &c., in order to p. 342 frighten away two wood-spirits. In Labruguière in southern France on the Eve of Twelfth Day the inhabitants rush through the streets, making discordant noises and a huge uproar, with the object of scaring away ghosts and devils. 17-17

In parts of the eastern Alps there takes place what is called Berchtenlaufen. Lads, formerly to the number of two or three hundred, rush about in the strangest masks, with cowbells, whips, and all sorts of weapons, and shout wildly. 17-18 In Nuremberg up to the year 1616 on Bergnacht or Epiphany Eve boys and girls used to run about the streets and knock loudly at the doors. 17-19 Such knocking, as we have seen, may well have been intended to drive away spirits from the houses.

At Eschenloh near Partenkirchen in Upper Bavaria three women used to berchten on that evening. They all had linen bags over their heads, with holes for the mouth and eyes. One carried a chain, another a rake, and the third a broom. Going round to the houses, they knocked on the door with the chain, scraped the ground with the rake, and made a noise of sweeping with the broom. 17-20 The suggestion of a clearing away of evils is here very strong.

In connection with the Kallikantzaroi mention has already been made of the purification of houses with holy water, performed by Greek priests on the Epiphany. In Roumania, where a similar sprinkling is performed, a curious piece of imitative magic is added—the priest is invited to sit upon the bed, in order that the brooding hen may sit upon her eggs. Moreover there should be maize grains under the mattress; then the hen will lay eggs in abundance. 17-21

We noted in an earlier chapter the name Berchtentag applied in southern Germany and in Austria to the Epiphany, and we saw also how the mysterious Frau Berchta was specially connected with the day. On the Epiphany and its Eve in the Möllthal in Carinthia a female figure, “the Berchtel,” goes the round of the houses. She is generally dressed in a hide, wears a hideous wooden mask, and hops wildly about, inquiring as to the behaviour of children, and demanding gifts. 17-22

p. 343 Something of the terrible, as well as the beneficent, belongs to the “Befana,” the Epiphany visitor who to Italian children is the great gift-bringer of the year, the Santa Klaus of the South. “Delightful,” say Countess Martinengo, “as are the treasures she puts in their shoes when satisfied with their behaviour, she is credited with an unpleasantly sharp eye for youthful transgressions.” 17-23 Mothers will sometimes warn their children that if they are naughty the Befana will fetch and eat them. To Italian youngsters she is a very real being, and her coming on Epiphany Eve is looked forward to with the greatest anxiety. Though she puts playthings and sweets in the stockings of good children, she has nothing but a birch and coal for those who misbehave themselves. 17-24

Formerly at Florence images of the Befana were put up in the windows of houses, and there were processions through the streets, guys being borne about, with a great blowing of trumpets. 17-25 Toy trumpets are still the delight of little boys at the Epiphany in Italy.

The Befana's name is obviously derived from Epiphania. In Naples the little old woman who fills children's stockings is called “Pasqua Epiphania,” 117 the northern contraction not having been acclimatized there. 17-26

In Spain as well as Italy the Epiphany is associated with presents for children, but the gift-bringers for little Spaniards are the Three Holy Kings themselves. There is an old Spanish tradition that the Magi go every year to Bethlehem to adore the infant Jesus, and on their way visit children, leaving sweets and toys for them if they have behaved well. On Epiphany Eve the youngsters go early to bed, put out their shoes on the window-sill or balcony to be filled with presents by the Wise Men, and provide a little straw for their horses. 17-27

It is, or was, a custom in Madrid to look out for the Kings on Epiphany Eve. Companies of men go out with bells and pots and pans, and make a great noise. There is loud shouting, and torches cast a fantastic light upon the scene. One of the men carries a large ladder, and mounts it to see if the Kings are p. 344 coming. Here, perhaps, some devil-scaring rite, resembling those described above, has been half-Christianized. 17-28

In Provence, too, there was a custom of going to meet the Magi. In a charming chapter of his Memoirs Mistral tells us how on Epiphany Eve all the children of his countryside used to go out to meet the Kings, bearing cakes for the Magi, dried figs for their pages, and handfuls of hay for their horses. In the glory and colour of the sunset young Mistral thought he saw the splendid train; but soon the gorgeous vision died away, and the children stood gaping alone on the darkening highway—the Kings had passed behind the mountain. After supper the little ones hurried to church, and there in the Chapel of the Nativity beheld the Kings in adoration before the Crib. 17-29

At Trest not only did the young people carry baskets or dried fruit, but there were three men dressed as Magi to receive the offerings and accept compliments addressed to them by an orator. In return they presented him with a purse full of counters, upon which he rushed off with the treasure and was pursued by the others in a sort of dance. 17-30 Here again the Magi are evidently mixed up with something that has no relation to Christianity.

We noted in  IV the elaborate ceremonies connected in Greece with the Blessing of the Waters at the Epiphany, and the custom of diving for a cross. It would seem, as was pointed out, that the latter is an ecclesiastically sanctioned form of a folk-ceremony. This is found in a purer state in Macedonia, where, after Matins on the Epiphany, it is the custom to thrust some one into water, be it sea or river, pond or well. On emerging he has to sprinkle the bystanders. 17-31 The rite may be compared with the drenchings of human beings in order to produce rain described by Dr. Frazer in “The Magic Art.” 17-32

Another Greek custom combines the purifying powers of Epiphany water with the fertilizing influences of the Christmas log—round Mount Olympos ashes are taken from the hearth where a cedar log has been burning since Christmas, and are baptized in the blessed water of the river. They are then borne p. 345 to the vineyards, and thrown at their four corners, and also at the foot of apple- and fig-trees. 17-33

This may remind us that in England fruit-trees used to come in for special treatment on the Vigil of the Epiphany. In Devonshire the farmer and his men would go to the orchard with a large jug of cider, and drink the following toast at the foot of one of the best-bearing apple-trees, firing guns in conclusion:—

“Here's to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou may'st bud, and whence thou may'st blow!
And whence thou may'st bear apples enow!
Hats full! caps full!
Bushel!—bushel—sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!” 17-34

In seventeenth-century Somersetshire, according to Aubrey, a piece of toast was put upon the roots. 17-35 According to another account each person in the company used to take a cupful of cider, with roasted apples pressed into it, drink part of the contents, and throw the rest at the tree. 17-36 The custom is described by Herrick as a Christmas Eve ceremony:—

“Wassail the trees, that they may bear
You many a plum and many a pear;
For more or less fruits they will bring,
As you do give them wassailing.” 17-37

In Sussex the wassailing (or “worsling”) of fruit-trees took place on Christmas Eve, and was accompanied by a trumpeter blowing on a cow's horn. 17-38

The wassailing of the trees may be regarded as either originally an offering to their spirits or—and this seems more probable—as a sacramental act intended to bring fertilizing influences to bear upon them. Customs of a similar character are found in Continental countries during the Christmas season. In Tyrol, for instance, when the Christmas pies are a-making on St. Thomas's Eve, the maids are told to go out-of-doors and put their arms, sticky with paste, round the fruit-trees, in order that they p. 346 may bear well next year. 17-39 The uses of the ashes of the Christmas log have already been noticed.

Sometimes, as in the Thurgau, Mecklenburg, Oldenburg, and Tyrol, the trees are beaten to make them bear. On New Year's Eve at Hildesheim people dance and sing around them, 17-40 while the Tyrolese peasant on Christmas Eve will go out to his trees, and, knocking with bent fingers upon them, will bid them wake up and bear. 17-41 There is a Slavonic custom, on the same night, of threatening apple-trees with a hatchet if they do not produce fruit during the year. 17-42

Another remarkable agricultural rite was practised on Epiphany Eve in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. The farmer and his servants would meet in a field sown with wheat, and there light thirteen fires, with one larger than the rest. Round this a circle was formed by the company, and all would drink a glass of cider to the success of the harvest. 118 This done, they returned to the farm, to feast—in Gloucestershire—on cakes made with caraways, and soaked in cider. The Herefordshire accounts give particulars of a further ceremony. A large cake was provided, with a hole in the middle, and after supper everyone went to the wain-house. The master filled a cup with strong ale, and standing opposite the finest ox, pledged him in a curious toast; the company followed his example with the other oxen, addressing each by name. Afterwards the large cake was put on the horn of the first ox. 17-43

It is extremely remarkable, and can scarcely be a mere coincidence, that far away among the southern Slavs, as we saw in  XII, a Christmas cake with a hole in its centre is likewise put upon the horn of the chief ox. The wassailing of the animals is found there also. On Christmas Day, Sir Arthur p. 347 Evans relates, the house-mother “entered the stall set apart for the goats, and having first sprinkled them with corn, took the wine-cup in her hand and said, ‘Good morning, little mother! The Peace of God be on thee! Christ is born; of a truth He is born. May'st thou be healthy. I drink to thee in wine; I give thee a pomegranate; may'st thou meet with all good luck!’ She then lifted the cup to her lips, took a sup, tossed the pomegranate among the herd, and throwing her arms round the she-goat, whose health she had already drunk, gave it the ‘Peace of God’—kissed it, that is, over and over again.” The same ceremony was then performed for the benefit of the sheep and cows, and all the animals were beaten with a leafy olive-branch. 17-44

As for the fires, an Irish custom to some extent supplies a parallel. On Epiphany Eve a sieve of oats was set up, “and in it a dozen of candles set round, and in the centre one larger, all lighted.” This was said to be in memory of the Saviour and His apostles, lights of the world. 17-45 Here is an account of a similar custom practised in Co. Leitrim:—

“A piece of board is covered with cow-dung, and twelve rushlights are stuck therein. These are sprinkled with ash at the top, to make them light easily, and then set alight, each being named by some one present, and as each dies so will the life of its owner. A ball is then made of the dung, and it is placed over the door of the cowhouse for an increase of cattle. Sometimes mud is used, and the ball placed over the door of the dwelling-house.” 17-46

There remains to be considered under Epiphany usages an ancient and very remarkable game played annually on January 6 at Haxey in Lincolnshire. It is known traditionally as “Haxey Hood,” and its centre is a struggle between the men of two villages for the possession of a roll of sacking or leather called the “hood.” Over it preside the “boggans” or “bullocks” of Plough Monday (see p.  352), headed by a figure known as “My Lord,” who is attended by a fool. The proceedings are opened on the village green by a mysterious speech from the fool:—

“Now, good folks, this is Haxa’ Hood. We've killed two p. 348 bullocks and a half, but the other half we had to leave running about field: we can fetch it if it's wanted. Remember it's—

‘Hoose agin hoose, toon agin toon,
And if you meet a man knock him doon.’”

Then, in an open field, the hoods—there are six of them, one apparently for each of the chief hamlets round—are thrown up and struggled for. “The object is to carry them off the field away from the boggans. If any of these can get hold of them, or even touch them, they have to be given up, and carried back to My Lord. For every one carried off the field the boggans forfeit half-a-crown, which is spent in beer, doubtless by the men of the particular hamlet who have carried off the hood.” The great event of the day is the struggle for the last hood—made of leather—between the men of Haxey and the men of Westwoodside—“that is to say really between the customers of the public-houses there—each party trying to get it to his favourite ‘house.’ The publican at the successful house stands beer.” 17-47

Mr. Chambers regards the fool's strange speech as preserving the tradition that the hood is the half of a bullock—the head of a sacrificial victim, and he explains both the Haxey game and also the familiar games of hockey and football as originating in a struggle between the people of two villages to get such a head, with all its fertilizing properties, over their own boundary. 17-48 At Hornchurch in Essex, if we may trust a note given by Hone, an actual boar's head was wrestled for on Christmas Day, and afterwards feasted upon at one of the public-houses by the victor and his friends. 17-49

One more feature of the Haxey celebration must be mentioned (it points apparently to a human sacrifice): the fool, the morning after the game, used to be “smoked” over a straw fire. “He was suspended above the fire and swung backwards and forwards over it until almost suffocated; then allowed to drop into the smouldering straw, which was well wetted, and to scramble out as he could.” 17-50

Returning to the subject of football, I may here condense an p. 349 account of a Welsh Christmas custom quoted by Sir Laurence Gomme, in his book “The Village Community,” from the Oswestry Observer of March 2, 1887:—“In South Cardiganshire it seems that about eighty years ago the population, rich and poor, male and female, of opposing parishes, turned out on Christmas Day and indulged in the game of football with such vigour that it became little short of a serious fight.” Both in north and south Wales the custom was found. At one place, Llanwenog near Lampeter, there was a struggle between two parties with different traditions of race. The Bros, supposed to be descendants from Irish people, occupied the high ground of the parish; the Blaenaus, presumably pure-bred Brythons, occupied the lowlands. After morning service on Christmas Day, “the whole of the Bros and Blaenaus, rich and poor, male and female, assembled on the turnpike road which divided the highlands from the lowlands.” The ball was thrown high in the air, “and when it fell Bros and Blaenaus scrambled for its possession.... If the Bros, by hook or by crook, could succeed in taking the ball up the mountain to their hamlet of Rhyddlan they won the day, while the Blaenaus were successful if they got the ball to their end of the parish at New Court.” Many severe kicks were given, and the whole thing was taken so keenly “that a Bro or a Blaenau would as soon lose a cow from his cowhouse as the football from his portion of the parish.” There is plainly more than a mere pastime here; the thing appears to have been originally a struggle between two clans. 17-51

Anciently the Carnival, with its merrymaking before the austerities of Lent, was held to begin at the Epiphany. This was the case in Tyrol even in the nineteenth century. 17-52 As a rule, however, the Carnival in Roman Catholic countries is restricted to the last three days before Ash Wednesday. The pagan origin of its mummeries and licence is evident, but it is a spring rather than a winter festival, and hardly calls for treatment here.

The Epiphany is in many places the end of Christmas. In Calvados, Normandy, it is marked by bonfires; red flames mount p. 350 skywards, and the peasants join hands, dance, and leap through blinding smoke and cinders, shouting these rude lines:—

“Àdieu les Rois
Jusqu’à douze mois,
Douze mois passés
Les bougelées.” 17-53

Another French Epiphany chanson, translated by the Rev. R. L. Gales, is a charming farewell to Christmas:—

“Noël is leaving us,
Sad ‘tis to tell,
But he will come again,
Adieu, Noël.
His wife and his children
Weep as they go:
On a grey horse
They ride thro’ the snow.
*       *       *       *       *
The Kings ride away
In the snow and the rain,
After twelve months
We shall see them again.” 17-54

Post-Epiphany Festivals.

Though with Twelfth Day the high festival of Christmas generally ends, later dates have sometimes been assigned as the close of the season. At the old English court, for instance, the merrymaking was sometimes carried on until Candlemas, while in some English country places it was customary, even in the late nineteenth century, to leave Christmas decorations up, in houses and churches, till that day. 17-55 The whole time between Christmas and the Presentation in the Temple was thus treated as sacred to the Babyhood of Christ; the withered evergreens would keep alive memories of Christmas joys, even, sometimes, after Septuagesima had struck the note of penitence.

Before we pass on to a short notice of Candlemas, we may p. 351 glance at a few last sparks, so to speak, of the Christmas blaze, and then at the English festivals which marked the resumption of work after the holidays.

In Sweden Yule is considered to close with the Octave of the Epiphany, January 13, “St. Knut's Day,” the twentieth after Christmas.

“Twentieth day Knut
Driveth Yule out”

sing the old folks as the young people dance in a ring round the festive Yule board, which is afterwards robbed of the viands that remain on it, including the Yule boar. On this day a sort of mimic fight used to take place, the master and servants of the house pretending to drive away the guests with axe, broom, knife, spoon, and other implements. 17-56 The name, “St. Knut's Day,” is apparently due to the fact that in the laws of Canute the Great (1017-36) it is commanded that there is to be no fasting from Christmas to the Octave of the Epiphany. 17-57

In England the day after the Epiphany was called St. Distaff's or Rock Day (the word Rock is evidently the same as the German Rocken = distaff). It was the day when the women resumed their spinning after the rest and gaiety of Christmas. From a poem of Herrick's it appears that the men in jest tried to burn the women's flax, and the women in return poured water on the men:—

“Partly work, and partly play
You must on St. Distaff's day:
From the plough soon free your team,
Then come home and fother them;
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
*       *       *       *       *
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men;
Give St. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night;
And next morrow, every one
To his own vocation.” 17-58

p. 352 A more notable occasion was Plough Monday, the first after Twelfth Day. Men's labour then began again after the holidays. 17-59 We have already seen that it is sometimes associated with the mummers’ plays. Often, however, its ritual is not developed into actual drama, and the following account from Derbyshire gives a fairly typical description of its customs:—

“On Plough Monday the ‘Plough bullocks’ are occasionally seen; they consist of a number of young men from various farmhouses, who are dressed up in ribbons.... These young men yoke themselves to a plough, which they draw about, preceded by a band of music, from house to house, collecting money. They are accompanied by the Fool and Bessy; the fool being dressed in the skin of a calf, with the tail hanging down behind, and Bessy generally a young man in female attire. The fool carries an inflated bladder tied to the end of a long stick, by way of whip, which he does not fail to apply pretty soundly to the heads and shoulders of his team. When anything is given a cry of ‘Largess!’ is raised, and a dance performed round the plough. If a refusal to their application for money is made they not unfrequently plough up the pathway, door-stone, or any other portion of the premises they happen to be near.” 17-60

By Plough Monday we have passed, it seems probable, from New Year festivals to one that originally celebrated the beginning of spring. Such a feast, apparently, was kept in mid-February when ploughing began at that season; later the advance of agriculture made it possible to shift it forward to early January. 17-61


Nearer to the original date of the spring feast is Candlemas, February 2; though connected with Christmas by its ecclesiastical meaning, it is something of a vernal festival. 17-62

The feast of the Purification of the Virgin or Presentation of Christ in the Temple was probably instituted by Pope Liberius at Rome in the fourth century. The ceremonial to which it owes its popular name, Candlemas, is the blessing of candles in church and the procession of the faithful, carrying them lighted in their hands. During the blessing the “Nunc dimittis” is chanted, p. 353 with the antiphon “Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuae Israel,” the ceremony being thus brought into connection with the “light to lighten the Gentiles” hymned by Symeon. Usener has however shown reason for thinking that the Candlemas procession was not of spontaneous Christian growth, but was inspired by a desire to Christianize a Roman rite, the Amburbale, which took place at the same season and consisted of a procession round the city with lighted candles. 17-63

The Candlemas customs of the sixteenth century are thus described by Naogeorgus:

“Then numbers great of Tapers large, both men and women beare
To Church, being halowed there with pomp, and dreadful words to heare.
This done, eche man his Candell lightes, where chiefest seemeth hee,
Whose taper greatest may be seene, and fortunate to bee,
Whose Candell burneth cleare and brighte; a wondrous force and might
Doth in these Candells lie, which if at any time they light,
They sure beleve that neyther storme or tempest dare abide,
Nor thunder in the skies be heard, nor any devils spide,
Nor fearefull sprites that walke by night, nor hurts of frost or haile.” 17-64

Still, in many Roman Catholic regions, the candles blessed in church at the Purification are believed to have marvellous powers. In Brittany, Franche-Comté, and elsewhere, they are preserved and lighted in time of storm or sickness. 17-65 In Tyrol they are lighted on important family occasions such as christenings and funerals, as well as on the approach of a storm 17-66 ; in Sicily in time of earthquake or when somebody is dying. 17-67

In England some use of candles on this festival continued long after the Reformation. In 1628 the Bishop of Durham gave serious offence by sticking up wax candles in his cathedral at the Purification; “the number of all the candles burnt that evening was two hundred and twenty, besides sixteen torches; sixty of p. 354 those burning tapers and torches standing upon and near the high Altar.” 17-68 Ripon Cathedral, as late as the eighteenth century, was brilliantly illuminated with candles on the Sunday before the festival. 17-69 And, to come to domestic customs, at Lyme Regis in Dorsetshire the person who bought the wood-ashes of a family used to send a present of a large candle at Candlemas. It was lighted at night, and round it there was festive drinking until its going out gave the signal for retirement to rest. 17-70

There are other British Candlemas customs connected with fire. In the western isles of Scotland, says an early eighteenth-century writer, “as Candlemas Day comes round, the mistress and servants of each family taking a sheaf of oats, dress it up in woman's apparel, and after putting it in a large basket, beside which a wooden club is placed, they cry three times, ‘Briid is come! Briid is welcome!’ This they do just before going to bed, and as soon as they rise in the morning, they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briid's club there, which if they do, they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill-omen.” 17-71 Sir Laurence Gomme regards this as an illustration of belief in a house-spirit whose residence is the hearth and whose element is the ever-burning sacred flame. He also considers the Lyme Regis custom mentioned above to be a modernized relic of the sacred hearth-fire. 17-72

Again, the feast of the Purification was the time to kindle a “brand” preserved from the Christmas log. Herrick's Candlemas lines may be recalled:—

“Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunne-set let it burne;
Which quencht, then lay it up agen,
Till Christmas next returne.
Part must be kept wherewith to teend
The Christmas Log next yeare;
And where ‘tis safely kept, the Fiend
Can do no mischiefe there.” 17-73

p. 355 Candlemas Eve was the moment for the last farewells to Christmas; Herrick sings:—

“End now the White Loafe and the Pye,
And let all sports with Christmas dye,”


“Down with the Rosemary and Bayes,
Down with the Misleto;
Instead of Holly, now up-raise
The greener Box for show.
The Holly hitherto did sway;
Let Box now domineere
Until the dancing Easter Day,
Or Easter's Eve appeare.” 17-74

An old Shropshire servant, Miss Burne tells us, was wont, when she took down the holly and ivy on Candlemas Eve, to put snow-drops in their place. 17-75 We may see in this replacing of the winter evergreens by the delicate white flowers a hint that by Candlemas the worst of the winter is over and gone; Earth has begun to deck herself with blossoms, and spring, however feebly, has begun. With Candlemas we, like the older English countryfolk, may take our leave of Christmas.

p. 356 p. 357 

Next: Conclusion