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An 18th Century English Christmas

Have you ever wondered what Christmases in times past might have looked like? In the time period of my first and second Hope for Charity Historical/Romance series novels set in 1747 & 1749 (#3 and final in 1755 may or may not include a Christmas...,) Christmastime has already passed before you meet my characters. Therefore, I thought I'd share with you some of the Christmas traditions from the Georgian period here.

As I researched this topic, it pleasantly surprised me to find an album by Craig Duncan called "Old English Christmas." I'm listening to it now and feeling quite inspired.

In my character's time, the Christmas tree did not yet exist, at least not in North Yorkshire, and it is unclear whether the hanging of stockings had made it to England from Scandinavia yet. What did they decorate with then? Decorations are an important part of Christmas for us. It was for them as well. They decorated with holly, evergreen boughs or ivy, and the yule log.

Holly and Evergreen Boughs

Holly's barbed leaves represent the crown of thorns placed on Jesus Christ's head. The red berries represent the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross. The color green represents eternal life.

The evergreens could also include ivy. Evergreens also represent eternal life. Of note, these decorations, holly and evergreens weren't brought into the house before Christmas eve, because any other time it was considered bad luck to have plants in the house. After Christmas, the decorations couldn't be thrown out, but had to be burnt, because of their Christian symbolism, except dried ivy which might be fed to livestock.

Yule Log

"The Yule log was chosen on Christmas Eve. It was wrapped in hazel twigs and dragged home to burn in the fireplace as long as possible through the Christmas season. The tradition was to keep back a piece of the Yule log to light the following year’s Yule log." Today's version of a yule log is usually a chocolate replication.

Christmas Treats

Either turkey, goose, or venison for the Christmas dinner, and Christmas pudding (also known as plum pudding), were widely enjoyed in English homes among the rich and poor.

Sugarplums-"A small round or oval sweetmeat, made of boiled sugared and variously flavoured and coloured; a comfit."

"Holy Days and Fasting Act of 1551

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." This law has never been repealed, but isn't enforced anymore, of course.

The Devils Knell, West Yorkshire

"The bell-tower of Dewsbury Minster contains a bell with, it is said, a rather gruesome provenance, but with a (now) unique use every Christmas Eve.

Legend has it that ‘Black Tom’, a tenor bell, was donated to the church by Sir Thomas de Soothill as penance for the murder of a young servant boy. Sir Thomas supposedly threw the boy into a mill pond in a fit of rage at the lad failing to attend church!

The veracity of this story is questionable, with dates from the 13th to the 15th century offered for the heinous act, and even a variation in surnames for the killer.

Be that as it may, ‘Black Tom’ is used every December 24 for the custom of ringing the devil’s knell. For every year since Christ’s birth the bell is tolled once, and the last stroke is carefully timed to coincide with midnight on Christmas Eve. This means that now the ringing starts at about 9.45 at night. To ensure the correct number of strokes a ‘scorer’ marks each one on a special scoring paper.

There are several interpretations of the reason behind the knell. The most romantic is that it keeps the devil out of the parish for another year..."


Did you find these Old English Christmas traditions interesting? This is just a few that caught my notice, but there are many more traditions that have fallen away over time. What are some of your traditions you try to keep alive from year to year? The one tradition from my childhood I remember most that my husband and I try to carry on through our own family is the reading of the Christmas story in Luke before we open presents. It helps to remind me, at least, of what the true meaning of Christmas is. May you all have a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! And may the Lord bless you and your families with Faith, Hope, and Love. In Jesus' Name. -Sandy


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