“Nowhere are the traditions of Christmas kept up with such splendour as in Yorkshire.” (Visitor to the county 1812)
Our great county is a fantastic place to be all year round, but a Christmas in Yorkshire is extra special. It has always been an area full of tradition, none more so than over the festive period.
The origins of Christmas celebrations in Yorkshire date back to the Roman Times, especially in the city of York. Their Saturnalia festival which took place from around 17th – 25th December was dedicated to Saturn, the god of harvest and agriculture, something which resonated well with Yorkshire people. The festivities included a relaxing of the normal Roman society rules. Courts were suspended, gambling was permitted, crime was more tolerated, masters would serve their slaves a banquet of food and singing in the streets was encouraged. There are elements of the Saturnalia festival, such as over-indulgence, merriment and singing which shape our Christmases even today. These winter celebrations gradually converted from a pagan ritual to a Christian one as the religion spread throughout the Roman Empire during the 4th Century. The idea that the final day of Saturnalia, the 25th December also marked the day of Jesus’ birth was first recognised by Pope Julius I when Christian ideology began to take hold towards the early middle Ages.
Another strong influence of Yorkshire Christmases came from both the Anglo Saxons and the Vikings, whose Yule celebrations were also absorbed into the winter festivities. This occasion marked the winter solstice on 21st December, rather than for worship of a god or prophet. The word, “yuletide” is still associated with the festive season today and lasted for around twelve days from the shortest day.
This establishment of a celebration in the third week of December swung heavily back towards religious purposes after the Norman invasion. The word “Christes Maesse” (Festival of Christ) was first used as a description for the festival around 1038. William the Conqueror declared himself King of England on Christmas Day 1066, which in his eyes was a further reason to celebrate.
The grip of religion on British and Yorkshire Medieval society was pronounced further at Christmas, with church attendance and worship put at the forefront of the festivities. The foundations of three Yorkshire Christmas traditions date back to medieval celebrations.
Since the 1400s a tradition called “The Devil’s knell” has taken place in the town of Dewsbury. On Christmas Eve the parish church bells toll once for every year since the birth of Christ. The peel is timed so the last bell is rung exactly at midnight on Christmas Day. This ritual is done to remind Satan that Christmas resembles the beginning of his end and has only been missed during the Second World War, when church bells were silenced for national security.
During Medieval times carol-singing was banned in churches because they disrupted the religious services and so the vocalists would have to go elsewhere instead. Over the centuries this custom of carol-singing manifested itself in several ways. Some of them stood outside in a circle, near a prominent landmark in the town or village. Others went from house to house collecting money and gifts from residents.
The sensible ones congregated in public houses and taverns, where the added warmth and ready availability of ale helped to loosen their tongues in song. One such carol-singing tradition still takes place each year at the Royal Hotel in the village of Dungworth, near Sheffield. Over the past two hundred years singers have congregated here every Sunday from mid-November to Boxing Day at noon for a two hour sing. These are a mixture of traditional carols and local Yorkshire songs, which are sung in the pub each week during the countdown to Christmas. Other similar events across South Yorkshire take place in various pubs and venues from mid-November onwards.
Yorkshire has also made several contributions to the food we eat around Christmas time. The first turkeys were brought over to England from the Americas by Yorkshire explorer William Strickland in 1526. Originally from Marske on the North Yorkshire coast, he built estates at both Wintringham in Ryedale and Boynton Hall near Bridlington with the profits he made from selling these exotic creatures. The Strickland family crest, which adorns both of these residencies, is in the shape of a turkey, something which is widely acknowledged as the first ever depiction of the bird in Europe. Boynton village church lectern, a stand that supports the bible, is carved in the shape of a turkey instead of a traditional eagle in honour of Strickland. The custom of eating turkey on Christmas day would only become popular centuries after Strickland’s death in 1598, during the Victorian Period.
A natural addition to any Christmas dinner is traditional Yorkshire pudding, which form an important area of the festive plate. Outside our great borders the debate rages as to whether to include them or not, but within the county it’s compulsory! For pudding a slice of cheese enjoyed with Christmas cake is also a purely Yorkshire culinary tradition, which is said to date back to the 1890s.
The Yorkshire Christmas pie has its origins in the 17th Century and became popular during the Victorian era. The dish comprises of several birds, game and fowl in the recipe, such as turkey, goose, duck, grouse, pheasant and pigeon. These were layered with stuffing and encased in short crust pastry. Its links to the county came when they were made in the expansive kitchens of Harewood House in Leeds. Many of the birds which feature in the dish can be found on the moorlands of the county too, which may help explain the dish’s links to Yorkshire. Christmas pie was served at Windsor Castle in 1858 and became a Royal favourite. Nowadays the basis of the Yorkshire pie has been replicated into five bird roasts by discount supermarkets.
The Victorian era saw a re-invention of Christmas celebrations, which had declined in the previous two hundred years, largely thanks to a general banning of the festival by the Puritans in the 1650s and being overtaken by other important religious dates such as Easter.
The 19th Century saw the emergence of similarities to how we celebrate Christmas today. Before 1837 there were no Christmas cards, crackers, trees or even holidays for workers, apart from on Christmas Day itself.
One very famous piece of literature was to change the festive season in the working class industrial towns of Yorkshire forever. Charles Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol,” which was published in 1843, had one of the most profound influences of how Christmas was celebrated and working class lives as a whole.
The common theme running throughout the book was that of the rich giving to the poor. Ebeneezer Scrooge, the wealthy, mean industrialist becomes a changed man after being visited by the three ghosts of past, present and future. He gives a turkey to Bob Cratchitt; one of Scrooge’s poor, underpaid employees and learns the importance of being kind to his workers, especially at Christmas.
These messages were re-enforced to the middle and upper classes of Victorian Britain through numerous stage adaptations and pricked their consciences about their own treatment of the poor. The book was a factor in a boom of charitable work done by the rich philanthropists over the festive period in the years that followed and helped sow the seeds for social reform. The day after Christmas became a new public holiday, where the workers would open up boxes, usually containing money given to them by their bosses. This became known as Boxing Day.
While Charles Dickens was not from God’s Own County his many trips to the then East Riding town of Malton to see his solicitor friend, Charles Smitheson had a great influence on his work. Scrooge’s counting house was based on his solicitor’s offices in the town, while St Leonard’s church is also represented in the story.
The re-invention of Christmas in the 19th Century also started some traditions in Yorkshire which are still ongoing or in living memory.
The tradition of “gooding,” where children would sing Carols around the streets holding Christmas trees has been a tradition in various forms around the county, although this has largely died out in recent times.
During advent in Haworth, around the time of the Bronte’ sisters, vessel maids would call from door to door carrying a box, called the “Wassail bob,” which contained nativity figures wrapped in a sacred cloth. The maids would unveil the figures at the cost of a penny to the household. It was considered unlucky if the vessel maids did not call round to your house during the run up to Christmas.
At Clifford’s Tower in York a tradition known as “The Kissing bough” has recently been revived. A huge arch of mistletoe is suspended above the ancient monument and couples can visit it and kiss each other underneath the bough. This tradition dates back to Medieval Times, was revived by the Victorians and once again in 2010.
On December 21st in the same city, the Sheriff’s riding ritual takes place. This is a combination of two ancient traditions, the sheriff’s ride around the city accompanied by musicians and the Yulegirthol, which is of Viking origin. This is a series of proclamations and ceremonial horn-blowing around the city starting at Micklegate bar.
Over on the coast at Flamborough the traditional Boxing Day sword dance takes place in celebration of their fishing heritage. Dressed in navy blue tops and white trousers, eight fishermen perform the ritual in the village’s high street. It is one of a number of sword dances that take place throughout Yorkshire, but one of few around Christmas time.
The unusual “Poor old Hoss” ritual takes place every Christmas Eve in Richmond’s marketplace. A person wearing a horse’s head made of a real equine skull and black cloak is accompanied by a group of huntsmen. They sing a special song to it and bring it to life with hunting sticks and a horn. This bizarre event dates back to the Seventeenth Century and has pagan origins. No doubt it is the only one of its kind too!
Yorkshire can claim numerous contributions to British celebrations at Christmas time. From bringing the first turkeys to England, to carrying on ancient rituals, it is a special place in which to spend the festive period.
A Merry Yorkshire Christmas everyone!