Old Cheshire Christmas Customs

We know all about the pleasures and commercialism of a modern Christmas, but what of the days of old when turkey was turkey, and there was plenty of it, days when the fun and hilarity was of the genuine home-made variety?

Many of the Christmas festivities used to commence on St. Thomas's Day, December 21, and end on Twelfth Day, or Epiphany, January 6, so-named because it was twelve days after Christmas. Incidentally Twelfth Day is Old Christmas Day.

On St. Thomas's Day it was the custom, in many parts of the country, including our own county of Chester, for the poor of the parish to beg alms from the better-off. Usually the alms took the form of money or corn, which, when the latter, the local miller used to grind for free, as his contribution. From the fact that the custom always took place on St. Thomas's Day it was known as "going-a-Thomassing", but in Cheshire it was also known as "Curning".

Some of the old Cheshire schools about this time of the year, or a little earlier, did, in the words of the founder of Witton Grammar School, "a weeke before Christynmas and Easter, barre and keep forth of the Schoole the schoolmaster, in such sort is other schollers doe in greete schooles."

The scholars at Darnhall apparently did likewise, and without doubt they considered the locking out of the schoolmaster a fine sport, and probably exercised their right as often as they could.
Another curious custom in Chester, which was described in a local paper at the beginning of the 19th century, tells of a band of skinners, carrying a sword and mace, who went through the streets in procession, calling themselves the Mayor and Corporation of Duan. Duan, it is believed, may have been derived from Deva, the Roman name of Chester.

Then again Chester, in the seventeenth century and earlier, had a curious custom of "Setting a watch on Christmas Eve". Here a procession perambulated through the streets headed by the Mayor and Aldermen, together with the Dean and Chapter, and many other official dignitaries and members of the Guilds. The Recorder made a speech telling of the City's ancient fame, and that its foundation was the work of Lleon Mawr, the legendary giant. The day ended, as usual, with banquets and general rejoicing.

Bell ringing, in England especially, also formed, and still does form, an important part of the celebrations, and many a peal has been rung throughout the festivities. In fact, in one county it was the custom to toll the bells for one hour before midnight, "tolling the Devil's Knell", for it was said that "the Devil died when Christ was born". And besides, evil spirits disliked the sound of the bells and always fled when they were rung.

The Mumming plays are now seldom performed but at one time they were very much part of the Christmas festivities, though acted at other times. In Cheshire this was on All Souls' Day and known in consequence as "Soul-caking".

During this festive season the farmers of Cheshire had to shift for themselves as their farm-hands had only engaged themselves from New Year's Day to Christmas Day, and then, having drawn their year's wages, adjourned to the town where they spent six or seven days in revelry and dancing, and in buying new smocks and other necessities for the coming year.

There was also Frumenty, a dish of wheat boiled till the grains burst, and when cool, strained and boiled again with broth or milk and yolks of eggs. This dish was eaten both at Christmas and at the Wakes. From Frumenty is but a step to plum porridge, and then to the plum pudding
Mince-pies, or Christmas pies, like the plum puddings, contained many ingredients different from those of to-day.

They contained goose, turkey, rabbit, curlew, blackbird and pigeon.

Mince-pies, with their spices, were supposed to represent the offerings of the Wise Men of the East, and it was believed that to eat twelve of them in as many houses during the Christmas holidays would ensure twelve happy months in the New Year.

"Yawning for the Cheshire Cheese" was a game for tired souls in Cheshire, when towards the hour of midnight this game of yawning commenced more or less automatically. The one who yawned the widest and longest, but so naturally as to set the others yawning, was declared the winner and took home the cheese as his just reward.

The Christmas festivities ended on Twelfth Night when Twelfth Cake was eaten. Two of its ingredients were a bean and a pea, and the one who had the bean in his piece of cake was elected King, and the one who had the pea was to be the Queen. It is more than probably that the present day Christmas Crackers are closely connected with Twelfth Day, for the grotesque paper caps found in the crackers may have some long-forgotten connection with extinct Twelfth Night characters.