top of page
  • timbarber

The Yorkshire’s festive celebrations through the ages

Winter Solstice

We have to look back much further than the nativity to start exploring the origins of winter festive celebrations.

In fact we need to start looking back to the Neolithic and early Bronze age, over 5,000 years ago. During these times Yorkshire was home to various tribes who had stopped following herds of deer and given up life as hunter gatherers. The inhabitants of Yorkshire at this time had started to settle, domesticate animals and grow crops.

Because of this they were far more aware of the seasons for planting and harvesting as their lives were more dependent upon farming. For this reason, knowing when the longest and shortest days were in the calendar was extremely important.

The shortest day of the year falls on 21st December and is known as “the mid-winter solstice”.

Around Yorkshire, as well as the many cup and ring marked stones from this period found up on various Moors, there is also evidence of standing stones such as The Devil’s Arrows near Boroughbridge and the Rudston Monolith, as well as stone circles such as the 12 Apostles on Rombalds Moor, Ilkley. It is believed that these were built so that the exact date of the Solstice could be identified. These stone monuments would have acted as “Druidical clocks” where either shadows lined up on the stones or the stones created shadows across a dial stone at sunset/sun rise on the shortest day rather like a modern day sun dial.

Whilst there is no written evidence, archaeologists believe that great feasts would have been held at this time, with drinking and dancing. Animals would have been slaughtered and eaten to save feeding them over the winter months and gifts such as bronze daggers and pottery beakers would have been exchanged.

It is also believed huge fires would have been lit and sacrifices made to encourage the Sun (which was one of the Gods worshipped at this time) to return and make the days longer again.

Another Christmas tradition dating to this time was of hanging mistletoe. The Pagans believed mistletoe was a symbol of fertility and so decorating homes with the plant was a way of ensuring the next year would be prosperous. The tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe didn’t come about for a good time after.

Roman Saturnalia

Celebrations in recognition of the Sun and the solstice carried on until the Romans arrived in Yorkshire in 71 AD, when the 9th Legion marched from Lincoln and set up camp in York. The Romans occupied Yorkshire for over 330 years and built a major fort in York which became known as Eboracum at the time.

As well as York, major Roman settlements or forts were established all across the region including Derventio (Malton), Danum (Doncaster), Ilkley (Olicana), Cataractonium (Catterick), Isurium Brigantium (Aldborough), Calcaria (Tadcaster) and Virosidum (Bainbridge). These Roman settlements would have had their own mid-winter celebrations with a festival known as Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was a week of feasting and over indulgence starting on 17th December, in honour of one of the main Roman Gods – Saturn, who was also the God of Agriculture.

This was a time of serious partying, but all the usual rules about rank were turned upside down. Slaves were waited on by their masters and in the Roman forts such as Eboracum, officers would have served their soldiers. Even gambling which was usually outlawed was allowed.

Instead of white togas, people were encouraged to wear colourful clothes and perhaps the birth of the party hat can be put to this time as everyone wore a conical hat known as “the cap of liberty” which were traditionally given to slaves when they were freed.

There is also written evidence that there were large public celebrations where imported Roman delicacies such as figs, dates, pine nuts, olives and snails were eaten once a year. The Romans soldiers drank wine and as a special treat were fed fattened dormice in fermented fish sauce!

Saturnalia may also be the advent of the Christmas cracker joke as jokey and satirical poems relating to the season have been found. The Romans also exchanged gifts and presents and finds show sigillaria (small wax or pottery figures) were a popular small gift at the time.

In time the Romans eventually adopted Christianity. In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the most important celebration and the bible never actually gave a date for the birth of Jesus.

Many people believe the birth of Jesus would have been in Spring with arguments such as why would Shepherds be herding in the middle of Winter making sense. The date we celebrate now – the 25th December was decided upon by Pope Julius I sometime between 337 and 352.

It is believed the logic behind choosing this date was to incorporate the original traditional festival of Saturnalia, as many Pagan gods and festivals were absorbed into Roman culture to increase the chances of Christianity being accepted by the wider population. Rather than Christmas, the celebration was known as “The Feast of Nativity”.

Viking Yuletide Celebrations

The Romans left Yorkshire in the early 400’s, and whilst an Anglo Christian culture remained for a while, the Anglians and Saxons who came to the region and settled were Pagans and worshipped gods such as Woden, Frigge and Tiw, they had their own Yule celebrations. They eventually converted to Christianity and Nativity celebrations resumed but this changed back quickly after the Vikings took York in 866.

Again, the Vikings were Pagan and had their own Gods and traditions. Scandinavian culture embraced the celebration of Yule like the Saxons.

Yule was a period of feasting and sacrifice to celebrate the end of the year and was timed around the Winter solstice on 21st December. The Vikings were responsible for the tradition of the Christmas Log, but not the chocolate roll we are familiar with nowadays!

The men folk would bring home large logs and set them on fire. The Yule feast would initially go on until the log burnt out (I’m sure this helped with the log selection!). The Vikings believed that every spark which came from the log represented a new piglet, calf or lamb to be born the next year.

With Jorvik (as York was known by the Vikings) was surrounded by the Forest of Galtres, the Scandinavian settlors would have had a readily supply of logs close to the city.

Yule celebrations eventually became set at 12 days and this is where the tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas comes from. During Yule festivals, food and gifts were left out for house spirits – is this where the tradition of leaving a mince pie and a carrot for Santa and Rudolf comes from?

In York, Yule celebrations included “The Yule Riding”. With this celebration one of the town folk was chosen as the character of Yule and another as his wife. He was given a leg of lamb and a cake and the couple marched through the Jorvik York with a procession to musical accompaniment and much merriment, whilst throwing nuts and treats to the crowds. This tradition continued in various guises until the 1570’s.

Rather like with Saturnalia, as Vikings gradually assimilated with the Christian Anglians and Saxons, meaning the Yuletide and Nativity celebrations were combined.

Normans and the Festival of Christ

After the Norman invasion of 1066, the French Norman lords took control of Yorkshire. They re-built York Minster and created many new Churches in the region. Monastic religious orders grew rapidly in Yorkshire as wealthy landowners donated money and land to the church.

In France and Italy, “Christes Maesse” the Festival of Christ had started to be celebrated, but it had not been really adopted in England. William the Conqueror, who was victorious at the Battle of Hastings was declared King of England on Christmas day of 1066 and was keen to bring the Christes Maesse to the fore in England, not just to celebrate Christ but to highlight his kingship. As York and the North initially rebelled against Norman occupation leading to the Harrying of the North, Christmas celebrations was one way William helped to appease and gain control of Yorkshire.

From Christes Maesse it is easy to see where the word Christmas comes from.

It was in these medieval times after the Norman Conquest that the Winter celebrations changed with religion becoming more to the forefront of celebrations. Church attendance and worship became the key element of these festivities.

In Yorkshire a number of rituals started including The Devils Knell tradition. In the town of Dewsbury, ever since the 1400’s they have rung the church bells on Christmas Eve once for every year since the birth of Christ. They time the rings so that the last bell tolls at midnight on Christmas Eve and only during World War 2 has this this tradition been missed. The tradition is meant to tell Satan it’s the beginning of his end!

Tudor Times

One Christmas tradition which became unstuck during Tudor times was that of The Yule Riding in York. By the 1570’s this celebration still included lots of pagan symbolism and had become a boisterous celebration, was too much for the puritan Archbishop Grindal.

Reports from the time that Yule and his wife would "ride through the city very un-decently and un-comely, drawing great concourses of people after them to gaze, often times committing other enormities" meant Archbishop Grindal eventually banned The Yule Ridings in York. An early Party Pooper!

There is also evidence in York of a Feast of Fools (probably with a nod again to the Roman festival of Saturnalia), this was presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The feast was an unruly event, involving much drinking, revelry and role reversal. The Lord of Misrule, normally a commoner with a reputation of knowing how to enjoy himself, was selected to direct the entertainment.

They also recorded that on 21st a Yule Feast took place which included the city's Sheriffs welcoming the arrival of Yule by reading the "Yoole-girthol", a free and easy proclamation that "all manner of whores, thieves, dice-players and other unthrifty folk" were welcome in the city during the Twelve Days of Yule. The Yoole-girthol was pronounced at each of the bars or gateways into the medieval city of York and also accompanied by the sounding of a horn.

But whilst many of the more bawdy Yule celebrations were stopped, another Christmas traditions grew and thrived in Tudor Times including that of Christmas Carols.

The earliest record of a collection of carols dates to 1521, and during Tudor times carols was a way used to celebrate Christmas whilst promoting the story of the nativity. They became popular and carols were not just sung in church, but in ale houses and market squares.

Feasting was a large part of Christmas for the wealthy during these times and it was Yorkshireman – William Strickland from near Bridlington, who first brought Turkeys to England in the 1500’s. It is known Henry VIII ate turkey, but they didn’t become part of the Christmas tradition until 300 years later, but Christmas Pie’s full of game birds in a pastry case were consumed during these times as part of festive celebrations.

A Puritanical break

After the English Civil War in the 1600’s, Oliver Cromwell a staunch puritan became Lord Protector of England and took it upon himself to cleanse England of its decadence.

A sort of historical fun police, they had already banned theatre, dancing and concerts but this was not enough. In 1644 he enforced an Act of Parliament banning Christmas celebrations as he felt it undermined Christian belief with merriment being “unfit for God-fearing Christians”. One of his arguments was that the date of Christ’s birth had never been included in the bible, which as mentioned earlier is true.

Needless to say this was a very unpopular decision and Yorkshiremen and women whom not only had always embraced festive celebrations, had always been a more independent and rebellious region, were known to have held secret celebrations risking harsh punishments if they were caught.

Soon after Cromwell died, monarchy was restored and Charles II became King. With a reputation as a “Party King”, Christmas was immediately restored and old Christmas traditions renewed with enthusiasm. You can only imagine what celebrations were like after a 16 year absence – that would be one hell of a hangover!

The Georgian Festive Season

By the 1700’s Christmas was back with a vengeance and Christmas Day had become a national holiday. But for the rich, wealthy and landed gentry the festive celebrations lasted for a whole month during Georgian and Regency times.

Many Yorkshire towns and cities still have evidence from the Georgian period, with grand architecture in classical traditional styles, showcasing pilasters, pediments, sash windows, iron railings and fanlights as well as impressive municipal building. These were opulent times in places such as York, Beverley, Hull and Richmond. Timber buildings and small stone agricultural buildings had been knocked down to build stately Georgian townhouses.

The Georgian Festive season started on 6th December and lasted until 6th January. People would rent houses or visit their properties in these towns to socialise and in many cases try marry their children to other suitably wealthy families.

York was particularly famous for its Christmas season which was very much about parties, balls, concerts and recitals. York even had a festive newspaper at the time which listed the wealthy who were within the city each day and events during the season. Authors such as Jane Austin even talked about Christmas parties and people dancing until 4pm in the morning!

Houses were decorated for Christmas but not as we know today. Decorations were more natural with greenery such as holly and ivy brought into homes. This wouldn’t happen weeks before like it does for many people today – it was unlucky to bring in greenery and decorate your home before Christmas Eve. Apples, oranges, spices, candles and ribbons were also used to bring some festive cheer into people’s homes.

Fairfax House in York was one of the many homes which hosted lavish parties and balls during the festive season. It was famed for its elaborate table decorations but, in the Kitchen at Fairfax House another Georgian tradition existed, a Kissing Bough was suspended from the ceiling and made a decorative focal point. This tradition has recently been revived hanging a Kissing Bough over the gate of Clifford’s Tower.

This was Northern tradition, consisting of a sphere of evergreens, circled by a crown of candles at the top and hung beneath with a ring of apples surrounding a central bough of mistletoe. Kissing beneath the mistletoe originates from here although mistletoe had been part of pagan solstice and winter celebrations for thousands of years.

Other Christmas traditions originating from the Georgian period included one on St. Stephens Day, actually the day after Christmas Day where the wealthy used to reward their staff and servants with a Christmas Box. Nowadays we know the day after Christmas better as Boxing Day!

Finally, 6th January is otherwise known as 12th Night and was when the wealthy Georgians ended their Christmas celebrations. This was celebrated with a party where games such as apple bobbing were played as well as more dancing and eating. The centrepiece of this party was the 12th Night Cake, a forerunner of the Christmas cake. These were baked with a bean and a pea inside and a slice was given to every member of the household. The man who found the bean was made King for the night and the woman who found the pea, the Queen.

Whilst the wealthy made the most of Christmas, for the many there was little celebration at Christmas and barely anytime to celebrate. By the end of the next century this was to have changed.

A Victorian Christmas

Christmas as we know it today owes a lot to the Victorians. Many put this down to the fact that Queen Victoria married the German born Prince Albert. He had insisted that the German tradition of bringing a tree into the house and decorating it with gifts, fruit, candles, home-made decorations and sweets continued at their London home.

A drawing of the family celebrating around a Christmas tree was published in 1848 in Illustrated London News. This set up a craze which meant within a decade many people copied the Queen and the booming trade in Christmas trees continues to this day.

Other traditions which started these times were the sending of Christmas cards which Queen Victoria had encouraged her children to initially hand make but soon became mass produced as printing technology became more affordable. The Christmas cracker was also a way of giving gifts and often included a party hat.

The decking the halls with holly and ivy started to be sniffed as at the Victorians wanted more sophisticated purpose made decorations and baubles. These started being mass produced as industrial processes making decorations cheaper and more easily available for the masses.

Christmas celebrations widened from just the rich to the wider population and the DIY ethos of Queen Victoria’s handmade cards was adopted as people made their own decorations.

As well as Queen Victoria un-knowingly promoting Christmas as a family celebration, another Victorian who helped popularise Christmas was Charles Dickens. The author who has links to Yorkshire wrote the classic “A Christmas Carol” with themes of charity, peace and goodwill as well as the spirit of Christmas.

Dickens was friends with Charles Smithson, a solicitor who moved to Malton to help run the family business. He regularly visited Smithson and his modest office the counting house down a narrow lane off the market square is believed to have acted as the inspiration for Scrooges counting house in the novel.

Adding to Charles Dickens Yorkshire links, in 1858 Dickens visited York Assembly Rooms – now an Italian restaurant called Ask where he recited sections of A Christmas Carol.

One final Victorian Yorkshire tradition during advent was particularly popular in Haworth around the time of the Bronte’ sisters. Maids would call from door to door carrying a box, called a “Wassail bob,” which contained nativity figures wrapped in a 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.

Have festive celebrations been hijacked?

With Christmas upon us once again, it is interesting to see how from simple Winter solstice celebrations, how festive celebration have evolved during different time periods to become the commercial, overblown celebration today which pertains to celebrate the birth of Christ as an excuse for the sorts of excess and debauchery.

You can see how pagan celebrations of the start of the new year and Roman Saturnalia festivities were eventually hijacked by the church before being phased out by the puritans.

But how old traditions were reborn and rebooted as an excuse for parties and eventually family time.

Whatever you think about today’s Christmas and we’ve not even touched on Santa Clause or Father Christmas, we can agree it’s a time to stop, spend time with loved ones and look forward to a New Year with the Winter solstice out of the way, nights getting lighter and the advent of spring.

Happy New Year!

1 Comment

Dec 30, 2021

Perhaps the most detailed yet concise explanation of Christmas 🎅 it’s Heritage customs and words we use today but not knowing before where they came from or why. It’s now on my favourites to read again before all future Christmas celebrations. Thanks @RealYorkshireTours . What a cracker you blogged here 👏

bottom of page