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Christmas traditions

Christmas is a time for celebration and good old-fashioned tradition. There are a few Christmas traditions the West Country practices, but every family has its own special festive formula.

From Christmas carols to bracing sea swims the West Country knows how to celebrate the festive season in style.

There’s glorious nostalgia in the annual event of passing round the spoon on stir-up Sunday. Dusting down third generation glass baubles, lifting the littlest to top the tree with the star and opening the window on Christmas Eve to sprinkle reindeer food before reading The Night Before Christmas.

Here in the South West, a rich abundance of tradition comes with the seasons and more so than at Christmas. The West Country moors and fields sparkle with frost and year-round peace and goodwill create the perfect festive atmosphere.

These are a few of our West Country festive traditions you can sample by booking one of our cottages… you never know, they may become your family favourites too!

West Country Christmas Traditions

Use the quick links to navigate to a particular topic or read on to find out our Christmas traditions in the West Country.

The Ashen Faggot

Christmas traditions - Ashen Faggot

This ancient tradition was once celebrated in every Devon and Somerset household on Christmas Eve. It’s still observed in our welcoming inns, where a tot of warming drink by a glowing hearth always awaits.

Once a Saxon fertility symbol and offering to Thor, the ashen faggot is now a local version of the Yule Log. Associated with the fire by which Mary warmed the baby Jesus, and a jolly good excuse for a convivial gathering.

The faggot, a bundle of green ash bound with nine straps of withy, is thrown on the fire by the oldest person in the room. As each band burns, a toast and wish are made, oh and a glug of cider is consumed!

Make and burn your own (modest) ashen faggot at one of our cosy cottages with an open fire or log burner. Or head to The Harbour Inn in Axminster, East Devon, where this Christmas tradition still happens to date. A six-foot-long faggot is burnt in the pubs open fire accompanied by verses and carol singing.

The Cornish Bush

the cornish bush - west country christmas traditions

Another West Country Christmas tradition which started as a pagan ritual to represent new life during the winter solstice, the Cornish Bush (or kissing bunch). It is a three-dimensional wreath hung from a central beam in homes on 20th December.

It’s made from holly, ivy and mistletoe wound around a circle of willow, topped with a rosy apple and a candle. When the candle was lit just before midnight, people would dance in rings below the wreath to welcome the God of Light. The modern cheeky bunch of mistletoe has evolved from the Cornish Bush.

Christmas tree

Christmas tree

Queen Victoria’s consort, Albert, brought the Christmas tree to England from Germany. But, according to legend it was the invention of an 8th century Devon saint.

St Boniface travelled to Germany where he encountered pagans worshiping an old oak tree during the winter solstice. After he chopped down the tree, a fir grew in its place. The following year all the pagans (now converted to Christianity), hung decorations on the tree and celebrated Christmas rather than the winter solstice.


Christmas carols

Remote areas of the West Country like Cornwall and Exmoor developed their own distinctive style of carols, which thrived and became an important social event.

Inspired by John Wesley’s visits, devout Methodist mining and fishing communities in Cornwall would walk miles to practice singing soaring harmonies in chapels and schoolrooms.

Some familiar modern carols are derived from these early Cornish songs, many of which spread around the world when Cornish miners emigrated to Australia.

In the 19th century, groups of carollers roamed the streets at night, to be rewarded with money, food or drink, often a spiced concoction in a wassail bowl. Magical carolaire services are still popular around the county.

In Padstow you can hear carols sung around the town which have been passed from parent to child over 200 years, like ‘Harky, Harky’ based on ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.

In Dorset, too, musicians would ‘do the rounds’ with lanterns and instruments. And, if you visit Dorset County Museum in Dorchester you can see a handwritten music book of ballads and carols which belonged to Thomas Hardy’s father and grandfather.

They played violins and cellos before the introduction of church organs and the songs were passed down orally over generations.

Twelfth Night Rushes

Open Fire

An ancient Twelfth Night Christmas tradition in Cornwall saw young people divine their destiny by touching the stone over the fireplace with their foreheads. Then heading out in strict silence to gather rushes and ivy leaves.

On their return, each would retouch the mantel with their heads, before placing two rushes together in the fire, representing prospective partners.

If the rushes burned steadily, a congenial marriage would result. If the rushes parted or blazed up, the match would be similar.

The number of cracks from an ivy leaf thrown into the flames indicated how many years remained before the wedding and two ivy leaves foretold the number of children the couple would bear.

Chase the pudding

Weymouth Christmas 5k

Image: We Are Weymouth

Modern Christmas traditions aren’t any less bizarre. This annual event sees a lone runner in a Christmas pudding outfit pursued by hundreds of people along 5km Weymouth beach.

As well as raising funds for charity, the winner gets the dubious prize of being next year’s pudding. This year’s event takes place on 19th December.

Christmas Day swim

Christmas Day Swim

Whilst most of us flop on the sofa, some hardy souls venture out every year to splash through the Atlantic’s winter waves.

Eschewing wetsuits, Santa’s and skimpily clad swimmers dive into the icy sea. The perfect antidote for an excess of mince pies and mulled wine.

From Weymouth and Torbay to Exmouth and Trevaunance Cove, there’s a wonderfully sociable Christmas Day swim near your cottage if you feel brave enough.

Merry Christmas from all the team at Helpful Holidays!

West Country Christmas Cottage Breaks

At Helpful Holidays we have a fantastic range of family friendly holiday cottages in Devon, Somerset and Cornwall, situated close to traditional inns and beaches hosting a Christmas Day swim.

It’s not too late to book a festive getaway. Find the perfect holiday cottage for your West Country Christmas break by viewing our Christmas holiday cottages.

Don’t forget to meet Santa when you’re visiting!

Article adapted from original content written by Christine Phillips for Helpful Holidays.