Christmas is a celebration of good old-fashioned tradition and every family has its own special festive formula. 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 traditional customs flow with the seasons and never more so than at Christmas, when 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 Christmas cottages... you never know, they may become your family favourites too:
The ashen faggot
This ancient tradition was once celebrated in every Devon and Somerset household on Christmas Eve and 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.
[Image: The Harbour Inn, Axminster]
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 and, as each band burns through, a toast and a wish are made and a glug of cider consumed. ‘The pondrous Ashen Faggot from the yard’ wrote an anonymous author in 1795, ‘The jolly farmer to his crowded hall. Conveys with speed; where, on the rising flames (already fed with store of massy brands). It blazes soon; nine bandages it bears, And as they each disjoin (so custom wills), A mighty jug of sparkling cyder’s brought, With brandy mixt to elevate the guests.’
In some areas, damsels claimed a withy band and the girl whose band was first to break would be first to marry. Some half-burnt ash is reserved to form the basis of next year’s faggot, representing enduring life, and a faggot kept in the house through the year is said to deter evil spirits.
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 carols are sung as a six foot long faggot is burnt in the hearth. The custom of hoisting the youngest child aboard the faggot to test his future resilience has thankfully been abandoned though.
The Cornish Bush
Another tradition which started as a pagan ritual to represent new life during the winter solstice, the Cornish Bush (or kissing bunch) 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 withy, 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.
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 worshipping an old oak tree during the winter solstice. After he chopped down the tree, a fir grew in its place and the following year all the pagans, now converted to Christianity, hung decorations on the tree and celebrated Christmas rather than the winter solstice.
Remote areas of the West Country like Cornwall and Exmoor developed their own distinctive styles of carol, 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 practise singing soaring harmonies in chapels and schoolrooms, even writing their own ‘curls’. 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 ‘go 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. Thomas Hardy himself described carol singers in ‘Under a Greenwood Tree’: ‘Shortly after ten o’clock the singing-boys arrived at the tranter’s house, which was invariably the place of meeting, and preparations were made for the start. …The cider-mug was emptied for the ninth time, the music-books were arranged, and the pieces finally decided upon.’
Twelfth Night Rushes
An ancient Twelfth Night 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
[Image: We Are Weymouth]
Modern traditions aren’t any less bizarre. This annual event sees a lone runner in a Christmas pud 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 17th December.
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, Santas 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 swim near your cottage if you feel brave enough. Merry Christmas!