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James Medd
December 2016.
60
Which old British Christmas traditions have we lost?
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Quite a few Christmas traditions from medieval times have been lost – some of them probably better forgotten. 

No one misses the tradition of Hunting the Wren, which involved men and boys catching and killing a pair of wrens on Boxing Day, putting them in a box and parading them around while singing and entertaining everyone who came up to watch. Another rather dodgy Boxing Day tradition, now happily defunct, was Holly Beating, celebrated in Tenby in south Wales. Men and boys carrying branches of holly would go through the streets in search of girls, and when they found one would thrash her arms with it until they drew blood. No one’s sure about the reason for this, though it may have had its origins in the idea of driving out evil spirits with a magical plant – the Austrian Christmas figure Krampus was said to beat naughty children with birch twigs. 

"Another rather dodgy Boxing Day tradition, now happily defunct, was Holly Beating, celebrated in Tenby in south Wales. Men and boys carrying branches of holly would go through the streets in search of girls, and when they found one would thrash her arms with it until they drew blood."

Other lost traditions, rather less violent, include Advent itself. These days it’s often the start of festive indulgence up to a booze-free January, but our forebears were much more restrained. Between the 6th and the 9th centuries, Advent was a time for fasting. This fast was preceded on 11 November by feasting on the last fresh meat of winter, since that was the day that you slaughtered all the livestock you wouldn’t be able to feed over the winter, then salted and preserved it. The following day was the start of a 40-day fast, which was taken as seriously as Lent. Fasting meant no meat, a little fish and generally a diet of vegetables and gruel, and ended with the great feast on Christmas Day. 

Another forgotten tradition involved bread. It was claimed that a loaf baked on Christmas Eve would be blessed. It would taste delicious, and some said it had healing powers and would stay fresh throughout the year until the Christmas Eve. It was also said that if you left a loaf of bread on your table on Christmas Eve then it would guarantee a generous supply of bread for the following year. 

"It was claimed that a loaf baked on Christmas Eve would be blessed. It would taste delicious, and some said it had healing powers and would stay fresh throughout the year until the Christmas Eve."

It was also important to get your house in perfect order on Christmas morning before going to church, since that was when the spirits of dead family members would return to check on it. If they found any mess, then the consequences for the household would be dire but if they liked what they saw then you could look forward to a year of good fortune for everyone in the house. 

There were also lots of traditions involving mince pies. One is that you should never cut a mince pie with a knife, another that you shouldn’t refuse a mince pie that’s offered to you. Both were supposed to bring bad luck. To ensure good fortune, on the other hand, you should eat one mince pie on each of the 12 days of Christmas.