The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmas Eve

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 1, p. 118

It is customary on this night with young people in the North of England to dive for apples, or catch at them, when stuck upon one end of a kind of hanging beam, at the other extremity of which is fixed a lighted candle, and that with their mouths only, their hands being tied behind their backs. Nuts and apples chiefly compose the entertainment, and from the custom of flinging the former into the fire, or cracking them with their teeth, it has doubtless had its vulgar name of Nutcrack Night. Little troops of boys and girls still go about at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and other places in the North of England (and in Yorkshire), some few nights before, on Christmas-eve night, and on that of the day itself. The Hagmena is still preserved among them, and they always conclude their begging song with wishing a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Compare Hagmena. In Goldsmith’s time, the country folks religiously observed this nutcracking festival, as he tells us in his "Vicar of Wakefield."

Stafford says, they (certain deluded men) "make me call to mind an old Christmas gambole, contrived with a thred which being fastened to some beame, hath at the nether end of it a sticke, at the one end of which is tied a candle, and at the other end an apple; so that when a man comes to bite at the apple, the candle burnes his nose. The application is as easy as the trick common." Niobe, 1611, p. 107. The catching at the apple and candle may be called playing at something like the ancient English game of the quintain, which is now almost totally forgotten. Hutchinson, somewhat fancifully perhaps identified this Christian usage with the rites anciently observed in honour of Pomona. Hist. of North., vol. ii. p. 18. Polwhele describes it in his "Old English Gentleman," p. 120:

"Or catch th’ elusive apple with a bound,
As with its taper it flew whizzing round."

Luther, in his "Colloquia," i. 233, tells us that "upon the eve of Christmas Day the women run about and strike a swinish hour (pulsant horam suillam): if a great hog grunts, it denotes the future husband to be an old man, if a small one, a young man."

Naogeorgus describes the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the manner in which the priests used to pilfer the offerings laid on the altar, "least other should it have," and the wooden effigy of the Son of God, which used to be placed there likewise, that the children of both sexes might dance round it, the parents looking on, and applauding. Sir Herbert Croft informs us, that the inhabitants of Hamburg were obliged by custom to give their servants carp for supper on Christmas Eve. Letter from Germany, 1797, p. 82.

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Latin passages.

See, also, William Hone's The Every Day Book: December 24 - Christmas Eve.

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