The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

January 5 – Eve of Epiphany

William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827.

Volume 1

This is the eve of the Epiphany, or Twelfth-night even, and is a night of preparation in some parts of England for the merriments which, to the present hour, distinguish Twelfth-day. Dr. Drake mentions that it was a practice formerly for itinerant minstrels to bear a bowl of spiced-wine to the houses of the gentry and others, from whom they expected a hospitable reception, and, calling their bowl a wassail-bowl, to drink wassail to their entertainers. These merry sounds of mirth and music are not extinct. There are still places wherein the wandering blower of a clarionet, and the poor scraper of as poor a fiddle, will this evening strain their instruments, to charm forth the rustic from his dwelling, and drink to him from a jug of warm ale, spiced with a race of ginger, in the hope of a pittance for their melody, and their wish of wassail. Of the wassail bowl, much will appear before the reader in the after pages of this work.

In certain parts of Devonshire, the farmer, attended by his workmen, with a large pitcher of cider, goes to the orchard this evening; and there, encircling one of the best barring trees, they drink the following toast three times:

        “Here's to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and when thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
        Hats full! caps full!
        Bushel — bushel — sacks full,
        And my pockets full too! Huzza!”

This done, they return to the house, the doors of which they are sure to find bolted by the females, who, be the weather what it may, are inexorable to all entries to open them till some one has guessed at what is on the spit, which is generally some nice little thing, difficult to be hit on, and is the reward of him who first names it. The doors are then thrown open, and the lucky clodpole receives the tid-bid as his recompense. Some are so superstitious as to believe, that if they neglect this custom, the trees will bear no apples that year. To the preceding particulars, which are related in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1791, may be added that Brand, on the authority of a Cornishman, relates it is as a custom with the Devonshire people to go after supper into the orchard, with a large milk-pan full of cider, having roasted apples pressed into it. “Out of this each person in company takes, what is called a clayen cup, that is an earthenware cup ful of liquor, and standing under each of the more fruitful apple-trees, passing by those that are not good bearers, he addresses it in the following words:

'Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
Peck-fulls, bushel-bag-fulls.'

And then drinking up part of the contents, he throws the rest, with the fragments of the roasted apples, at the tree. At each cup the company set up a shout.”

Pennant, in his tour in Scotland, says respecting this custom, that after they have drank a cheerful glass to their master's health, with success to the future harvests, and expressed their good wishes in the same way, they feast off cakes made of caraways and other seeds soaked in cider, which they claim as a reward for their labours in sowing the grain. “This,” says Pennant, “seems to resemble a custom of the ancient Danes, who, in their addresses to their rural deities emptied, on every invocation, a cup in honour of them.”

So also Brand tells us that, in Herefordshire, “at the approach of evening on the vigil of the twelfth day, the farmers, with their friends and servants, meet together, and about six o'clock walk out to a field where wheat is growing. In the highest part of the ground, twelve small fires and one large one are lighted up. The attendants, headed by the master of the family, pledge the company in old cider, which circulates freely on these occasions. A circle is formed round the large fire, when a general shout and hallooing takes place, which you hear answered from all the adjacent villages and fields. Sometimes fifty or sixty of these fires may be seen at once. This being finished, the company return home, where the good housewife and her maids are preparing a good supper. A large cake is always provided, with a hole in the middle. After supper, the company all attend the bailiff (or head of the oxen) to the wain-house, which the following particulars are observed. The master, at the head of his friends, fills the cup, (generally of strong ale,) and stands opposite the first or finest of the oxen. He then pledges him in a curious toast: the company follow his example with all the other oxen, addressing each by his name. This being finished, the large cake is produced, and, with much ceremony, put on the horn of the first ox, through the hole above-mentioned. The ox is then tickled, to make his toss his head: if he throw the cake behind, then it is the mistress's perquisite; if before, (in what is termed the boosy,) the bailiff himself claims the prize. The company then return to the house, the doors of which they find locked, nor will they be opened till some joyous songs are sung. On their gaining admittance, a scene of mirth and jollity ensures, and which lasts the greatest part of the night.”

Mr. Beckwith relates in the Gentleman's Magazine, 1784, that “near Leeds, in Yorkshire, when he was a boy, it was customary for many families, on the twelfth eve of Christmas, to invite their relations, friends, and neighbours, to their houses, to play at cards, and to partake of a supper, of which minced pies were an indispensable ingredient; and after supper was brought in, the wassail cup or wassail bowl, of which every one partook, by taking with a spoon, out of the ale, a roasted apple, and eating it, and then drinking the healths of the company out of the bowl, wishing them a merry Christmas and a happy new year. (The festival of Christmas used in this part of the country to hold for twenty days, and some persons extended it to Candlemas.) The ingredients put into the bowl, viz. Ale, sugar, nutmeg, and roasted applies, were usually called lambs'-wool, and the night on which it is used to be drunk (generally on the twelfth eve) was commonly called Wassil eve.” The glossary to the Exmore dialect has “Watsail – a drinking song on twelfth-day eve, throwing toast to the apple trees, in order to have a fruitful year, which seems to be a relic of the heathen sacrifice to Pomona.”

Brand found it observed in the ancient calendar of the Romish church, that on the fifth day of January, the eve or vigil of the Epiphany, there were “kings created or elected by by beans;” that the sixth of the month is called “The Festival of Kings;” and “that this ceremony of electing kings was continued with feasting for many days.”

Twelfth-night even or the vigil of the Epiphany is no way observed in London. There Twelfth-day itself comes with little of the pleasure that it offered to our forefathers. Such observances have rapidly disappeared, and the few that remain are still more rapidly declining. To those who are unacquainted with their origin they afford no associations to connect the present with former ages; and without such feelings, the few occasions which enable us to show a hospitable disposition, or from whence we can obtain unconstrained cheerfulness, will pass away, and be remembered only as having been.


Volume 2.

Twelfth-Day Eve.

Agricultural Custom

In the parish of Pauntley, a village on the borders of the county of Gloucester, next Worcestershire, and in the neighbourhood, “a custom, intended to prevent smut in wheat, in some respect resembling the Scotch Beltein, prevails.” “On the Twelfth-day all the servants of every farmer assemble together in one of the fields that has been sown with wheat. At the end of twelve lands, they make twelve fires in a row with straw; around one of which, made larger than the rest, they drink a cheerful glass of cyder to their master's health, and success to the future harvest; then, returning home, they feast of cakes made of caraways, &c. soaked in cyder, which they claim as a reward for their past labours in sowing the grain.”1


Credulity and Incredulity.

In the beginning of the year 1825, the flimsiest bubbles of the most bungling projectors obtained the public confidence; at the close of the year that confidence was refused to firms and establishments of unquestionable security. Just before Christmas, from sudden demands greatly beyond the amounts which were ready for ordinary supply, bankers in London of known respectability stopped payment; the panic became general throughout the kingdom, and numerous country banks failed, the funds fell, Exchequer bills were at a heavy discount, and public securities of every description suffered material depression. This exigency- rendered prudence still more circumspect, and materially retarded the operations of legitimate business, to the injury of all persons engaged in trade. In several manufacturing districts, transactions of every kind were suspended, and manufactories wholly ceased from work.


Exchequer Bills.

To the Editor of the Every-Day Book.


As just at this time it may be interesting to many of your readers, to know the origin of Exchequer bills, I send you the following account.

In the years 1696 and 1697, the silver currency of the kingdom being, by clipping, washing, grinding, filing, &c. reduced to about half its nominal value, acts of parliament were passed for its being called in, and re-coined; but whilst the re-coinage was going on exchequer bills were first issued, to supply the demands of trade. The quantity of silver re-coined, according to D’Avenant, from the old hammered money, amounted to 5,725,933l. It is worthy of remark, that through the difficulties experienced by the Bank of England (which had been established only three years,) during the re-coinage, they having taken the clipped silver at its nominal value, and guineas at an advanced price, bank notes were in 1697 a discount of from 15 to 20 per cent. “During the re-coinage,” says D’Avenant, “all great dealings were transacted by tallies, bank-bills, and gold-smiths’ notes. Paper credit did not only supply the place of running cash, but greatly multiplied the kingdom’s stock; for tallies and bank-bills did to many uses serve as well, and to some better than gold and silver; and this artificial wealth which necessity had introduced, did make us less feel the want of that real treasure, which the war and our losses at sea had drawn out of the nation.”

I am, &c.



A Family Sketch.

Bring me a garland of holly,
    Rosemary, ivy, and bars;
Gravity’s nothing but folly,
    Till after the Christmas day

Fill out a glass of Bucellas
    Here! — boys put the crown on my head
Now, boys !— shake hands — be good fellows,
    And all be — good men — when I’m dead.

Come, girls, come! now for your kisses.
    Hearty ones — louder — loud — loudest
How I'm surrounded with blisses!
    Proud then may here see a prouder.

Now, you rogues, go kiss your mother
    Ah! Ah ! — she won’t let you? — pho! pho!
Gently — there, there now! — don’t smother:—
    Old lady! Come, now I’ll kiss you.

Here take the garland, and wear it;
    ‘Nay, nay!’ but you must, and you shall;
For, here’s such a kiss! — come, don’t fear it;
    If you do—turn round to the wall,

A kiss too for Number Eleven,
    The Newcome — the young Christmas berry—
My Alice! — who makes my girls seven,
    And makes merry Christmas more merry.

Another good glass of Bucellas,
    While I’ve the crown on my head;
Laugh on my good girls, and good fellows,
    Till it’s off — then off to bed.

Hey I—now, for the Christmas holly,
    Rosemary, ivy, and bays;
Gravity’s nothing hut folly,
    Till after the Christmas days.

                    December 30, 1825.

Note from Hone:

1. Rudge's Gloucester.  Return

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