British Traditions > December

December was the tenth month in the Roman calendar before the addition of July and August. The Anglo-Saxons called this month ‘Haligmonath’ (Holy Month) or ‘Wintermonath’. Above all we now associate December with the Christian festival of Christmas which celebrates the birth of Christ. This Christian celebration gradually took the place of the ancient pagan festival of ‘Yuletide’ when holly, ivy, spruce, mistletoe and yule logs were used in the celebrations. Many of these traditions became associated with Christmas and have persisted until the present day.

Christmas Day is the 25th of December which was the date when the Romans celebrated ‘Dies Natalis in Victi Solis’ (Birthday of the Unconquered Sum). This day was sacred to Mithras, God of Light and Attis, the Phrygian Sun god. Saturnalia, the Roman festival of fire and light was celebrated on the 17th f December and lasted for seven days. During the festival, merry-making and mischief were encouraged and houses were decorated with greenery and lights.

Our habit of exchanging gifts at Christmas probably originated from the three days of Kalens when strenae (gifts) were exchanged to honour the goddess Strena.

St. Thomas' Day - 21st December

This is the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle. Up until the end of the 19th Century it was traditional in most parts of Britain for poorer people to go door to door collecting gifts of money or food on this day. One favourite food gift was a measure of corn for making Christmas puddings or bread. Usually the local miller would grind this into flour without making a charge.

St. Thomas' Day was often know as "Mumping", "Gooding" or "Doleing" Day and women and children would say that they were going "a-thomasing", "a-gooding", "a-mumping" or "a-curning". When the gifts were handed out the donors were rewarded with wishes of Happy Christmas and in some areas a sprig of holly or mistletoe.

Christmas Day - December 25th

Christmas day is probably the best known and most widely celebrated of all the British feast days, many of which have now been forgotten. On this day we celebrate the birth of Christ with a family feast, carol singing, evergreen decoration and present giving. Even St. Nicholas (6th December) is brought into the proceedings as the bringer of gifts and for his general association with children.

In reality Christmas and all its traditions comes originally from one festival - the winter solstice. Christmas Day is a vestige of centuries when a full twelve days of celebration, known as Christmastide, was the norm. We have condensed many traditions and customs, some from invading cultures, into the three days of celebration we know observe; Christmas Day; Boxing Day and New Year's Day.

St. Stephen's Day - 26th December

St. Stephen
This is the day after the feasting of Christmas Day. St. Stephen's Day was the traditional day to go hunting especially for small birds that were not usually regarded as game. This probably came from the ancient custom of Hunting The Wren on St. Stephen's Day. It is probable that this derived from the ancient cult of the wren which came to Britain during the bronze age. The wren was a sacred totem bird believed to come back to life after being killed.

St Stephens day is also called Boxing Day as this was the day when the earthen ware boxes containing tips given to servants were broken open. The boxes were very much like the "piggy banks" we have today except they had to be smashed to get at the money inside.

St. Stephen was associated with horses and in some areas was regarded as their patron saint. His feast was the traditional day for letting blood from horses. This was a widespread farming practice in England and Wales and was supposed to improve the horses' health.