Christmas customs

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The kindling of the ‘Christmas brand’ was a custom in certain areas of England in centuries past. It’s described here as practiced in 18th century England.

Christmas Eve the bells greet “Old Father Christmas” with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, or perhaps, in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire; the yule candle is lighted, and–

“High on the cheerful fire Is blazing seen th’ enormous Christmas brand.”

Supper is served, of which one dish, from the lordly mansion to the humblest shed, is invariably furmety; yule cake, one of which is always made for each individual in the family, and other more substantial viands are also added.”

In case you are wondering what ‘furmety’ is, (and I had to look it up myself):

Grains, usually hulled cracked wheat (as ‘Bulgar’ wheat), or occasionally barley, boiled in milk (for a sweet desert dish) or stock (for a savoury accompaniment to meat) with seasonings. Sometimes elaborately flavoured with saffron, spices etc. and sometimes thickened with egg.

[…]‘Furmity’ served with fruit and a slug of rum, plays a major role in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge‘.

“A dish once prominent at Christmas was ‘frumenty’ or ‘furmety’ (variously spelt, and derived from the Latin frumentum, corn). It was made of hulled wheat boiled in milk and seasoned with cinnamon, sugar, &c. … In Yorkshire it was the first thing eaten on Christmas morning, just as ale posset was the last thing drunk on Christmas Eve.” – ‘Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan‘ by Clement A. Miles, 1912

Honey sweet,
Curds to eat,
Cream and frumenty,
Shells and beads,
Poppy seeds,
You shall have plenty

– ‘Sleepyhead’ by Walter de la Mare, c1902

A biographer of Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson says that the US general; “fancied that he had some mysterious internal malady, and would eat nothing but frumenty, a preparation of wheat.”

It’s interesting that ‘Stonewall’ Jackson ate this; apparently the dish was brought to the Southern colonies by our English ancestors, though I don’t know of it being eaten in recent generations in the South.

Some of the English Christmas customs and foods did cross the Atlantic with our forefathers, though, a reminder that our American culture has considerable roots in Britain, especially England.

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