For Christmas, I’ve brought together Christmas folk tales, superstitions rituals and carols, from Derbyshire, and some recorded by Addy that were known in, and may in some cases derive from, North Derbyshire.
The following are from a late 19th century collection by Sidney Oldall Addy: Household Tales and Traditional Remains.[i] The extracts are presented below as emphasised text, to differentiate from background information. With the exception of a few short comments I make (which are italicised, and within the endnotes), the text is quoted verbatim, with speech marks only used where Addy cites informants and other works.
Non-localised Christmas superstitions and rituals
Addy records a number of superstitions and customs (some of which have survived into this 20th century), and ritual practices (sometimes referred to as ‘spells’) without attributing the locality of derivation, suggesting that they belong to a more widespread canon of belief – and perhaps indicating transmission (and fossilisation) through literacy.[ii] Some may relate to the localities mentioned by Addy in preceding paragraphs, although this is unclear (the possible derivations are recorded here in endnotes). As is typical for other seasons (see the previous post on Derbyshire Halloween traditions and folklore on a sister website, Underworld Archaeology), the ‘spells’ are predominantly aimed at girls and women wishing to prophesize their future husband.
Christmas ritual practices
On Christmas Eve unmarried girls lay a white sheet over a chair before the fire, and leave it there all night. In the morning if a spear is found reared against it the girl’s husband will be a soldier ; if a sickle, he will be a farmer, and so on.
If a girl walks backwards to a pear tree on Christmas Eve, and walk round it three times, she will see the spirit or image of the man who is to be her husband.
Christmas superstitions and customs
If you meet with a good log of wood you should preserve it for the Christmas fire.[iii]
If a dog howls on Christmas Eve he will go mad in the following year.[iv]
If a woman goes out of the house on Christmas Eve she must return before midnight.[v]
It is unlucky for a light haired or a red-haired man to “let in” Christmas.[vi]
A candle or lamp should be left burning all night on Christmas Eve. Unless this is done there will be a death in the house.
Ale posset must be the last thing that you drink on Christmas Eve, and frummity the first thing that you eat on Christmas morning.[vii]
On Christmas Eve, or the morning of Christmas Day, you should give a sheaf of oats to every horse, cow, or other beast about your farmhouse.[viii]
If the sun shines brightly on your apple trees on the morning of Christmas Day you will have a good crop of apples next year.[ix]
If you refuse a mince-pie at Christmas you will be unlucky during the following year. As many mince-pies as you eat between Christmas Day and the new year so many happy months will you have.
Evergreens brought into the house before Christmas should not be taken out of the house until Christmas is over, or until Twelfth Day.[x]
If you hang clothes out to dry on Old Christmas Day (January 12) you will be laid in your grave in some of those clothes before the year is out.[xi]
On Candlemas Day Christmas decorations should be burnt.[xii]
Christmas Superstitions in Derbyshire
In Derbyshire it is said that if the yule log is not burnt away on Christmas Eve the ashes or embers must on no account be taken out of the house.
No fire must on any account be taken out of the house between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
In the north of Derbyshire, and also in Sheffield, it is a very common practice to ask some dark-haired man to come into the house on the morning of Christmas Day before any other person has entered. The same man will often “let in” Christmas for a number of families, calling at their houses early in the morning. He usually walks in at the front door and goes out at the back door. In many houses the custom is very strictly maintained.
This tradition compares with the custom of ‘first footing’, more commonly associated with New Year.
Derbyshire Folk Tales
The Man That Stole the Parson’s Sheep (Calver, in Derbyshire)
There was once a man who used to steal a fat sheep every Christmas. One Christmas he stole the parson’s sheep, and his son, a lad about twelve years old, went about the village singing
My father’s stolen the parson’s sheep,
And a merry Christmas we shall keep,
We shall have both pudding and meat,
But you meant say nought about it.
Now it happened one day that the parson himself heard the boy singing these words, so he said, ” My lad, you sing very well ; will you come to church next Sunday evening and sing it there ? “
” I’ve no clothes to go in/’ said the boy. But the parson said, ” If you will come to church as I ask you, I will buy you clothes to go in.” So the boy went to church the next Sunday evening, dressed in the new clothes that the parson had given him.
When the service was over the parson said to the people, ” Stay, my brethren, I want you to hear what this boy has to sing, it’s gospel truth that he’ll tell you,” for he was hoping that the boy would confess before all the people that his father had stolen the sheep. But the boy got up and sang
As I was in the field one day
I saw the parson kiss a may ;[xiii]
He gave me a shilling not to tell,
And these new clothes do fit me well.
At Bradwell, in the Peak of Derbyshire, once lived a man known as Master John, who was reported to be a wise man, and whose advice was sought by all the people in the village.
It is said that the ghost of a child who had been murdered in the village could not be appeased, and so the aid of Master John was invoked. Master John pronounced the words:
“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, why troublest thou me” and turned the ghost of the child into a large fish.
This fish used to appear, it is said, at a place called the Lum  Mouth, and also at Lumley Pool, in Bradwell, on Christmas Day to people who fetched water from the wells there.
When anybody saw the ghost in the form of a fish he would run away, screaming cc the fish, the fish.”[xiv]
The following carol is sung on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in the neighbourhood of Sheffield. It is called:
JOLLY WESSEL BOUGH (BOO).
Girls. Our jolly wessel,
Love and joy come to you,
And to our wessel bough (boo) ;
Pray God send you
A happy new year,
A new year, a new year.
We’ve been a while a-wandering
Amongst the leaves and greaves,[xv]
And now we come a- wesseling,
So plainly to be seen.
Boys. God bless the master of this house,
And the mistress also,
Likewise the little children
That round the table go.
I wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy new year,
A pocket full of money,
And a cellar full of beer,
At Eckington, in Derbyshire, a village about eight miles from Sheffield, the children carry a doll in a box when they go round singing this carol.
In Eckington another hymn or carol[xvi] is sung by children on Christmas Eve, the words and tune being as follows :
This carol is of course familiar to many today, although the melody and lyrics differ to those of the ‘traditional’ version most commonly sung in the 20th and 21st centuries. The 1929 ed. of The Oxford Book of Carols (ed. Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughn Williams and Martin Shaw) records that the ‘traditional’ version recorded in that edition “(in Sandys, 1833 ) differs only in v. 3 from the Derbyshire version with our first tune in Bramley & Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old , 1871”
About Dronfield, in Derbyshire, they sing at Christmas the carol beginning :
The first good joy that Mary had it was the joy of one
To see her own son Jesus suck at her breast-bone ;
It brings tidings of comfort and joy.[xvii]
The tradition of regional carols continues in the pubs of North Derbyshire today; several recordings can be seen on Youtube, which last year I collated as a playlist, available here.
I hope to return to Derbyshire customs recorded by Addy for the New Year
[i] Household Tales and Traditional Remains. Collected in the Counties of York, Lincoln, Derby, and Nottingham, published 1895.
[ii] Discussion of the origins of Christmas traditions and customs celebrated and practiced at the national and international scale will be left to the numerous texts on this topic.
[iii] Possibly Nottinghamshire
[iv] Possibly from East Riding
[vii] Possibly from South Yorkshire
[viii] Possibly from East Riding
[ix] Possibly from Derbyshire
[x] Possibly from East Riding
[xii] Possibly from Sheffield
[xiii] Addy states “Maid. O. N. mar, ace. mcy.”
[xiv] Addy suggests “Compare Wood’s Tales and Traditions of the High Peak, 1862, p. 183.”
[xv] Addy notes “Old English graft’, a greave, or grove. The version here printed was written down by me on Christmas Day, 1890.”
[xvi] Addy comments: “It seems probable that the singer of this carol formerly carried a box containing the figure of a child. This is called the “bessel cup” “.
[xvii] According to Addy “The words of the carol are the same as those given in Brand’s Popular Antiquities, ed. 1849, i. 454. In singing the carol the last line of each stanza is repeated several times. The “vessel cup,” is not carried about in Dronfield, but it is carried about in the village of Handsworth, near Sheffield. Taking the whole evidence together, it seems to me that the “box,” “milly box,” “bessel cup,” or ” vessel cup,” represents the image of a vessel or ship in which an effigy of the boy Sceaf (afterwards changed to Jesus) was carried about as a representation of the birth of the year. Vessel, or vessel, in the sense of ship, is at least as old as Chaucer’s time. The idea seems to have been that the New Year, like a child, came over the sea in a ship.”