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Archiver > CORNISH > 1998-12 > 0912922182

From: Elizabeth Agar <>
Subject: Christmas Customs - #4 - M.A.Courtney
Date: Sun, 6 Dec 1998 16:29:42 +1100

This is the fourth "Christmas" transcript from "Cornish Feasts and
Folklore" by Miss M. A. Courtney, published in 1890.
On St. Stephen's-day, 26th December, before the days of gun-licences, every
man or boy who could by any means get a gun went out shooting, and it was
dangerous to walk the lanes. The custom is said to have had its origin in
the legend of one of St. Stephen's guards being awakened by a bird just as
his prisoner was going to escape. A similar practice prevailed in the
neighbourhood of Penzance on "feasten Monday", the day after Advent Sunday;
but on that day I have never heard of any religious idea connected with it.

In the week after Christmas-day a fair is held at Launceston (and also at
Okehampton in Devonshire), called "giglet fair" (a "giglet or giglot" is a
giddy young woman). It is principally attended by young people. "At this
'giglet market', or wife-market, the rustic swain was privileged with
self-introduction to any of the nymphs around him, so that he had a good
opportunity of choosing a suitable partner if tired of a single life." -
(Britton and Brayley's Devon and Cornwall.)

It is unlucky indeed to begin a voyage on Childermas (Innocent's -day),
also to wash clothes, or to do any but necessary household work.

On New Year's-eve in the villages of East Cornwall, soon after dusk,
parties of men, from four to six in a party, carrying a small bowl in their
hands, went from house to house begging money to make a feast. They opened
the doors without knocking, called out Warsail, and sang:-

"These poor jolly Warsail boys
Come travelling through the mire."

This custom was common fifty years since, and may still be observed in
remote rural districts. There is one saint whose name is familiar to all
in Cornwall, but whose sex is unknown. This saint has much to answer for;
promises made, but never intended to be kept, are all to be fulfilled on
next St. Tibb's-eve, a day that some folks say "falls between the old and
the new year"; others describe it as one that comes "neither before nor
after Christmas."

Parties are general in Cornwall on New Year's-eve to watch in the New Year
and wish friends health and happiness; but I know of no peculiar customs,
except that before retiring to rest the old women opened their Bibles at
hap-hazard to find out their luck for the coming year. The text upon which
the fore-finger of the right hand rested was supposed to foretell the
future. And money, generally a piece of silver, was placed on the
threshold, to be brought in the first thing on the following day, that
there might be no lack of it for the year. Nothing was ever lent on New
Year's-day, as little as possible taken out, but all that could be brought
into the house. "I have even known the dust of the floor swept inwards." -
(T. Q. Couch, W. Antiquary, September, 1883.)

Door-steps on New Year's-day were formerly sanded for good luck, because I
suppose people coming into the house were sure to bring some of it in with
them sticking to their feet.

Many elderly people at the beginning of the present century still kept the
"old style", and held their Christmas-day on Epiphany. On the eve of that
day they said "the cattle in the fields and stalls never lay down, but at
midnight turned their faces to the east and fell on their knees."

Twelfth-day (old Christmas-day) was a time of general feasting and
merriment. Into the Twelfth-day cake were put a wedding-ring, a sixpence
and a thimble. It was cut into as many portions as there were guests; the
person who found the wedding-ring in his (or her) portion would be married
before the year was out; the holder of the thimble would never be married,
and the one that got the sixpence would die rich. After candlelight many
games were played around the open fires. I will describe one:- "Robin's
alight". A piece of stick was set on fire, and whirled rapidly in the
hands of the first player, who repeated the words --

"Robin's alight, and if he go out I'll saddle your back".

It was then passed on, and the person who let the spark die had to pay a
forfeit. - (West Cornwall.)

This game in East Cornwall was known as "Jack's alive".

"Jack's alive and likely to live,
If he die in my hand a pawn I'll give."

In this county forfeits are always called "pawns"; they are cried by the
holder of them, saying -

"Here's a pawn and a very pretty pawn!
And what shall the owner of this pawn do?"

After the midnight supper, at which in one village in the extreme West a
pie of four-and-twenty blackbirds always appeared, many spells to forecast
the future were practised. The following account of them was given to me
by a friend. He says - "I engaged in them once at Sennen (the village at
the Land's End) with a lot of girls, but as my object was only to spoil
sport and make the girls laugh or speak, it was not quite satisfactory. I
suppose the time to which I refer is over forty years ago. After making up
a large turf fire, for hot 'umers' (embers) and pure water are absolutely
necessary in these divinations, the young people left the house in single
file, to pull the rushes and gather the ivy-leaves by means of which they
were to learn whether they were to be married, and to whom; and if any, or
how many, of their friends were to die before the end of the year. On
leaving and on returning each of these twelfth-night diviners touched the
'cravel' with the forehead and 'wished'. The cravel is the tree that
preceded lintels in chimney corners, and its name from this custom may have
been derived from 'to crave'. Had either of the party inadvertently broken
the silence before the rushes and ivy-leaves had been procured they would
all have been obliged to retrace their steps to the house and again touch
the cravel; but this time all went well. When we came back those who
wished to know their fate named the rushes in pairs, and placed them in the
hot embers; one or two of the engaged couples being too shy to do this for
themselves, their friends, amidst much laughing, did it for them. The
manner in which the rushes burned showed if the young people were to be
married to the person chosen or not; some of course burnt well, others
parted, and one or two went out altogether. The couples that burnt
smoothly were to be wedded, and the one named after the rush that lasted
longest outlived the other. This settled, one ivy-leaf was thrown on the
fire; the number of cracks it made was the number of years before the
wedding would take place. Then two were placed on the hot ashes; the
cracks they gave this time showed how many children the two would have. we
then drew ivy-leaves named after present or absent friends through a
wedding-ring, and put them into a basin of water which we left until the
next morning. Those persons whose leaves had shrivelled or turned black in
the night were to die before the next Twelfth-tide, and those who were so
unfortunate as to find their leaves spotted with red, by some violent
death, unless a 'pellar' (wise man) could by his skill and incantations
grant protection. These prophecies through superstition sometimes
unluckily fulfilled themselves."

[to be concluded with a shorter one.]

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