Country & Coast: Weird and wonderful festive traditions still bring us together

In East Yorkshire, the lighting of the Christmas candle remains a popular custom, says Roger Ratcliffe.
In East Yorkshire, the lighting of the Christmas candle remains a popular custom, says Roger Ratcliffe.
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OLD FOLK customs are particularly strong in Yorkshire at this time of the year, and a few of them have been observed for many centuries.

Some promise good luck, such as the belief that looking into the garden on Christmas Day and seeing the sun shine through the boughs of your apple trees promises a fine crop the following autumn.

Others, though, are cautionary. In parts of South Yorkshire if a fair-haired man is first to wish you a Merry Christmas then you’ll have a year of bad fortune, a hand-me-down superstition that goes right back to the invasion by all those pillaging blond Vikings.

Christmas Eve is the focus of many country traditions and one of the quaintest is what is known as the “Poor aud ’os” in the North Yorkshire town of Richmond. One man puts on a long black cloak to which is attached a decorated horses’s head - actually a real skull - and is escorted round the streets followed by a group of scarlet-coated huntsmen decked with holly who sing an old folk song called ‘Poor Old Horse’.

It is said to be a fertility ritual going back to pagan times, and the horse pays special attention to any teenage girls it comes across. Cue much screaming and laughter.

In Dewsbury, there is a 700-year-old Christmas Eve tradition known as “Tolling the Devil’s Knell”. At 10pm only the tenor bell is rung at All Saints Church, and it tolls once for every year since the birth of Jesus, timed to finish precisely on the stroke of midnight.

According to legend, the bell was given to the church by a local squire Sir Thomas de Soothill as penance for murdering a servant, and it was always rung on Christmas Eve to remind him of his crime.

People in Calderdale still carry on the tradition of eating dock pudding for breakfast on Christmas morning. Made from a mixture of dock leaves, nettles, onion and oatmeal, it is supposed to purify the blood ready for the day’s feasting.

In the East Riding some still deck their houses with holly or other evergreens, but are careful to throw them away afterwards since burning them guarantees bad news.

Also in East Yorkshire is the custom of lighting the Christmas Candle. It stands in the centre of a table which the family sit round to eat a sweet pudding known as frumety.

Another dish only eaten at Christmas is a pepper cake, a kind of gingerbread which might be descended from the peberkage brought here by Danes in the 9th century. It is traditionally eaten with cheese in the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors.

Pub carolling is a long-established tradition in villages around Sheffield, and it is taken so seriously that ‘While Shepherds Watched’ is sung to an incredible range of some 30 different tunes.

Some villages have their own carols, unsung elsewhere, and many are based on 18th century Methodist hymns.

How ironic that these famous teetotallers should now have their tunes raising the rafters in pubs.