Nostalgia: The twelve days of Christmas

A site set up for retired seamen and their wives from money left by Admiral John Lawson when he died in 1665 was Trinity House in St Sepulchre Street, still occupied today.
A site set up for retired seamen and their wives from money left by Admiral John Lawson when he died in 1665 was Trinity House in St Sepulchre Street, still occupied today.
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Nowadays, for most of us, the day that follows Christmas is Boxing Day, a relatively new name: for centuries past it was and, for some, still is St Stephen’s Day.

After Jesus, Stephen was the first Christian martyr. All we know of him was recorded in two chapters of the Acts of the Apostles where he is described as a man “full of faith and wisdom” who was also a zealous preacher who did “great wonders and miracles”. Unfortunately, the Hebrew council of elders in Jerusalem thought that this Greek-speaking Jew was no better than a blasphemer. Accordingly, they rushed him out of the city and had him stoned to death. This event is thought to have occurred about 35AD.

But what is the connection between St Stephen and Boxing Day? The answer is that before his violent murder Stephen had been chosen by the Apostles to collect, keep and dispense alms to the poor, so ever since December 26 has been associated with charity.

For hundreds of years Christian churches kept alms-boxes where money raised for the poorest of the parish was stored. Later, it became the custom for employers and landowners to hand out “Christmas boxes” to their workers, tenants and servants and to reward traders such as milkmen, grocers, sweeps, coalmen and dustmen for their loyal, honest service during the past year. In return, servants were given the day free to visit and take presents to their families. The actual name “Boxing Day” was not coined until the nineteenth century.

When bequeathing money in their wills, benefactors often stipulated that it should be doled out to the local elderly, infirm and orphaned at Christmas time. Before the Reformation, such bequests were administered by the clergy; after the Reformation, responsibility for charity often fell to executors or municipal government.

Hinderwell’s History records, for instance, that at Scarborough Admiral Sir John Lawson, who died in 1665, left £100, Mr Conyers, £40, and Mrs Alice Chambers, £20, all of which “investments” were to go to the corporation at five per cent and the interest distributed “amongst the poor at Christmas”.

In fact, such was the notoriety of Scarborough’s unelected councillors for misappropriating public funds, that Lady Lawson, his widow, refused at first to hand over her husband’s gift to it without guarantees against its misuse. She was right: though the interest was doled out at Christmas to the inmates of St Thomas’ poorhouse, the capital sum was spent on rebuilding St Mary’s church tower and nave roof, casualties of the recent Civil Wars.

Eventually, the Common Hall invested Lawson’s money in a new site for retired seamen and their wives which is still occupied by Trinity House in St Sepulchre Street. As a republican Baptist it is unlikely that Admiral Lawson was aware of St Stephen’s traditional charity but he would have approved of the use of his bequest.

The annual football match played on Boxing Day between Fishermen and Firemen dates only from 1898. Originally, it was intended to raise money for the widows and orphans of five Scarborough fishermen who were drowned in November 1893, but subsequently it has helped to support needy and elderly people in the town during the winter.

December 28 is Holy Innocents’ Day, also known as Childermas. In pre-Reformation times, cathedrals and parish churches rang their bells in memory of the children who were believed to have been killed on the orders of King Herod the Great in his attempt to eliminate Jesus. Though according to St Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph was pre-warned of the death and so fled to the safety of Egypt with his wife and child, December 28 was still regarded by early Christians as a particularly ominous and unlucky day, especially for children.

The worst thing you could do on Holy Innocents’ Day was washing; but the jury is still out on what other matters you might attend to on that day. Edward IV postponed his coronation in 1461 because of its planned date, yet that did not save him from an unhappy reign; and Edward the Confessor actually laid the foundation stone of Westminster Abbey on December 28, 1065. For those religious houses and colleges that elected boy bishops for the Twelve Days of Christmas, December 28 was the last in their reign when they gave their final sermons.

At the risk of offending some Scottish readers, it has to be said that their hogmanay, the celebrations during the last day of the old year, seems to be an entirely pagan custom, not recorded earlier than the seventeenth century. Literally, the word means the gift of cake or bread to children which appears to have been now entirely forgotten north of the border. However, in the north of England the beginning of the new year was long marked by first-footing.

In most places, the footer, also known in Yorkshire as Lucky Bird, was male, but dark-haired women from the neighbourhood were also allowed to sweep out the old year and bring in the new. (During the 1939-45 war, when most of the men were away, my own mother, who then had jet-black hair, was first-footer for our street in a West-Riding town; but the tradition died out post-war.)

No fire would be lit in houses until the first-footer had swept the hearths clean. In some places, he or she might bring symbols of warmth, wealth and food, coal, salt and cake. Afterwards the houses and their occupants would enjoy the next 12 months free of hunger, cold and sickness. However, the first day in January meant little to English Christians who regarded March 25, Lady Day, as the true beginning of the new year. Even after Roman Catholic Europe adopted the superior Gregorian calendar in 1582, Protestant Britain stubbornly stuck to the antiquated Julian. For nearly two centuries these islands remained out of step with the continent, so that when finally they accepted the more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1752 they had to leap forward 11 days. As a result, many festivals were celebrated twice on both calendar dates, old and new, in different parts of the kingdom, but we still have annual budgets at the end of March.

Another consequence of calendar discrepancies is that January 6, chosen by the early church as Epiphany, is also celebrated in some locations as Old Christmas day. Epiphany (which means “manifestation” or “showing forth” in Greek) 12 days after the Nativity, marks the arrival at Bethlehem of the Magi, the “three” wise kings or Persian astrologists depending on the translator, from the East. As offerings to Jesus, they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, symbols, it is said, of royalty, divinity and mortality, or Europe, Arabia and Africa. So on the continent, January 6 remains the day when children leave empty shoes to receive their gifts; but in Shakespeare’s England Twelfth Night was the final opportunity to party before the darkness of the long winter set in.