My oldest relatives often referring to January 6th as ‘Old Christmas Day’. That comes from the time in 1752 when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar to align our dates with those in use on the continent. The calendar was advanced by 11 days: Wednesday 2nd September, 1752 was followed by Thursday 14th September, 1752 and the year shortened to just 355 days to allow the New Year to fall on January 1st. Not everyone was happy about it. Puritans objected to the imposition of what they saw as a ‘popish’ calendar. Amongst the general populace, some believed their lives had been shortened by 11 days, or were suspicious at the moving of special days, including the date of Christmas. It used to be said there were riots, with people calling out “Give us back our eleven days!”, but this is now believed to be an urban myth. Even so, the mere fact of such a myth arising shows how much concern there was at the change.
Add back the ‘lost’ 11 days to December 25th and you reach January 6th — the so-called Old Christmas Day. Certain events, like the blooming of the Holy Thorn at Glastonbury, could not be ‘fooled’ by the calendar change and were now sought on January 6th instead! That may also be part of the reason why it was considered unlucky to continue Christmas celebrations past Twelfth Night (January 6th again).
Herefordshire, where I was born, had its own Holy Thorns at King’s Thorn and Aconbury, said to be cuttings from Glastonbury. If you could collect a sprig from the Holy Thorn when it blossomed at midnight on Twelfth Night and keep it for the rest of the year, it would bring you and your family good fortune.
Thresholds were always considered chancy places and the threshold of a new year especially so. That’s why the Scots still have the practice of ‘first footing’ — to make sure the first person to cross the threshold on New Year’s Day should be suitable to bring good luck for the year ahead. It’s also why brides are traditionally carried over the threshold of the marital home — to make sure any malign influences or witchcraft spells lurking there can’t get at them.
You often see horseshoes nailed up over doors of old houses — always with the open end facing upwards to keep the good luck from falling out. Evil spirits and the like are supposedly terrified of iron, so it keeps them away from that scary threshold place. Planting an ash, hawthorn or rowan tree outside the door was believed to have a similar effect in keeping witches and demons from entering.
Worst mistake of all was washing any clothes on New Year’s Day. That was certain to cause a death in the year to come by “washing someone out of the family.” That superstition was still alive and well amongst older people in the 1950s to my certain knowledge. In Lincolnshire, it was considered a terrible omen to carry anything out of the house on New Year’s Day before something had been brought into it first.
“Take out then take in, bad luck will begin,
Take in then take out, good luck comes about.”
Winter darkness naturally brought fears of ghosts and death. Daniel Defoe commented on the superstitious fear caused by the sound of the Death Watch Beetle. It must have been common enough for someone to be awake in the dead of night watching over some sick or dying relative. As he says:
“How many people have I seen in the most terrible palpitations for months together, expecting every hour the approach of some calamity, only by a little worm which breeds in old wainscotes and endeavouring to eat its way out makes the noise like the movement of a watch.”
The cries of wild geese flying overhead were also regarded with fear. They sounded to many like hounds baying and were known by various names, such as Gabriel’s Hounds (because he used them to hunt the Devil) or Yell Hounds (the pack of blind, white-and-red hounds of the Wild Hunt led by Hern the Hunter, a giant man with stag’s antlers). I wonder if this superstition, coupled with the unearthly screeches made by vixens in winter as they seek a mate, accounted in part for the persistent Norfolk superstition of the devil-dog known as Black Shuck?
Black Shuck was a ghostly black dog which roamed the coastline and countryside of large parts of East Anglia. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle heard the legend when he was staying in Cromer and used it as the model for “The Hound of The Baskervilles” — the same glowing, malevolent eyes and drooling from its vast jaws. To see Black Shuck meant your certain death was not far off.
In the eighteenth century, death and disaster were constants in poor households, as well as a good many richer ones. We forget how precarious life must have seemed. Bad harvests produced famine and children dying from malnutrition. Almost any wound might produce a serious infection followed by death by septicaemia. The threats from typhus, cholera and a host of other diseases were ever-present.
Against all of these, the medicine of the day was virtually useless. More than half the children born did not survive to reach their fifth birthday. Women died in childbirth all the time. Misfortune of one kind or another must have seemed almost certain. It’s no wonder people looked to a new year with foreboding, rather than excitement, and tried to avoid anything that might stack the odds against them. Indeed, to get past the winter without serious harm must have meant you were uncommonly lucky!
What would have surprised the Georgians is the extent to which people today still follow these superstitions. After all, compared with their time, we in Britain live in a world of amazing safety, abundant food and wonderful medical care.
- I have seen them myself produce a few flowers at Christmas, presumably because of either the microclimate or some genetic mutation. ↩