Wight Christmas

2 Conversations

Bluebottle by Amy the Ant

On the Isle of Wight, Christmas has traditionally
been celebrated in ways similar to those of the rest
of the South of England; ways which have now been
completely usurped by the consumerist idea of
Christmas today. Although before Victorian times
Christmas was perhaps less of a family occasion, it
was more of a community occasion, with friends and
family gathering together as an extended family
celebrating Christmas together, focused on the village

Christmas began with the Church service – for what
is Christmas without Christ? A popular carol unique to
the Isle of Wight, The Wold
, was sung with great
enthusiasm each year.

Christmas Dinner

Christmas dinner, too, was a village affair. AG
Cole records, in 1948, how the tradition in Yarmouth on
the Island was for the local butcher, dressed in a
spotlessly clean blue apron, to lead a well-fatted ox
round the streets of Yarmouth. The ox would be
carefully groomed and adorned with ribbons and holly,
attracting a procession of the families who would be
fed from the animal. AG Cole wrote:

Discussions took place on the savoury
meat the ox would supply, and how the various cuts
would be allocated. As a child, it always seemed to me
extremely callous to mention these matters within
hearing of the unfortunate

Somehow, this seems to show community spirit far
more than the traditional mad scramble to the local
supermarket where everyone's mother pushes in front of
all the neighbours' mothers and wives in a desperate
attempt to grab the best value goose before the
competition does.

The Mummers' Play

Then, in the evening, came what was perhaps the
most looked-forward to part of the Christmas
celebration. This was the village's Mummers' Play. This was
initially performed in the church, the centre of the
village, although by the early 20th Century
performances had moved to large houses and especially
local pubs. There, landlords would encourage the
performance through the reward of free food and drinks,
knowing that a good crowd would be

This costumed pageant, in many ways the ancestor of
the modern pantomime, normally took the form of a
battle in which Good, represented by Father Christmas,
Mother Christmas and their son St George, overcame Evil, in the form of a French Captain, a Turkish Knight and his Dragon. The script
of one of these performances is recorded in William
Long's 1886 A Dictionary Of The Isle Of Wight

Despite the name 'Mummer's Play', performances were
loud and full of boasts between the characters, such as:

I'll hag thee, I'll jag thee,

I'll cut thee small as a fly;

I'll zend thee to zome far land

To make a Crismus pie.

Naturally all the characters, especially the French
Knight and the Turk, spoke in Isle of Wight

After the challenges between the knights had been
issued battle would commence, with St George killing
the Dragon, French Captain and Turkish Knight in a
sword fight. Father and Mother Christmas would then
arrive and argue, and indeed fight, about what to do
now, with both finally deciding that the Turk and French
Captain, having learnt their lessons, should be cured.
The Doctor would then be called for, and everyone
brought back to life3.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas, who was a tall, thin man with a
brown beard, dressed in green and normally travelled
by donkey, was not so much a part of the Christmas
celebrations then as now. His pagan origins were from
the North of England, where he was portrayed as a
jovial figure, garlanded with Ivy, and was considered
to be the 'spirit of the wildwood' – more similar to
Elves than the Santa image which is so dominant today.
His legacy remains when we 'deck the halls with
boughs of holly
' and sing of 'The Holly and the

In later years, when Father Christmas did call, it
was traditional for children, after writing their
letters saying what they wanted, to burn them in the
same chimney which Father Christmas would come down,
as it was believed that Father Christmas would be able
to read the smoke.

In many ways the lack of presents and Father
Christmas didn't matter. Christmas was both a more
Holy and more Social time than it is now, where
children, bored of the expensive presents their
parents had bought in last year's January sales spend
most of the day arguing over who gets to keep which
toy from out of the crackers.

Christmas Decorations

The villages and houses were decorated, as houses
are now, but in a more simple, but more magical way.
On the night of Christmas Eve all the decorations went
up. These decorations were provided by nature, such as
various evergreens and especially the holly, or they
were made by hand. The effect was that any child going
to bed on Christmas Eve would wake up on Christmas Day
to a village completely different to the one the day
before – the whole village appearing to have been
miraculously transformed. Somehow this seems purer
than now, when various shops start their Christmas
displays at any time from September, depending on
whether they have got new stock in and have finished
their autumn sales.

The Island has strong links with the tradition of
Christmas trees. First of all it is believed that its
inventor, Saint Boniface, was on the Island during the
690s. It is also known that Osborne House on the
Island was one of the first places in the United
Kingdom to have a Christmas Tree, as Queen Victoria,
Prince Albert and their children spent the time before
Christmas on the Island, although Christmas itself was
spent in Windsor.


The tradition of wassailing, from the Anglo-Saxon
toast Wæshael, meaning 'good health', is linked
to the harvest of apples and was celebrated on the
Island on New Year's Day and Twelfth Night. On New
Year's Day in the town it involved the communal
wassail bowl - a wooden ash bowl filled with roasted
apples, hot, spiced ale, cream and sugar, and the
wassailers would tour the town allowing their
neighbours a drink from the wassail cup
decorated with ribbons and displaying a large

There they would sing the 'letting in' song:

Wassail, wassail, to your town,

The cup is white and the ale is brown.

The cup is made of the ashen tree

And the ale is brewed of good barley.

Little maid, little maid, turn the pin,

Open the door and let us in.

God be here and God be there,

We wish you all a Happy New Year.

Wassailing also took place on Twelfth Night, where
on the farms and orchards themselves a different
celebration took place. The head farmer would take the
farm workers into the orchard, seize a branch of the
most prominent tree, and recite the Wassail Song:

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,

And hope that thou wilt bear.

For the Lord doth know where we shall be,

'Til apples come again next year.

To blow well and bear well

So merry let us be

Let every man take off his hat,

And shout to the old apple tree;

Old apple tree we wassail thee

I hopes that thou wilt bear

Hat-fulls, cup-fulls, three bushel bag fulls

And a little heap under the stairs.

The orchard would be toasted with warm cider, with
the remaining cider fed to the roots of the trees. In
the 1920s in Yarmouth, when the Apple Tree was
wassailed, a pistol was fired through the branches of
the tree to the shout of Hip-Hip Horray!, but
apparently not before then, and not everywhere on the

This tradition carried on in the first half of the
20th Century, but then, sadly, died

Related Links

Christmas banner by Wotchit


18.12.03 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1Sadly the verses do not seem to
have survived.
2A revival in the 1990s by local
schoolchildren took place in both St James Square and
St Thomas Square, Newport.
3It is believed that this
resurrection aspect of the Mummer's Play was a
throwback to Pagan Winter Solstice rituals where
Winter and Spring symbolised Death and
4Although similar customs have been
revived on English Apple Day on October

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