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 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 Church.
Christmas began with the Church service - for what is Christmas without Christ? A popular carol unique to the Isle of Wight, "The Wold Hark", was sung with great enthusiasm each year.
Christmas dinner, too, was a village affair. A.G. 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. A. G. 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 animal."
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, performed in the church, the centre of the village. 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 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 Dialect".
The Mummers Play later evolved into a play called "The Christmas Boys’ Play”, which consisted of 7 or more characters:
- King George
- The Noble Captain
- The Valiant Soldier
- Father Christmas - dressed in a “John Bull1” manner wearing a Union Flag waistcoat, riding breaches and a top hat.
- Mother Christmas - dressed in traditional English farm garb
- Gurthead & Blunder - a comic character who was a traditional country bumpkin2
- The Doctor, or Doctor Good – a magician as much as physician who would restore the dead characters to life.
Even after the Christmas Boys’ Play had died out by the late Nineteenth Century, part of it remained. The Doctor’s speech from the Christmas Boys’ Play, even after the tradition of performing the play had long died out, was still heard in Shanklin’s schools’ playgrounds as a skipping rhyme into the 1920s:
"'Ere be I, ol' Doctor Good
And in my hands lies that man’s blood
And if he’d been dead six weeks or more
To him, his life, I could restore.
I got a little bottle in my backside waistcoat pocket
Called "Hokum Smokum Alecumpane"
And if I puts a little drop on this man's cheek
He'll rise and boldly fight againy."
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 dominent today. His legacy remains when we "deck the halls with boughs of holly" and sing of "The Holly and the Ivy".
In later years, when Father Christmas did call, it was traditional for children to, 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.
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 bowl from a wassail cup decorated with ribbons and displaying a large apple.
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 Island.
This tradition carried on in the first half of the 20th Century, but then, sadly, died out.3
Related H2G2 Links On Isle Of Wight History
- Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight
- The Pepper Pot, Isle of Wight
- Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight
- Tudor Castles on and around the Isle of Wight
- The America's Cup & Cowes, Isle of Wight
- Piers Of The Isle of Wight
- Isle of Wight Hovercraft
- The Isle of Wight Space Programme