Santa Klaus was, originally a 4th Century Bishop from Asia Minor who saved three girls from prostitution by throwing golden balls through their window enabling them to marry with a good dowry. He, also, saved three boys from beheading. So he became the patron saint of children.
Representation of the balls can still be seen on pawnbroker’s shop, and the gifts Nicholas gave led to the exchange of gifts to honour him. They were originally given on December 6th, his feast day. The tradition of Santa Klaus was taken by the Dutch to the United States and mixed with other traditions, including the English Father Christmas, to create our modern spirit of Christmas.
The idea of Boy Bishops may come from a tradition established by Saturnalia. This was the festival, in the Roman world, when servants exchanged duties with masters and mistresses. The medieval Christmas was ruled over not only by the Lord of Misrule but also by Boy Bishops. It was a tradition that was attacked in some quarters but defended by others on the basis of the humanity of the custom, the empathy it engendred and the fun it could instigate.
They were elected on December 6th (Childermass) It was stopped by Henry VIII, although later revived and practised to this day in the Cathedrals of Hereford and Salisbury. The Boy Bishops wears full ceremonial gear and takes part in ceremonies and services for three weeks.
There are also medieval records that speak of the custom:
“two children’s copes, also a myter of cloth of gold set with stones.” 1549 “For 12 oz. silver, being clasps of books and the bishop’s mitre,
St. Mary-at-Hill, London Church Accounts
“The vj myter of Seynt Nycholas bysshoppe, the grounde therof of whyte sylk, garnysshed complete with ffloures, gret and small, of sylver and gylte, and stones
Westminster Abbey, St Pauls & St Nicholas Cole Abbey London inventories
Also records at St Pauls record: una mitra alba cum flosculis breudatis ad opus episcopi parvulorum baculus ad usum episcopi parvulorum;’
St Nicholas Cole Abbey in the City of London,
This Church to St Nicholas is first mentioned in the 12th Century and was never an Abbey. The Cole part of the name is thought to refer to a ‘Coldharbour’ which was a traveller’s or poor persons shelter from the cold.
There is an inventory dating to the Reformation that records vestments for children at St Nicholas. The Church was rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire, and is, possibly, the location where Trotty Veck stands awaiting employment as a messenger or runner, in Dickens’s second greatest Christmas Book after the Christmas Carol. The story is more a New Year story than a Christmas story.
For more on boy bishops look at this, and look at this 1935 film about Boy ~Bishops in Compton, Guildford.
First published December 6th, 2022. Revised and republished 6th December 2023
Worlidge ‘s ‘Systema Agriculturae’ 1697 says this is the time to destroy snails. He suggests that, at Michaelmas, you create a shelter for snails against a wall using bricks or boards. In Early December the plantsman can get his revenge on the little blighters, unsuspected and snuggled up in their cosy den. (First spotted in Charles Knightly’s Perpetual Almanac)
The RHS has some more modern advice, but generally takes a negative opinion of snails. The Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust take a much more positive view of snails and slugs and proposes their contribution to nature should be rewarded by learning to love and live with the little critters.
Improving the cider before Christmas
If your cider is a bit off add half a peck of wheat to restart the fermentation to make it more mild and gentle. Use Mustard or two or three rotten apples to clear the cider.
Although it’s all a little Thomas Hardy, Cider expert Gabe Cook provides instruction in how to make cider from your own cider tree without investing in a huge fruit press.
First Published on December 5th 2022, revised and republished on December 5th 2023
Below, I give links to the Late November and early December Posts I have revised and republished. But, first, I would like to tell you about a great lecture I heard at the British Museum, this evening. It was given by Dr Emma Southon on her book about women in the Roman Empire. Her viewpoint was that a study of women in the Roman Empire gives a radically different insight into the Roman world than the traditional. One full of humanity rather than normal evidence which is, generally, about wars, and Empires and bravery and horrific cruelty and ambition and honour. She started with the story of Turia, whose extraordinary epitaph on her tombstone miraculous survived and gave her husband’s view of his extraordinary wife, and his utter sorrow at his loss on her death. Below, is a review of the book and a link to a podcast with the Author.
So, here are the December posts. December 1st and 2nd give an overview of December and the meaning of Winter. December 3rd is about Advent and the fact that you were not allowed to marry during Advent. December 4 gives a Shakespearean view of a cold winter’s day, and a composition by Vaughan Williams.
And late November posts, November 28th tells some interesting tales, both ancient and modern, about Eels, Pies, Rock ‘n’ Roll and my horror of Jellied Eels. November 29th, tells you how to make a ‘dish of snow’ and introduces Ice Houses. November 30th is about Scotland and St Andrews. Like them if you like them! And share them if you want to share them.
When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marion’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
William Shakespeare - Love's Labours Lost
William Shakespeare – Love’s Labours Lost (LLL V.ii.901)
The poem is near the end of the play, by way of a conclusion, two works are composed for the King of Navarro in praise of the Cuckoo and the Owl, one read by a representation of the Spring and the other by ‘Hiems’ the representation of winter.
The Venerable Bede tells us that King Lucius converted to Christianity in around 180AD. He says that the King asked Pope Eleutherius to send teachers to instruct him. The Venerable Bede (died 735 AD) got this from the Liber Pontificalis of c 590. There is also a tradition that St Peter’s Cornhill in London was set up by King Lucius, and that St Peter’s is the oldest Church in London.
What to make of this? Bede is considered to be a reliable historian and got his information, in this case, from the Vatican. But the tradition has been written off as a legend. Indeed, there are questions to be answered, but there is, arguably, more to it than a legend but, unfortunately, not enough to make it an established fact.
Not the least of the questions to ask is: ‘What does it mean to be called the King of Britain in the middle of the Roman occupation?’
As to the early origin of St Peters, archaeologists have written off the tradition as St Peter’s is built over the Roman Forum and so how can it have been the site of a Christian Church?
But the balance of possibilities, arguably, changed in the 1980s, when archaeologists led by Gustav Milne showed that the Basilica of the Forum was pulled down in about 300AD. So from being practically an impossibility, there is now a possibility that this became the site of a Roman Church. We know London sent at least one Bishop to Constantine the Great’s Council of Arles in 314AD, so a Christian community in London must have predated this time. And a site, here, at the prestigious centre of the Capital at Londinium, is plausible.
In AD306, Constantine was acclaimed Emperor on the death of his Father, Constantius Chlorus whose wife was Helena, a Christian. He and his mother were in York when his father died. He was recognised as Caesar, (but not Augustus) by Emperor Galerius a ruled the province for a while before moving to Trier, then Rome, where he accepted the Christian God’s help in becoming the ruler of Rome. This might give a context for the demolition of the Basilica and its replacement by a Church. There is no archaeological evidence for it other than the demolition of the Basilica and the legends.
Where does that leave King Lucius? There are well attested Christian traditions that Britain was an early convert to Christianity. (The following quotes are from my book ‘In Their Own Words – A Literary Companion To The Origins Of London‘ D A Horizons, 2009 by Kevin Flude and available here.)
So, an early date for an active Christian community is likely. A Church, replacing the Basilica, is plausible, particularly, after Constantine the Great probably passed through London on his way to seize the Roman Empire. But such an early date as the late 2nd Century? And could anyone, claim to be the ‘King of Britain’ at this date? We do know that King Togidubnus was called Great King of Britain in a Roman Temple inscription in Chichester in the First Century.
To Neptune and Minerva, for the welfare of the Divine House by the authority of Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, Great King of Britain, the Guild of Smiths and those therein gave this Temple from their resources, Pudens, son of Pudentinus, presenting the site.
Togidubnos seems to have been placed in control of a large part of Southern England, centred around Chichester, after the invasion of 43AD. He is thought to have been the successor to Verica, who was exiled and called on the Romans to restore his throne. Tactitus says that he remained loyal until late in the 1st Century. So he presumably held the line for the Romans against the Boudiccan revolt in 60AD. The Romans had used Verica’s fall as their excuse for invasion, and so an honorific of Great King to him and his successors makes sense. It is assumed that after Togidubnos’s death after 80AD, the title lapsed. But it might have stayed with the family as an empty honour? Furthermore, we know that Britain had a lot of Kings and Queens before the Roman period, and, as the Romans, never conquered the whole of Britain, there were British Kings all the way through the period of Roman control, at least beyond Hadrian’s Wall.
So, it is possible there was someone in Britain who had, or made, a claim to be ‘King’ whether ‘a’ or ‘the’ or merely descended from one, we don’t know. And that that someone, perhaps converted to Christianity, possibly in the time of Pope Eleutherius.
It has been suggested that Lucius of Britain was confused with Lucius of Edessa, but this is not very convincing.
The link to London and St Peters, need not be a contemporary one, it might be two traditions that are linked together at a later period. But, of course, there is a faint possibility that the Basilica shrine room, above which St Peter’s is built, was converted for Christian use at the earlier time necessary to make sense of the King Lucius story.
King Lucius may not be a proper saint, but he has a feast day because of his connections to Chur in Switzerland, which saw him enter the Roman Martyrology. David Knight proposes that the tradition of the martyrdom of Lucius in Chur comes from the transplanting of rebellious Brigantes to the Raetia frontier in the 2nd Century AD, bringing with them the story of Lucius and that, possibly, at the end of the King’s life he travelled to join the exiles in Switzerland where he met his unknown end. If true, this would base the story of Lucius in the North rather than London.
For further reading, see ‘King Lucius of Britain by David J Knight.
John Stow in the 16th Century records the tradition, which comes with a list of early British Bishops of London, which are recorded in Jocelin of Furness ‘Book of British Bishops’. This book is discussed by Helen Birkett ‘Plausible Fictions: John Stow, Jocelin of Furness and the Book of British Bishops’. In Downham C (ed) /Medieval Furness: Texts and Contexts/, Stamford: Paul Watkins, 2013.
Her analysis concludes that the book is a ’12th-century confection in support of moving the archbishopric from Canterbury ‘back’ to London.’ (This information was included in a comment to the original post by John Clark, Emeritus Curator of the Museum of London.)
To sum up. We can’t bring King Lucius out of legend, nor link him with St Peters Cornhill, but the site of St Peters is a plausible, though unproven, location for a Roman Church from the 4th Century onwards.
First Published on December 3rd, 2022. Revised in December, 2023.
In Lia Leendertz’ lovely ‘The Almanac – A Seasonal Guide to 2022’ she lists the following as in season for foraging:
Crab Apples and sweet chestnuts Roots: Dandelion, horseradish, Jerusalem Artichokes, and wild garlic Wild Greens: chickweed, dandelion, and wintercress Game: Hare, rabbit, pheasant, and venison
Sweet Chestnuts were introduced by the Romans and have long been a feature of Christmas. They can be ‘baked, roasted, boiled or microwaved’. You need to prepare them by scoring a cross in them; otherwise they will explode when cooked. They are often sold by street vendors (there is often a seller on the Millennium Bridge on the way to Tate Modern in London) and, in my family, are always a part of the stuffing for the Turkey. They can also be candied, puréed or stored in syrup. (The Woodland Trust Foraging in November and December).
John Evelyn, the 17th Century Diarist and author of a book on trees (Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber) wrote that the nuts were:
‘delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks, and able to make women well-complexioned’
He complained that in England they are chiefly given to pigs to eat.
Chestnut meal was also used for whitening linen and for making starch. Marones, imported from Italy, France, Switzerland, and S. Germany contain 15% sugar and so were used to make a thick syrup and a ‘very usable’ sugar, from which Marons Glacés are made.
The wood of the chestnut is very useful and is/was used for building, pit props, furniture, poles for hops etc. but is nowhere near as long-lasting as oak.
Medically, they were used for treating convulsive coughs such as whooping-cough, where the leaves were infused in a pint of boiling water. (A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve)
First Published on 3rd December 2022, Revised and republished in December 2023
Advent Sunday is the beginning of the Christian Liturgical year, when the Church prepares for the major festivals of the Messiah’s life – his birth and his death. It begins with the ‘Hanging of the Greens’ when Churches and other public buildings were bedecked with seasonal foliage. The ‘Liturgical colours’, which are purple, green, gold (or white) and red – are changed to purple and used for altar linen, clergy robes and other hangings. At home, the Christmas Tree and decorations are taken out of the cupboard/cellar/shelf/box and put up.
Too Late to wed before Advent
Traditionally, you could not marry after Advent and before 12th Night. So it’s now too late to marry before that bump gets too big!
Wedding dresses were traditionally whatever beautiful dress you had. White only became de rigueur once Queen Victoria wore one, and the costs of material reduced because of mass production.
First Published 28th November 2022. Republished Dec 3rd 2023
Winter, meteorologically speaking is described in the Northern Hemisphere as being December, January, and February, which is, of course, a convention rather than a fact. Astronomically, winter starts with the Winter Solstice when the sun is at its lowest and so stretches from around December 21st to the Equinox around March 21st.
Logically, the solstice should be a midpoint of winter rather than the beginning of it, with 6 weeks of winter on either side of it. This is roughly what the Celtic year does, it starts at dusk on 31st October (Halloween/Samhain) and continues to the evening of 31st January (Candlemas/Imbolc). So a Celtic Winter is November, December and January.
As far as the Sun goes this is really correct, but, in fact, because of the presence of the oceans (and to a lesser extent) the earth, the coldest time is not the Solstice when the Sun is at its weakest, but a few weeks later in January. The oceans (and the landmass) retain heat, and so the coldest (and the warmest) periods are offset, so January 13th is probably the coldest day not December 21st.
December comes from the Latin for ten – meaning the tenth month. Of course it is the twelfth month because the Romans added a couple of extra months especially to confuse us. For a discussion on this look at an early blog post which explains the Roman Calendar.
In Anglo-Saxon it is ærra gēola which means the month before Yule. In Gaelic it is An Dùbhlachd – the Dark Days which is part of An Geamhrachd, meaning the winter, and the word comes from an early Celtic term for cold, from an ‘ancient linguistic source for ‘stiff and rigid’’, which describes the hard frosty earth. (see here for a description of the Gaelic Year).
My personal calendar suggests that winter begins on November 5th, because this is the day I generally notice how cold it has suddenly got. This year, my smart meter tells me that winter began in the last week of November.
December was originally the 10th Month of the unreformed Roman Calendar, now the 12th. For the Christian Church, it’s the period preparing for the arrival of the Messiah into the World. For the Anglo-Saxons it is the month of Yule, the midwinter festival. In Welsh, Rhafgyr, the month of preparation (for the shortest day). In Gaelic, An Mios (or Dudlach or an Dubhlachd) – the Darkness.
For a closer look at the month, I’m turning to the 15th Century Kalendar of Shepherds. Its illustration (see above) for December shows an indoor scene, and is full of warmth as the bakers bake pies and cakes for Christmas. Firewood has been collected, and the Goodwife is bringing something in from the Garden. The stars signs are Sagittarius and Capricorn.
The Venerable Bede has an interesting story (reported in ‘Winters in the World’ by Eleanor Parker) in which a Pagan, contemplating converting to Christianity, talks about a sparrow flying into a warm, convivial Great Hall, from the bitter cold winter landscape. The sparrow enjoys this warmth, but flies straight out, back into the cold Darkness. Human life is like this brief period in the light, warm hall, preceded and followed by cold, unknown darkness. If Christianity, can offer some certainty as to what happens in this darkness, then it’s worth considering.
This contrast between the warm inside and the cold exterior is mirrored in Neve’s Almanack of 1633 who sums up December thus:
This month, keep thy body and head from cold: let thy kitchen be thine Apothecary; warm clothing thy nurse; merry company thy keepers, and good hospitality, thine Exercise.
Quoted in ‘the Perpetual Almanack of Folklore’ by Charles Kightly
The Kaledar of Shepherds text below gives a vivid description of December weather and then elaborates on the last six years of a man’s life, with hair going white, body ‘crooked and feeble’. The conceit here is that there are twelve months of the year, and a man’s lot of ‘Six score years and ten’ is allocated six years to each month. So December is not just about the 12th Month of the Year but also the last six years of a person’s allotted span. The piece allows the option of living beyond 72, ‘and if he lives any more, it is by his good guiding and dieting in his youth.’ Good advice, as we now know. But living to 100 is open to but few.
The longer description of December (shown below) by Breton in 1626 gives a detailed look at the excesses of Christmas, who is on holiday, and who working particularly hard. But it concludes it is a costly month.
The Kalendar was printed in 1493 in Paris and provided ‘Devices for the 12 Months.’ I’m using a modern (1908) reconstruction of it using wood cuts from the original 15th Century version and adding various text from 16th and 17th Century sources. (Couplets by Tusser ‘Five Hundred Parts of Good Husbandrie 1599, and text descriptions of the month from Nicholas Breton’s ‘Fantasticks of 1626. This provides an interesting view of what was going on in the countryside every month.
Saint Andrew was the first Apostle and he introduced his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus. Not much about his later life is known but the idea that he was martyred on a X-shaped cross, the saltire, is probably a medieval invention. Formerly, a simple fisherman and so patron of fishermen, and fishmongers. Also, the patron saint of Scotland and Russia; of singers and pregnant woman, and efficacious in offering protection against sore throats and gout. More about St. Andrew below.
His association with Russia comes from Eusebius who quotes Origen recording that Andrew preached in Scythia. The Chronicle of Nestor says he travelled to Kiev and Novgorod and so became a patron saint of Ukraine, Romania and Russia. (Wikipedia).
Scottish legends has St Andrew both visiting Scotland and some of his relics coming to Fife in the 4th Century or the 8th Century. St Rule was tasked with taking some of Andrew’s relics to the edges of the world, and he turned up in Fife with a kneecap, arm and finger bone which were kept in St Rule’s Church and which gave St Andrew’s name to the town. of St Andrews is also famous as the home of golf and the oldest University in Scotland, (founded in 1412). The relics were transferred to the Cathedral, but they were destroyed in the Reformation. In 1979 the Archbishop of Amalfi gifted a piece of Saint Andrew’s shoulder blade to St Andrews and Pope Paul VI gave further remains to Scotland in 1969
a shoulder blade reputedly belonging to Andrew was gifted to Scotland by the Archbishop of Amalfi in 1879 and Pope Paul VI presented further remains to the nation in 1969.
In Kent and Sussex Andrewtide gave the right to hunt squirrels, and in Hasted’s History of Kent (1782) the day is said to allow the ‘lower kind’ to form a lawless rabble hunting any manner of hares, partridges and pheasants. (Perpetual Almanac by Charles Kightly).
St Andrew in London
On the corner of Leadenhall Street and St Mary Axe in the City of London is one of the very few medieval Churches that survived the Great Fire of London is 1666. It was sheltered by the firebreak that was the Leadenhall, a big market building made of stone.
The Church is the Maypole Church as it was here the Maypole or the shaft was stored under the eves of the Church when not in use. Hence, St Andrew’s sobriquet of ‘Undershaft’. The MayDay riot in 1517 put an end to the dancing around the Maypole but the pole itself survived until 1547 when, in a Puritan riot, the ‘stynking idol’ was destroyed. (see my May Day blog post here for more more details of Mayday.)
This is where the great London historian John Stow is buried. His Survey of London is one of the best sources for Medieval and Tudor London. Every three years, on April 5th or thereabouts, there is a commemorative service and his quill is changed. The Lord Mayor attends and it is organised by Stow’s Guild – the Merchant Taylors.
There is also a plaque to Hans Holbein, but no one knows, for sure, where he is buried. He died in London in 1543, possibly of plague.
First Published on 30th November 2022, Revised and republished on 30th November 2023