Christmas Past: Whitby Customs

My last Christmas clipping of the week comes from F. K. Robinson’s Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Whitby (1876), the preface of which has a section on festive customs…


The mode of announcing the season in our country places is similar to what has been told of the town; though the rustic, when he calls at the farmstead, lacks not his peculiar address on the occasion:—

‘I wish ye a merry Kessenmas an’ a happy New Year,
A pooakful o’ money an’ a cellar full o’ beer;
A good fat pig an’ a new cawven coo,
Good maisther an# misthress, hoo do yo do;’

and to this he will add at leave-taking, ‘Good luck te yer feather-fowl,’ o. e. to your poultry brood. At twelve o’clock on Christmas eve (and we know that the practice has not altogether ceased in this neighbouhood), the farmer was wont to give his stalled cattle each a sheaf of unthrashed oats; and it is related, that if the byre is entered at this hour, the ocen will be found on their knees, a token of adoration harmonizing with the touches of Shakespeare on the like tradition—

‘So hallow’d and so gracious is the time,’

The bands of ‘Plough Stots’ who follow shortly after Christmas, belong to the pageantry of former days. They are got up chiefly by our country youths, who were wont to be followed by a plough; but that ponderous implement is now represented by a small model carried on a staff. Their white shirts over their jackets are garnished with flourishes cut out in vari-coloured paper or cloth. Sashes of ribbon cross the back and the breast; and rosettes of every hue decorate their hats; while some in the procession, showily dressed in female costume, are termed ‘Bessybabs,’ ‘Ladymadams,’ ‘Queens.’

The set have their sword-dancers, and musicians, who play on the tambourine, fiddle, and flute. When the dancers perform, the Madgipegs, or mummers grotesquely attired, blackened in face, and sometimes bodily enveloped in a hairy hide, with their heads horned, and a tail in due place, go round and rattle their canisters for pen while passing their jokes, and flapping the heads of the crowd with a bladder hung at the end of a stick. In this way they traverse the town, and from village to village; the money collected being spent in enjoyment with their friends and sweethearts. The sword-dance, of Scandinavian origin, is described in its evolutions by Olaus Magnus in his ‘History of the Northern Nations.’

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