In the immortal words of Slade … it’s Chriiiiiistmas!
We are getting into the Christmas spirit and what better way to do it than to delve into some local Christmas traditions? Here are some of our favourite Christmas activities from our home county of Kent.
Did you know that the term wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon “waes haeil” which means to be whole or healthy? Wassailing is about blessing the apple trees and warding off evil spirits to ensure a good crop in the coming years.
For this reason it’s long been a tradition in Kent and other cider producing areas like Sussex, Somerset and Devon. It involves tying red ribbons to an apple tree and putting cider soaked bread on the branches or pouring cider over the roots of the tree. The wassailers then sing, bang sticks and hit saucepan lids together to make a lot of noise and frighten away the evil spirits. Finally they pass around a bowl of spiced cider.
Here’s a video from the Keston Wassail, revived from the ancient tradition by the Ravensbourne Morris side. The video also includes snippets of their Mumming Play, another Christmas tradition you can read more about below.
Mumming and Hoodening
As mentioned above, Mumming is a Christmas tradition in Kent (and in various other places across the UK) where ancient mumming plays are still performed by folk groups in local pubs around Christmas and New Year, along with lots of drinking and laughter.
The general story of each play is a battle of good and evil with some very recognisable characters like Father Christmas, King George and the Dragon, also a Doctor whose role is to revive the loser of the battle.
The custom of Hoodening, however, is uniquely Kentish. The hoodening horse is a wooden hobby horse mounted on a pole and carried by someone hidden under sack-cloth. Originally farm labourers would travel as teams to carry the hooden horse around the local area, accompanied by music and expecting coins in return for their entertainment. Nowadays, the hooden horse has become incorporated into many Kentish Mummers plays and Morris dances.
Santa Specials on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway
We’re not quite sure how this one started, but we like the combination of Santa Claus and stream trains. The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway is a steam train service and tourist attraction that runs along part of the South Kent coast from Hythe along to Dungeness. In December, you can take a return trip from New Romney to Hythe and meet Santa as part of the trip.
The Santa Special service has been running since 1981, offering children a chance to visit Santa’s grotto and making sure there are plenty of mince pies to go around.
Rochester Dickensian Christmas Festival
How better to get into the Christmas spirit by going back to the time of Charles Dickens? It’s usually futile to avoid mentions of A Christmas Carol at this time of year, so why not go back to the Victorian era and really make the most of the Dickensian characters and the dressing up?
This Kent tradition is more recent than others, but we found photographic evidence that it goes back to at least Christmas 2008. One of the main highlights is a candlelit parade of costumed characters that takes place in the early evening, before carol singing at 5pm.
The Council and other partners create a programme of events over the first weekend of December, here’s the festival website for more details. You can also see photo galleries from previous festivals here.
Canterbury Cathedral Girls Choir: breaking a 900 year tradition
In 2014 history was made at Canterbury Cathedral when an all-girls choir was formed and performed their first Christmas Concert. This marked a significant milestone because for over 900 years only men and boys had been able to become choristers at the famous cathedral.
We’re happy to see Canterbury have created a new Christmas tradition of letting girls sing. The girls’ choir currently has 25 members aged between 12 and 18, with students at local secondary schools auditioning to join. They’ve had an exciting 8 years which includes releasing an album of Christmas Carols in 2017 and performing live on BBC and ITV television.
Feed the Reindeer in Ashford
We can’t imagine Christmas without Santa’s reindeer, especially Rudolph. We’re lucky in Kent, as it’s only a short journey for us to meet real life reindeer. The Ashford Reindeer Centre is home to one of the largest private herds of reindeer in the UK.
They look after over 100 of these majestic creatures and also hire them for private parties, Christmas functions, children’s parties and school visits. You can visit and feed the reindeer from mid-November onwards.
Folkestone’s living advent calendar
Another relatively new tradition for Christmas, Folkestone hosts a living advent calendar with a different door in the town opening each night to reveal a surprise live performance.
Started by Jim Jam Arts in 2015, the events are free for all to attend. Different organisations and locations around the town volunteer to host a performance behind their door, each door opens at 6pm on one of the days of December, right up to Christmas Even on the 24th. Each day, crowds gather at the door for that day and chant a countdown to its opening.
It is a ‘living’ advent calendar in more ways that one – not only are they all live performances, the audience can also get very close to the performers and truly be involved, for a magical experience. What a wonderful, creative and inclusive Christmas tradition.
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