Sows, onions, and mumping

The winter holidays are often a busy time. Perhaps you’ve been hunting around for the perfect Yule log or mail-ordering flannel pajamas. Perhaps you’ve been collecting sticks for a solstice bonfire or turning your kitchen into a seasonal cookie factory.

It’s easy to get so overwhelmed that you don’t have time to research traditional holiday customs of Great Britain. Luckily, we’ve done that work for you, scouring T. F. Thiselton’s British Popular Customs, Present and Past; Illustrating the Social and Domestic Manners of the People (London, 1876) for the best British customs and rituals for the upcoming days.

For the procrastinators among you: now (right now) is the time to start preparing for Sow Day, which is celebrated on December 17th.

At Sandwick, in the Orkneys [of Scotland], it is usual for every family to kill a sow, whence this day is called Sow Day. This custom probably has some reference to the heathen worship of the sun, to which, among the northern nations, the male of this animal was sacred.

If you’re planning a little further ahead, you have ample time to prepare for St. Thomas’ Day on December 21st by readying your rope of onions.

Girls… used to have a method of divination with a “St. Thomas’s Onion,” for the purpose of ascertaining their future partners. They peeled the onion, wrapped it up in a clean handkerchief, and then, placing it under their heads, said the following lines:

“Good St. Thomas, do me right / And see my true love come to-night, / That I may see him in the face, / And him in my kind arms embrace.”

(Remember to use a clean handkerchief. Apparently it doesn’t work with a dirty one.)

St. Thomas’ Day, being a few days before Christmas, is also a traditional time for all manner of actual and ritualistic alms-collecting, ranging from begging for corn with a bag to singing for neighbors in return for hot drinks. The custom of going from house to house has different names in different parts of Great Britain; Thiselton reports that in Herefordshire, the day is called “Mumping Day”, and the process of going door-to-door asking for contributions is termed “going a-mumping.”

We in Special Collections hope that you find the best Yule log, make the most delicious cookies, find your true love via onion, and verily enjoy going a-mumping.