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Memories of a Grandfather


One of the old school in Devon, by Cecil Thomas Collacott of Atworthy, Bradworthy (1910-2001), September 1965.

Grandfather’s family belonged to the ‘old school’ of Devon yeomen. Like most grandfathers (John Collacott b.1863) he loved to dwell on the past, recalling facets of life and old customs on the farms when he was young.

Reminiscences seemed to begin in earnest with the corn harvest and progress towards a climax at Christmastide. He delighted in talking about the ‘great reaps’ he had seen as a boy on his grandfather’s farm. There could be as many as twenty men, and often women as well, reaping, tathing and binding. And when the wheat had been harvested they ‘cried the neck’ with the last sheaf and returned to the house for a celebration worthy of such an important achievement. Liquor flowed freely, and an old jug in my possession, which had been ‘pensioned off’ for the past sixty years or more, must have held many a brimming pint of home-brewed ale and cider on those convivial occasions.

But Christmas was the great festival for traditional celebrations. These began on Christmas Eve, and workmen who had helped with the harvest were often entertained then. The great ash faggot with its nine bands blazed on the open hearth, and as each band burned through a fresh jug of cider was called for. There were musical members in the family and there would be an accordion and a violin or two to contribute to the home-made entertainment. Carol singers might call and be hospitably received or they may not arrive until the early hours of Christmas morning when the family would rise from their beds to regale them with drinks of the ‘Lambs Wool.’


It seems to have been a family tradition to drink the ‘Lambs Wool’ on Christmas morning. This was a concoction of hot spiced ale, in which there were pieces of toast and roasted apples. Christmas Day was spent quietly. There was, of course, the great Christmas dinner, and the regular workmen and their wives and children were usually entertained.

The farm was virtually ‘open house’ throughout the festive season, which did not in those days end with the day following Christmas Day. Ferreting and rabbit-shooting parties were organised. New Year’s Day, now of no significance in England (1965), was more or less a holiday then, when only the essential work was done on the farm. Old Christmas Eve and the following day saw the last of the Yuletide celebrations.

The custom of wassailing or blessing the apple trees took place on Old Christmas Eve. ‘Wassail‘ is from the old Norse ‘ves heill’ meaning ‘be in health.’ After supper, men, women and children went to the orchard and standing in a circle round one of the apple trees drank a toast. “Health to thee, old apple tree.” There were other lines, and much shouting and cheering followed.

The holly and other evergreens with which the house had been decorated were all removed at the close of Old Christmas Day (When Pope Gregory XIII established the Gregorian calendar in 1582, he ushered in an era in which the people of Europe disagreed on what day it was. As a result, they celebrated Christmas on different days. Before the Gregorian reform, Europe had adhered to the Julian calendar, which was a full ten days behind the newly instituted Gregorian calendar. Some nations and churches refused to adopt the Gregorian reforms. In these lands, people continued to celebrate Christmas on December 25th but did so according to the Julian calendar. Their celebrations fell on January 5 according to the new Gregorian calendar. In past eras, the English sometimes referred to January 5th or 6th as “Old Christmas Day”). Not one leaf must remain. Grandfather remembered how, as a child, he felt regret that it must all go so quickly. The great black beams in the kitchen, stripped of their bough of mistletoe and colourful home-made garlands looked gloomy and sinister again. The little china ornaments on the mantelpiece looked less gay without their springs of red berries. And the old grandfather’s clock, always crowned with the finest piece of holly, seemed to have lost its jovial air, as it got down to its solemn business of ticking off the seconds, the hours and the days – to another Christmas which, to the boy, seemed so far away.

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