Burning the Ashen Faggot (1879)


Author(s): Amery. P. F. S. Origin: DA Transactions
Topic(s): folklore Year published: 1879
Location(s): Ashburton Pages: 107-108

Extracted from the Fourth Report of the Committee on Devonshire Folk-Lore.

Mr. Pengelly, in a paper read at the Sidmouth meeting of this Association, entitled “Relics of the Past observed at Torquay” describes being present at the burning of the “ashen faggot” on Christmas Eve, 1836, and concludes as follows: “At that time the custom was observed in all the principal farm houses of the district, but it appears to be now a thing of the past”.*

* Transactions, 1873, vol. vi. p. 269.

As I take part every Christmas Eve in a similar observance, and know that it is kept up at many farms, I think it well to record the extent to which the custom prevails in and around Ashburton, in which district at least it is not yet “a thing of the past”.

From information obtained by the aid of the rural postmen, I find that on Christmas Eve, 1878, at thirty-two farms and cottages the customary faggot was burned in the Ashburton postal district; of this number twenty-two were in Ashburton parish.

Whether or not the valley of the Ashburn, the little stream from which the town takes its name, is in any way superstitiously connected with the ash tree I cannot say, although such seems likely once to have been the case, as the tree is much venerated here, and its influence resorted to in charms.

The details of the observance, I believe, vary in different families, but in the main are as described by Mr. Pengelly.

It is considered necessary to have as large a log as possible in the middle, remnants of which are supposed to continue smouldering on the hearth during the twelve days of Christmas, so that a fire can be raised at any moment, day or night, by the aid of a pair of bellows and a “blast” of furze, most probably the remains of the idea of general hospitality at such a season. Usually a tree is chosen from which the whole faggot is made, and fastened by binders of twisted hazel or halse, as it is called. These are as numerous as possible, as a quart of cider is “craved” on the burning through of each. The whole is confined by two chains.

An old man present at one of these gatherings informed me, that burning the ashen faggot on Christmas Eve commemorated the first dressing of our Saviour in swaddling-clothes, because Joseph cut a faggot of ash, which it is well known burns green, and lighted a fire by which the child was first dressed.

The gipsies also connect the ash tree with Christmas time. The author of English Gipsies and their Language* gives the following conversation with a gipsy on the subject, who says, “Many a time I’ve had to go two or three miles of the Great Day (Christmas) early in the morning, to get ash wood for the fire. That was when I was a small boy; for my father always would do it. We do it because our Saviour, the small God, was born on the Great Day, in the field, out in the country, like we Rommanis, and He was brought up by an ash fire. The reason we burn ash wood is because the ivy, and holly, and pine trees, never told a word where the Saviour was hiding Himself, and so they keep alive all the winter, and look green all the year. But the ash, like the oak, told of Him, where He was hiding, so they have to remain dead through the winter. And so we gipsies always burn an ash fire every Great Day.”

* English Gipsies and their Language by Charles G. Leland.

It is usual when the fire is well lighted and the wood beginning to crack, to place the youngest child of the household on the faggot; and its nerve or timidity is regarded by the old people as a sign of future pluck or otherwise. As the faggot consumes, and the chains are no longer necessary, attempts are made to remove them with the naked hand, the power to endure heat being considered a gift to be proud of. After supper the amusements of the evening consist of music, songs, story-telling, and, if possible, dancing, with an almost unlimited quantity of cider, apples, and nuts. The ashen faggot is looked forward to and remembered with great satisfaction; for

“A Christmas gambol oft will cheer
A poor man’s heart through half the year.”

P. F. S. Amery


Note: The 36th Report on Devonshire Folk-lore, published in the 1936 volume of Transactions, p. 97 contains the following:

Christmas Eve: Ashen faggot (Survival). The ashen faggot is still burnt at Forder Farm, Cross Furzes, near Buckfastleigh, on Christmas Eve and also on Old Christmas Eve.

(Mrs.) Marjory Eckett Fielden


Other writings by P. F. S. Amery