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History: Hornchurch’s secret Christmas tradition

St Andrew's Church St Andrew's Church

Sunday, December 22, 2013
9:00 AM

Until 1868, Hornchurch people celebrated Christmas with a ceremony that must have dated back to pagan times.

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The horns on St Andrew's Church  - said to give the town Hornchurch its nameThe horns on St Andrew's Church - said to give the town Hornchurch its name

On Christmas morning, the owner of Hornchurch Hall, opposite St Andrew’s parish church, roasted a boar’s head.

Decked with ribbons and holly, it was carried on a pitchfork across the road to the Millfield behind the church, to become the prize in a wrestling competition that afternoon.

The winner led a procession along the High Street to one of Hornchurch’s inns, where his friends joined him in partying.

In 1837, there was a special Christmassy touch. The scene was described as “highly picturesque, the country being whitened with snow”.

Prof Ged MartinProf Ged Martin

But for the 10 pairs of competing wrestlers, a white Christmas was not good news. The ground was “as hard as frost could make it”, not comfortable for the fallers! As usual, when the winner was declared, “the prize was paraded around the village, amidst the acclamations of his friends, and afterwards feasted upon by the party at one of the inns.”

Hornchurch’s Christmas Day wrestling ritual was unique in Essex.

It can only have been a survival of an ancient ­belief in some animal god, dating back before Christianity. ­Pagan Anglo-Saxons engaged in animal sacrifices. Sacrificing a boar at a midwinter festival (“Yule” in the old religion) was probably a symbolic way of killing off the old year to ensure that a new one would follow.

The cult was evidently very strong in Havering.

The first successful missionary in Essex, St Cedd, arrived around 653 AD.

He aimed to persuade local people that the gods they worshipped were really Christian saints in disguise.

That may explain the dedication of St Andrew’s church.

Martyr

St Andrew was an early martyr. The Romans crucified him on an X-shaped cross.

Maybe locals were told that the horns of their animal god were really St Andrew’s cross. But the animal god cult was so strong that the priests had to place horns on their church.

This was unique in t England, and gave the building its nickname: The Horned Church. The name first ­appears in a Latin document in 1222, and in English (sometimes as Hornedechirche) as early as 1233.

In time, the name was streamlined and applied to the locality as well: Hornchurch.

Sadly, the very special ­local custom of wrestling for the boar’s head fell victim to local rivalries.

By Victorian times, the wrestling matches had become organised contests between Hornchurch and Romford.

Romford was a growing market centre and railway town, and Hornchurch people regarded their neighbours as a rough lot. The annual festivity ­became “rather a rowdy ­affair” and there was pressure to abolish it.

Hence on Christmas ­afternoon 1868, the merry procession passed along Hornchurch High Street for what was to be the very last time.

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