December 22

Barring-out

A Christmas-time ritual and example of social inversion or “topsy-turvy”. In Britian school boys would bar the door and refuse the master entrance until ritual verses were exchanged and a holiday was granted. The usual pattern was for boys to gather weapons and provisions as Christmas drew near and then seize the school or, more often, a single classroom;  if they could hold out for a set period, usually three days, they were allowed an extension of the usual Christmas holidays or a relaxation of the normal rate of flogging. If the master broke in they were generally beaten severely or given extra tasks. 

The first mention of it comes in 1558 where it is treated as already having been an old custom. Charles Hode’s 1660 manual A New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching Schools suggested a set of rules be drawn up whereby masters were given warning and formal demands agreed on by head boys.  The tradition in known in Scotland from 1580 and there are some seventeenth-century Irish examples.  The growing tendency to spell out student’s rights in school charters rendered it obsolete and by the nineteenth century it had virtually disappeared in England — the last recorded barrings out of the schoolmaster seems to have been in 1938 in Derbyshire and 1940 in Northumberland.

Outside of the British Isles the custom can also be seen amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch, in Belgium, Denmark, and Holland where St Thomas’s Day was a time to bar out the master until he treated them to a drink.

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