Barring Out the Schoolmaster

Barring Out the Schoolmaster

American youngsters take their two-week vacation at Christmas time for granted. In past centuries, however, teachers expected pupils to study right through the Christmas season. If the students dared, they resorted to an old custom called "barring out the schoolmaster" in order to gain a week's leisure. Arriving early at school, students barricaded themselves in the classroom. This act began a kind of siege that could last for days. It ended when the teacher succeeded in breaking into the classroom, or when he or she gave in to the students' demands. If the students managed to keep the teacher out for a total of three days, they were automatically considered to have won the standoff.

In England, Scotland, and Ireland students staged barring-outs most frequently around Christmas, but they also occurred around Easter, Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent begins), and harvest time. Students often chose St. Nicholas's Day or St. Thomas's Day to begin their wintertime takeovers. In order to mount a successful barring-out, students stockpiled food, drink, and sometimes even weapons. Indeed, violence often erupted during the battle for control of the classroom. If the schoolmaster succeeded in breaking in to the classroom, the students were severely beaten. Therefore, the students defended their territory with such weapons as swords, clubs, and even pistols. Records indicate that shots from excited boys sometimes injured or killed schoolmasters and town officials. Teachers could restore peace and order immediately by giving in to the students' demands. These demands were spelled out in a treaty signed by the students and the teacher. The treaty always included a guarantee that no one taking part in the uprising would be punished.


In Britain the custom of barring out the schoolmaster arose sometime in the sixteenth century. The number of schools and students increased greatly during that century. Due to the lack of generally accepted educational standards, schoolmasters ruled their classrooms with complete authority. They flogged their pupils frequently, a practice that was considered an appropriate educational tool and disciplinary measure in that era. The primary goal of most barringouts was a reduction in the rate and severity of whippings as well as the granting of a few days' vacation. The frequency of these student take-overs declined throughout the eighteenth century as school charters began to limit the authority of teachers and guarantee vacation days. By the nineteenth century, barring-outs had nearly vanished in Britain. At some point the custom appears to have migrated to the United States, where it survived a bit longer in a somewhat less violent form (see America, Christmas in Colonial; America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century). Barring-outs were a common Christmas time occurrence in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania. These mock battles crowned the school year, as far as the gleeful students were concerned. Thomas Mellon (1813-1908), the wealthy financier who later founded the Mellon Bank, fondly remembered taking part in Christmas barring-outs in his youth. Whichever side lost furnished the school with several bushels of apples and gallons of cider, which were consumed by all on the first day of vacation. Like their British counterparts, American students resorted to barring-outs as a way of securing vacation days. The custom faded in the mid-nineteenth century as public schooling, with its standard schedule of vacation days, spread throughout the country. (For more on Christmas in Penn-sylvania, see America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century; Amish Christmas; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in; Knecht Ruprecht.)

Further Reading

Cathcart, Rex. "Festive Capers? Barring-Out the Schoolmaster." History To-day 38, 12 (December 1988): 49-53. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsylvania Folklore Society, 1959.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003