The Mourning of Old Customs Dying Out:
Alas for Babycocke! and woe is me for Post-and-paire! And although Carol, and Minced- pie, and New-year's Gift, and Wassail, and Twelfth-cake, and some others ...appear still to be in the enjoyment of a tolerably vigorous health, yet we are not a little anxious about Snap-dragon, and our mind is far from being easy on the subject of Hot-cockles.
“But is old, old, good old Christmas gone? nothing but the hair of his good, grave old head and beard left!”
They are dying for lack of nourishment. They have been used to live on most bountiful fare, to feed on chines and turkeys and drink of the wassail-bowl.
The Origin of Old Christmas Customs:
After the establishment of Christianity, its earliest teachers, feeling the impossibility of replacing at once those pagan commemorations which had taken long and deep root in the constitution of society and become identified with the feelings of nations, endeavored rather to purify them from their uncleanness, and adapt them to the uses of the new religion.
...festival customs still exist amongst us which are the direct descendants of customs connected with the classic or druidical superstitions, and sports which may be traced to the celebrations observed of old in honor of Saturn or of Bacchus.
The hymns in honor of Saturn were the Roman representatives of the modern carol; and presents passed from friend to friend, as Christmas gifts do in our day.
Why Christmas is Held in Winter:
In most nations of ancient or modern times, the period of what is popularly called the winter solstice appears to have been recognized as a season of rejoicing. The Roman Saturnalia, which fell at this period, were accordingly a season of high festivity, honored by many privileges and many exemptions from ill.
In the Northern nations of ancient Europe the same period of the year was celebrated by a festival in honor of the God Thor, which, like the Roman Saturnalia and the festival of our own times, was illustrated by the song, the dance, and the feast... The name of this celebration [was] Yule, Jule, jul, or jol.
The Christian festival of the Nativity, with which these ancient celebrations have been incorporated, appears to have been appointed at a very early period after the establishment of the new religion. Its first positive footsteps are met with in the second century, during the reign of the Emperor Concordius.
As to the actual year of the birth of Christ, as well as the period of the year at which it took place, great uncertainty seems to exist, and many controversies have been maintained. One of the theories on the subject, held to be amongst the most probable, places that event upwards of five years earlier... however, both as regards the year and season of the year, was a tradition of the primitive Church.
In the first ages of that church, and up till the Council of Nice, the celebration of the Nativity, and that of the Epiphany, were united on the 25th of December, from a belief that the birth of Christ was simultaneous with the appearance of the star in the east which revealed it to the Gentiles.
Amongst the arguments which have been produced against the theory that places its occurrence in the depth of winter, one has been gathered from that passage in the sacred history of the event which states that "there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night." It is an argument, however, which does not seem very conclusive in a pastoral country, and eastern climate.
For the purposes of commemoration, however, it is unimportant whether the celebration shall fall or not at the precise anniversary period of the event commemorated.
Customs: From the Royals to Individual Homes:
The series of high festivities established by the Anglo-Saxon kings appear to have been imitated in the splendid establishments of the more wealthy nobles,…in the hall of the old manor-house,…the tapestried chamber of the country magistrate,…the parlor of the village inn.
Men might meet in crowds to feast beneath the banner of the baron — but the misletoe hung over each man's own door…they who could, had a wassail-bowl of their own…the flame of the Yule-log roared up all the individual chimneys of the land.
Old father Christmas… might ride his goat through the streets of the city and the lanes of the village, — but he dismounted to sit, for some few moments, by each man's hearth; while some one or another of his merry sons would break away, to visit the remote farmhouses, or show their laughing faces at many a poor man's door. For be it observed, this worthy old gentleman and his kind-hearted children were no respecters of persons.
The Custom of Feasting:
Men's gastronomic capacities appear to have been enlarged for the occasion, — as the energies expand to meet great emergencies. "The tables, were all spread from the first to the last; the sirloyns of beef, the minc'd pies, the plumb-porridge, the capons, turkeys, geese, and plumb-puddings, were all brought upon the board.”
"All you that to feasting and mirth are inclin'd,
Come here is good news for to pleasure your mind,
Old Christmas is come for to keep open house,
He scorns to be guilty of starving a mouse :
Then come, boys, and welcome for diet the chief,
Plum-pudding, goose, capon, minc'd pies, and roast beef."
"Then well may we welcome old Christmas to town,
Who brings us good cheer, and good liquor so brown ;
To pass the cold winter away with delight,
We feast it all day, and we frolick all night."
"Lo ! now is come our joyful'st feast !
Let every man be jolly.
Each roome with yvie leaves is drest,
And every post with holly.
Now, all our neighbors' chimneys smoke,
And Christmas Blocks are burning;
Their ovens they with bak't-meats choke,
And all their spits are turning."
What Was Served at King Arthur's Table on Christmas Day:
If the list be authentic, there is the less reason to wonder at the feats of courage and strength performed by the Knights of the Round Table:
"They served up salmon, venison, and wild boars,
By hundreds, and by dozens, and by scores.
Hogsheads of honey, kilderkins of mustard,
Muttons, and fatted beeves, and bacon swine;
Herons and bitterns, peacocks, swan, and bustard,
Teal, mallard, pigeons, widgeons, and in fine,
Plum-puddings, pancakes, apple-pies, and custard.
And therewithal they drank good Gascon wine,
With mead, and ale, and cider of our own;
For porter, punch, and negus were not known."
Of the earnest manner in which our ancestors set about the celebration of this festival…They must have been very pleasant times!
So important were these Christmas celebrations deemed by our ancestors, and such was the earnestness bestowed upon their preparation, that a special officer was appointed for that purpose, and to preside over the festival with large privileges, very considerable appointments, and a retinue which in course of time came to be no insignificant imitation of a prince's....appointed to the superintendence of the Christmas ceremonials at court. The title by which this potentate was usually distinguished in England was that of " Lord of Misrule, " "Abbot of Misrule, " or " Master of Merry Disports ; " and...."Master of the Revels ".
A relic of this ancient custom exists in the Twelfth Night King, whom it is still usual to elect on the festival of the Epiphany, and of whom we shall have occasion to speak at length in his proper place.
The length of the period over which the sway of this potentate extended... varied with circumstances. Strictly speaking, the Christmas season is in our day considered to terminate with Twelfth Night, and the festival itself to extend over that space of time of which this night on one side and Christmas eve on the other are the limits. In ancient times, too, we find frequent mention of the twelve days of Christmas.
It appears probable that the officer who was appointed to preside over the revels so universally observed at Christmas time, extended, as a matter of course, his presidency over all those which... were performed at more advanced periods of the succeeding year; that in fact, the Christmas prince was, without new election, considered as special master of the revels till the recurrence of the season.... It is, however, apparent that although the common observances of the season were supposed to fall within the period bounded by the days of the Nativity and the Epiphany, the special pageantries with a view to which the Lords of Misrule were appointed in the more exalted quarters were in years of high festival spread over a much more extended time.
The festivities of the season, which were appointed for at least twelve days, were frequently extended over a space of six weeks... the holiday-spirit of the season is by no means to be restrained within the narrower of those limits. The Christmas feeling waits not for Christmas day. The important preparations for so great a festival render this impossible. By the avenues of most of the senses, the heralds of old Father Christmas have long before approached to awake it from its slumber... From the day on which his sign has been seen in the heavens, the joyous influences of the star have been felt and the moment the school-boy arrives at his home he is in the midst of Christmas.
The genial feelings of the time and the festivities springing out of them contrive to maintain their footing through-out the month of January... Till the merry urchins have gone back to school there will continue to be willing subjects to the Lord of Misrule.
While the pageantries which were prepared by the court and by other governing bodies furnished a portion of the entertainments by which the populace tasted the season in towns, and sanctioned the rest, care was taken in many ways... that the festival should be spread over the country, and provision made for its maintenance in places more secluded and remote. A set of arrangements sprang up which left no man without their influence; and figuratively and literally, the crumbs from the table of the rich man's festival were abundantly enjoyed by the veriest beggar at his gate.
It was answered from every hill-top and repeated in every valley of England; and each man flung the Yule log on his own fire at the cheering signal.
The damsel donned her kirtle sheen;
The hall was dress'd with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry men go,
To gather in the misletoe.
Then opened wide the baron's hall,
To vassal!, tenant, serf and all;
The fire with well-dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide ;
The huge hall-table's oaken face,
Scrubbed till it shone, the time to grace,
Bore then upon its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
Then was brought in the lusty brawn,
By old blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar's head frowned on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.
The wassail round, in good brown bowls,
Garnished with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reeked; hard by
Plumb-porridge stood, and Christmas pye;
Nor failed old Scotland to produce,
At such high-tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry masquers in,
And carols roared with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may, in their mumming, see
Traces of ancient mystery;
England was merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
'Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale,
'Twas Christmas told the merriest tale,
A Christmas gambol oft would cheer
The poor man's heart through half the year.
Old Father Christmas has had a great many children in his time, some of whom he has survived... the old gentleman is... accompanied by the following members of his fine family: MISS-RULE, CAROLL, MINCED-PIE, GAMBOLL, POST-AND-PAIR, NEW YEAR'S GIFT, MUMMING, WASSAIL, OFFERING, and BABY-CAKE... ROAST BEEF and PLUM PUDDING.
There is a play of the lip and a twinkle of the eye which prove that the glowing and joyous spirit which made our ancestors so merry ages long ago, and helped them out with so many a pleasant fancy and quaint device, is not a day older than it was in the time of King Arthur.
The Outlawing of Christmas:
We must endeavor to give a rapid glance at the causes which contributed to the decay of a festival so ancient and universal and uproarious... so early as the reign of Elizabeth the Puritans had begun to lift up their testimony against the pageantries of the Christmas-tide; and the Lord of Misrule, even in that day of his potential ascendancy, was described as little better than the great Enemy of Souls himself... Even so early as the reign of Queen Mary an act passed the Scottish Parliament whereby the Abbot of Unreason and all his "merrie disports" were suppressed.... the Puritans... had long and zealously labored not only to resolve the various ceremonials of the season into their pagan elements, but even to prove that the celebration of the Nativity at all was in itself idolatrous.
....Some of the shops in London were for the first time opened on Christmas day, in obedience to the feelings which connected any observance of it with the spirit of popery. By the year 1647 the Puritans had so far prevailed that in various places the parish officers were subjected to penalties for encouraging the decking of churches and permitting divine service to be performed therein on Christmas morning; and in the same year the observance of the festival itself, with that of other holidays, was formally abolished by the two branches of the legislature.
It was found, impossible however, by all these united means, to eradicate the Christmas spirit from the land.; and many of its customs and festivities continued to be observed, not only in obscure places, but even in towns, in spite of prohibition...There is an order of the Parliament in 1652 again prohibiting the observance of Christmas day, which proves that the practice had revived; and there are examples of the military having been employed to disperse congregations assembled for that purpose.
In a periodical publication of that day... the public are encouraged to keep Christmas, and promised better days:
Old Christmass now is come to town,
Though few do him regard;
He laughs to see them going down,
That have put down his Lord.
Cheer up, sad heart, crown Christmass bowls,
Banish dull grief and sorrow;
Though you want cloaths, you have rich souls,
The sun may shine to-morrow.
A gallant crew, stir up the fire,
The other winter tale,
Welcome, Christmass, 'tis our desire
to give thee more spic'd ale.
On the return of the royal family to England, the court celebrations of Christmas were revived both there and at the Inns of Court; and the Lord of Misrule came again into office... The Christmas festival has languished from those days to this, but never has been, and never will be extinct. The stately forms of its celebration in high places have long since (and, in all probability, forever) passed away.
Feelings of the Season:
Of all the festivals which crowd the Christian calendar there is none that exercises an influence so strong and universal as that of Christmas; and those varied superstitions, and quaint customs, and joyous observances, which once abounded through-out the rural districts of England, are at no period of the year so thickly congregated or so strongly marked as at this season of unrestrained festivity and extended celebration.
Beautiful feelings, too apt to fade within the heart of man amid the chilling influences of worldly pursuit, steal out beneath the sweet religious warmth of the season, and the pure and holy amongst the hopes of earth assemble, to place themselves under the protection of that eternal hope whose promise is now, as it were, yearly renewed.
Amid the echoes of that song which proclaimed peace on earth and good-will towards men.... rises up a dormant sense of universal brotherhood in the heart.
A state of expectation is by degrees excited, not unlike that with which the Jews were waiting for the Messiah, of old. There is, as it were, a sort of watching for the great event, a questioning where Christ shall be born, and an earnest looking out for his star in the East that we may " come to worship him. "
"The services of the Church about this season," says Washington Irving, "are extremely tender and inspiring. They dwell on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith, and the pastoral scenes that accompanied its announcement. They gradually increase in fervor and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in full jubilee on the morning that brought 'peace and goodwill to men.' I do not know a grander effect of music on the moral feelings than to hear the full choir and the pealing organ performing a Christmas anthem in a cathedral, and filling every part of the vast pile with triumphant harmony."
"With his ice, and snow, and rime,
Let bleak winter sternly come!
There is not a sunnier clime
Than the love-lit winter home."
The white mantle which the earth occasionally puts on with the rapidity of a spell, covering, in the course of a night and while we have slept, the familiar forms with a sort of strangeness that makes us feel as if we had awakened in some new and enchanted land.
The evergreens, which, with their rich and clustering berries, adorn the winter season, offering a provision for the few birds that still remain, and hanging a faint memory of summer about the hedges and the groves. The misletoe with its white berries, the holly... with its scarlet berries and pointed leaves, the ivy whose berries are green, the pyracanthus with its berries of deep orange, the arbutus exhibiting its flowers and fruit upon adjacent boughs, the glossy laurel and the pink-eyed laurestine (not to speak of the red berries of the Maybush, the purple sloes of the blackthorn, or others which show their clusters upon leafless boughs, nor of the evergreen trees, the pine, the fur, the cedar or the cypress) ... are gathered about our doors and within our homes... and mingle their picturesque forms and hopeful morals with all the mysteries and ceremonies of the season.
Signs of the Season:
We are by no means at liberty, without a more special notice, to pass over the mystery of MINCE- PIE !The origin of this famous dish, like that of the heroic in all kinds and classes, is involved in fable. By some it has been supposed, from the Oriental ingredients which enter into its composition, to have a reference (as probably had also the plum- porridge of those days) to the offerings made by the wise men of the East. In some places the form of this superstition, we believe, is, that for every house in which a mince pie shall be eaten at the Christmas season, the eater shall enjoy a happy month in the coming year.
He who will take the king's highway in his search after these... will have the greater number of such signs brought under his observation in the progress of a journey which whirls him through town and village, and by park and farmhouse. The road is alive with travellers ; and along its whole extent there is an air of aimless bustle...The population are gathered together in groups at the corners of streets or about the doors of ale-houses, and the mingling voices of the speakers and the sound of the merry laugh come sharp and ringing through the clear frosty air... the abundant displays made at the windows of every shopkeeper, in every village along the road...Everywhere hearts are stirred and pulses quickened by pleasant anticipations.
The glad day which has been the subject of speculation so long before, and has been preceded by days which, in their imaginary calendar, are beyond any question the very longest days of all the year, has at length arrived, after seeming as if it never would arrive, and the long restrained and hourly increasing tide of expectation has at length burst its barriers, and is rushing forward with no little noise, into the sea of fruition.
Amongst the signs of the time that are conspicuous upon the roads the traveller whose journeyings bring him towards those which lead into the metropolis will be struck by the droves of cattle that are making their painful way up to the great mart for this great festival...the accompanying picture of a Lynn or Bury coach on its town-ward journey with its freight of turkeys at the Christmas season... the amount of turkeys which were transmitted... to London between a Saturday morning and the night of Sunday, in the December of 1793, which statement gives the number as one thousand seven hundred, the weight as nine tons, two hundredweight, and two pounds... in the two following days these were followed by half as many more.
And such being the destiny of this bird, it may probably be an object of ambition with a respectable turkey to fulfill its fate at the period of this high festival. Certain it is that at no other time can it attain to such dignities as belong to the turkey who smokes on the well-stored table of a Christmas dinner, the most honored dish of all the feast.
Decorating with Evergreens:
One of the most striking signs of the season, and which meets the eye in all directions, is that which arises out of the ancient and still familiar practice of adorning our houses and churches with evergreens during the continuance of this festival. The decorations of our mantel-pieces, and in many places of our windows, the wreaths which ornament our lamps and Christmas candles, the garniture of our tables, are alike gathered from the hedges and winter gardens; and in the neighborhood of every town and village the traveller may meet with some... group of boys returning from the woods laden with their winter greenery... engaged in what we have heard technically called "bringing home Christmas."
"When Rosemary and Bays, the poet's crown,
Are bawl'd in frequent cries through all the town,
Then judge the festival of Christmass near,
Christmass, the joyous period of the year!
Now with bright holly all the temples strow;
With Lawrel green, and sacred Misletoe. "
The practice of these decorations, which is recommended to modern times by its own pleasantness and natural beauty, is of very high antiquity, and has been ascribed by various writers to various sources. They who are desirous of tracing a Christian observance to a Christian cause remind us of those figurative expressions in the prophets which speak of the Messiah as the "Branch of righteousness," etc. , and describe by natural allusions the fertility which should attend his coming. "The Lord shall comfort Zion, " says Isaiah: "he will comfort all her waste places ; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord. " Again, "The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary ; and I will make the place of my feet glorious. " And Nehemiah, on an occasion of rejoicing, orders the people, after the law of Moses, to "go forth unto the mount and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, "and to make booths thereof, "every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, " and in the streets; "and all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity " sat under these booths," and there was very great gladness. "
A writer in the " Gentleman's Magazine "asks if this custom may not be referred, as well as that of the palms on Palm Sunday, to that passage in the Scripture account of Christ's entry into Jerusalem which states that the multitude "cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way."
The practice, however, of introducing flowers and branches amongst the tokens of festivity seems, and very naturally, to have existed universally and at all times. It was, as we know, a pagan manifestation of rejoicing and worship, and is forbidden on that express ground in early councils of the Christian Church.
Not only were our houses and churches decorated with ever- greens, but also the conduits, standards, and crosses in the streets ; and in our own day they continue to form a garniture not only of our temples and our houses, but constitute a portion of the striking display made at this festive season in our markets and from the windows of our shops. Holly forms a decoration of the shambles, and every tub of butter has a sprig of rosemary in its breast.
The plants most commonly in use for this purpose appear to have generally been the holly, the ivy, the laurel, the rosemary, and the mistletoe ; although the decorations were by no means limited to these materials.
There is a very beautiful custom which we find mentioned in connection with the subject of ever- greens as existing at this season of the year in some parts of Germany and Sicily. A large bough is set up in the principal room, the smaller branches of which are hung with little presents suitable to the different members of the household. " A good deal of innocent mirth and spirit of courtesy, " it is observed, " is produced by this custom. "
We believe that it is still usual in many parts of England to suffer the Christmas greens to remain in the windows of our churches, and sometimes of our houses, until Candlemas Eve.
The holly is a plant of peculiar veneration at this period of the year, so much so as to have acquired to itself by a popular metonymy the name of the season itself, being vulgarly called "Christmas. " It is no doubt recommended to the general estimation in which it is held by the picturesque forms of its dark, glossy leaves and the brilliant clusters of its rich red berries.
Oh, the mistletoe-bough! who hath not, at the name, thronging visions of sweet faces that looked sweetest in those moments of their startled beauty beneath the pendent bough!... Its introduction into the Christian festival might therefore be considered appropriate as emblematic of the conquest obtained over the spirits of darkness by the event of the Nativity ; and perhaps its supposed healing properties might be deemed to recommend it further, as a symbol of the moral health to which man was restored from the original corruption of his nature, and a fitting demonstration of the joy which hailed the " Son of Righteousness" that had arisen, "with healing in his wings. "
The tradition is, "that the maid who was not kissed under it, at Christmas, would not be married in that year,"... Accordingly, a branch of this parasitical plant was hung (formerly with great state, but now it is generally suspended with much secrecy) either from the centre of the roof, or over the door... and because every maiden who joins the party must of necessity do so by passing under it... the ceremony was not duly per formed unless a berry was plucked off with each kiss. This berry...was to be presented for good luck to the maiden kissed; and... when the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases. If this be so, it behooves the maidens of a household to take good care that the branch provided for the occasion shall be as well furnished with these pearly tokens as the feast is likely to be with candidates for the holy state of matrimony. The practice is still of very common observance in kitchens and servants' halls, particularly in the country... and many a merry laugh have we heard ring from beneath the mistletoe-bough.
The Christmas Carol:
Another of the symptoms of the approaching season... consists in the bursts of solemn minstrelsy by which we are aroused from our slumbers in the still hour of the winter nights... This midnight minstrelsy, whether it comes in the shape of human voices, hallowing the night by the chanting of the Christmas carol, or breaks upon the silence of the mid-watches from the mingling instruments of those wandering spirits of harmony, the waits, has in each case its origin in the song with which the angels hailed the birth of the Redeemer in the fields near Bethlehem.
These nocturnal hymns, although they spread over the entire period of Advent, grow more and more fervent and frequent as the season approaches... The name " wait, " or " wayte, " itself is of great antiquity amongst us, and appears to have been the title given to some member of the band of minstrels who either replaced the ancient minstrel-chronicler in the royal establishments, or was probably under his direction, the duty of which particular member it was to pass at night from door to door of the chambers and pipe the watches upon some species of instrument.
The noels of France are of the same character as the Christmas carols of England ; and the visits of our street musicians at this season are closely resembled by the wanderings of the Italian pifferari. These pifferari are Calabrian shepherds who come down from the mountains at the season of Advent, and enter the Italian cities, saluting with their hill music the shrines of the Virgin and Child which adorn the streets.
The word itself (carol) is derived from cantare, to sing, and rola, an interjection of joy; and... has come to be understood as implying particularly those anthems by which the Christmas-tide is distinguished...Of these old ballads of both kinds, many (and snatches of more) have survived to the present day, and may be heard, particularly in the Northern counties of England, ringing through the frosty air of the long winter nights, in the shrill voices of children, for several weeks before Christmas, probably, too, to the old traditional tunes.
The gradual decay into which these ancient religious ballads are rapidly falling was in some measure repaired by Mr. Davies Gilbert in 1823, who published a collection containing upwards of twenty carols in a restored state, with the tunes to which it was usual to sing them in the West of England. But the most ample and curious published collection of Christmas carols with which we have met is that by Mr. Sandys to which we have so often alluded; and from the text of this collection we will give our readers one or two specimens of the quaint beauties which occasionally mingle in the curious texture of these old anthems.
Amongst the musical signs of the season we must not omit to place that once important gentleman, the bellman, who was anciently accustomed... to make frequent nocturnal rambles, and proclaim all tidings which it seemed fitting to him that people should be awakened out of their sleep to hearken to. The bell of this ancient officer may still be heard, at the midnight hour of Christmas Eve, in the different parishes of London, performing the overture to a species of recitative, in which he sets forth the virtues of his patrons, and offers them all the good wishes of the season.
The Christmas Days:
Having given our readers an historical and general account of this ancient festival... we must now proceed to furnish them with a more peculiar description of those individual days themselves.
St. Thomas's Day, 21st of December:
This day, which is dedicated to the apostle St. Thomas, we have chosen as the opening of the Christmas festivities ; because it is that on which we first seem to get positive evidence of the presence of the old gentleman, and see the spirit of hospitality and benevolence which his coming creates brought into active operation. These practices, however various in their kinds, are for the most part relics in different shapes of the old mummeries... and are but so many distinct forms in which the poor man's appeal is made to the rich man's charity, for a share in the good things of this merry festival. Amongst these ancient customs may be mentioned the practice of "going a gooding," ... is performed by women, who present sprigs of evergreens and Christmas flowers, and beg for money in return. A similar custom exists, where this day is called " Mumping Day, " that is, begging day.
We will take this opportunity of alluding to some of the sports and festivities not peculiar to any one day, but extending more or less generally over the entire season ... Gardes, tables and dice, shovelboard, chesse-play, the philosopher's game, small trunkes, shuttlecocke, billiards, musicke, masks, singing, dancing, ule-games, frolicks, jests, riddles, catches, purposes, questions and commands, merry tales of errant knights, queenes, lovers, lords, ladies, giants, dwarfes, theeves, cheaters, witches, fayries, goblins, fri-ers... Amongst the list of Christmas sports, we elsewhere find mention of "jugglers, and jack- puddings, scrambling for nuts and apples, dancing the hobby-horse, hunting owls and squirrels, the fool-plough, hot-cockles, a stick moving on a pivot with an apple at one end and a candle at the other, so that he who missed his bite burned his nose, blindman's buff, forfeits, interludes and mock plays... thread my needle, Nan... feed the dove, hunt the slipper, shoeing the wild mare, post and pair, snap-dragon, the gathering of omens, and a great variety of others.
Whatever other games or amusements have at any time been of popular use, have generally inserted themselves into this lengthened and joyous festival... all the forms in which mirth or happiness habitually sought expression congregated from all quarters at the ringing of the Christmas bells.
The winter hearth is the very land of gossip...There it is that superstition loves to tell her marvels, and curiosity to gather them... to which tales of marvel or of terror are such welcome food. But other inspirations are born of the blaze itself; and the jest and the laugh and the merry narration are of the spirits that are raised within the magic circles that surround it.
The outdoor sports of this merry time which arise out of the natural phenomena of the season itself....The rapid motions and graceful manoeuvres of the skil-ful amongst the skaters, the active games connected with this exercise... the merry accidents of the sliders, and the loud and mischievous laugh of the joyous groups of snow- bailers, are all amongst the picturesque features by which the Christmas time is commonly marked.
But amongst all the amusements which in cities contribute to make the Christmas time a period of enchantments for the young and happy, there is another, which must not be passed over without a word of special notice; and that one is the theatre, a world of enchantment in itself. At this holiday period of the year the boxes of our theatres are filled with the happy faces, and their walls ring with the sweet laughter of children. All things are matters of amazement and subjects of exclamation. But in London above all things, far, far beyond all other things is the pantomime with its gorgeous scenery and incomprehensible transformations and ineffable fun... they joy in the mischief of the clown, laugh at the thwacks he gets for his meddling, and feel no small portion of contempt for his ignorance in not knowing that hot water will scald, and gunpowder explode.
From Italy, then, we appear to have derived our pantomime. The legitimate drama of Christmas, and to pagan times and deities the origin of our pantomimical characters may be directly referred. The nimble harlequin of our stage is the Mercury of the ancients, and in his magic wand and charmed cap may be recognized that god's caduceus and petasus. Our columbine is Psyche, our clown Momus, and our pantaloon is conjectured to be the modern representative of Charon, variously habited indeed, according to Venetian fancy and feelings. Even Punch, the friend of our childhood, the great-headed, long-nosed, hump-backed " Mister Ponch, " it seems, was known to the Romans, under the name of Maccus.
The most famous pantomime which has been played in our times is unquestionably Mother Goose. When it was produced, or to whom the authorship is ascribed, we know not ; but in 1808 it was revived and played at the Haymarket, with an additional scene representing the burning of Covent Garden Theatre. The pantomimes of the last thirty years have failed to effect a total eclipse of the brilliancy of " Harlequin and Mother Goose, or the Golden Egg. The old Christmas play of " Saint George and the Dragon " is still amongst the most popular amuse- ments of this season, in many parts of England.
Christmas Eve, 24th of December:
"Some say, that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time. (from Shakespeare's Hamlet)
The progress of the Christmas celebrations has at length brought us up to the immediate threshold of that high day in honor of which they are all instituted... the Christian heart makes a pause tonight. Not that the Eve of Christmas is marked by an entire abstinence from that spirit of festival by which the rest of this season is distinguished, nor that the joyous character of the event on whose immediate verge it stands requires that it should. No part of that season is more generally dedicated to the assembling of friends than are the great day itself and the eve which ushers it in... touching traditions and beautiful superstitions have given an air of solemnity to the night, beneath whose influence the spirit of commemoration assumes a religious character, and takes a softened tone.
Everywhere throughout the British isles Christmas Eve is marked by an increased activity about the good things of this life...capons and hens, besides turkeys, geese, ducks, with beef and mutton... for in twelve days a multitude of people will not be fed with a little... The abundant displays of every kind of edible in the London markets on Christmas Eve, with a view to the twelve days' festival of which it is the overture, the blaze of lights amid which they are exhibited and the evergreen decorations by which they are embowered, together with the crowds of idlers or of purchasers that wander through these well-stored magazines, present a picture of abundance.
The Yule Log (Clog):
Amid the interior forms to be observed, on this evening, by those who would keep their Christmas after the old orthodox fashion, the first to be noticed is that of the Yule Clog. This huge block, which, in ancient times... was frequently the root of a large tree, it was the practice to introduce into the house with great ceremony, and to the sound of music.
"Come, bring with a noise
My merrie, merrie boys,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame she Bids you all be free,
And drink to your heart's desiring."
This Yule Clog... was to be lighted with the brand of the last year's log, which had been carefully laid aside for the purpose, and music was to be played during the ceremony of lighting. Around this fire, when duly lighted, the hospitalities of the evening were dispensed; and as the flames played about it and above it, with a pleasant song of their own, the song and the tale and the jest went cheerily round.
Another feature of this evening, in the houses of the more wealthy, was the tall Christmas candles, with their wreaths of evergreens, which were lighted up, along with the Yule log, and placed on the upper table. By our ancestors, of the Latin church, Christmas was formerly called the "Feast of Lights," arid numbers of lights were displayed on the occasion. The lights and the title were both typical of the religious light dawning upon the world at that sacred period, of the advent, in fact, of the "Light of lights," and the conquest over moral darkness. Hence, it is thought, arose the domestic ceremony of the Christmas candle, and that the Yule block was but another form of the same, the poor man's Christmas candle.
The customs peculiar to Christmas Eve are numerous, and various in different parts of the British isles ; the peculiarities, in most cases, arising from local circumstances or traditions, and determining the particular forms of a celebration which is universal. But all men, in all places, who would keep Christmas Eve as Christmas Eve should be kept, must set the wassail-bowl a-flowing for the occasion... and though this fountain of "quips and cranks and wreathed smiles, '' belongs, in an especial sense, to Twelfth-night (Twelfth-night not being Twelfth-night without it), yet it should be compounded for every one of the festival nights, and invoked to spread its inspirations over the entire season.
The word "wassail" is derived from the Saxon "was haile"; which word, and drinc-heil (heil, health) were... equivalent to the "Here's to you, " and " I pledge you, " of the present day. It should be composed, by those who can afford it, of some rich wine highly spiced and sweetened, with roasted apples floating on its surface. But ale was more commonly substituted for the wine, mingled with nutmeg, ginger, sugar, toast, and roasted crabs. " It is," says Leigh Hunt, "a good-natured bowl, and accommodates itself to the means of all classes, rich and poor. You may have it of the costliest wine or the humblest malt liquor. But in no case must the roasted apples be forgotten.
In the halls of our ancestors, this bowl was introduced with the inspiring cry of "wassail", three times repeated, and immediately answered by a song from the chaplain. We hope our readers will sing to the wassail-bowl this Christmastide.
The Christmas Eve mass, as performed by torchlight amid the hills in certain districts of Ireland... All the watches of this hallowed night shall ring to the sounds of earthly minstrelsy, intimating, as best they may, the heavenly choirs that hailed its rising over Judea nearly two centuries ago. Not for the shepherds alone, was that song ! Its music was for us, as for them ; and all minstrelsy, however rude, is welcome on this night that gives us any echoes of it, how-
ever wild. For us too, on the blessed day of which this vigil keeps the door, "is born in the city of David, a Saviour, which 'is Christ the Lord ; "and we too amid the sacred services of tomorrow will "go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known to us."
Christmas Day, 25th of December:
And now has arrived the great and important day itself which gives its title to the whole of this happy season, and the high and blessed work of man's redemption is begun. The paean of universal rejoicing swells up on every side: and after those religious exercises which are the language that man's joy should take first, the day is one of brightened spirits and general congratulation.
The streets of the city and the thousand pathways of the country are crowded on this morning by rich and poor, young and old, coming in on all sides, gathering from all quarters, to hear the particulars of the "glad tidings" proclaimed; and each lofty cathedral and lowly village church sends up a voice to join the mighty chorus whose glad burthen is "Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace, good will toward men."
Christmas mince-meat, everybody knows, means a composition of meat and suet (hacked small) seasoned with fruit and spices... the national English dish of plum pudding...Yule-doughs, mince-pies, Christmas-pies, and plum porridge...Plum pudding is a truly national dish, and re- fuses to flourish out of England.
"There was once," says the writer of "Round about our Coal Fire," "hospitality in the land. An English gentleman at the opening of the great day had all his tenants and neighbors enter his hall by day- break ; the strong beer was broached, and the black-jacks went plentifully about, with toast, sugar, nutmeg, and good Cheshire cheese. . . . The servants were then running here and there with merry hearts and jolly countenances. Every one was busy in welcoming of guests, and looked as snug as new-licked puppies. The lasses were as blithe and buxom as the maids in good Queen Bess's days, when they ate sirloins of roast-beef for breakfast. Peg would scuttle about to make a toast for John, while Tom run harum-scarum to draw a jug of ale for Margery."... much of this ancient spirit, we hope and believe, still survives in this Christian country.
The Boars Head:
Our artist has given a lively and correct representation of the high festival anciently celebrated on Christmas Day in the old baronial hall ; and has presented it at that important moment when the procession of the boar's head is making its way, with the customary ceremonies, to the upper table. Our account of Christmas would not be complete without some notice of this grand dish at the feasts of our ancestors, and some description of the forms which attended its introduction.
The boar's head soused, then, was carried into the great hall with much state, preceded by the Master of the Revels, and followed by choristers and minstrels, singing and playing compositions in its honor.... "a fair and large bore's head upon a silver platter, with minstrelsye."... the "caroll, upon the bringynge in of the bore's head, was sung to the glorie of the blessed Trinytie;"... before the bearer of the boar's head who was selected for his height and lustiness, and wore a green silk scarf, with an empty sword-scabbard dangling at his side went a runner dressed in a horseman's coat, having a boar's spear in his hand, a huntsman in green carrying the naked and bloody sword belonging to the head- bearer's scabbard, and "two pages in tafatye sarcenet " each with a "mess of mustard."
Upon which occasion these verses were sung :
"The boare is dead,
Loe, heare is his head,
What man could have done more
Then his head of to strike,
And bringe it as I doe before ?
"He livinge spoyled
Where good men toyled,
Which made kinde Ceres sorry;
But now, dead and drawne,
Is very good brawne,
And wee have brought it for ye.
"Then sett downe the swineyard,
The foe to the vineyard,
Lett Bacchus crowne his fall;
Lett this boare's head and mustard
Stand for pigg, goose, and custard,
And so you are welcome all."
The following lines describe the manner of serving up this famous dish :
"if you would send up the brawner's head,
Sweet rosemary and bays around it spread;
His foaming tusks let some large pippin grace,
Or 'midst these thundering spears an orange place;
Sauce like himself, offensive to its foes,
The roguish mustard, dangerous to the nose;
Sack, and the well spiced hippocras, the wine
Wassail, the bowl with ancient ribands fine,
Porridge with plums, and Turkeys, with the chine."
But the best of the day is yet to come! and we should have no objection to join the younger members of that group in the merry sports that await the evening. We need not give the programme. It is like that of all the other Christmas nights. The blazing fire, the song, the dance, the riddle, the jest, and many another merry sport, are of its spirits. Mischief will be committed under the mistletoe-bough, and all the good wishes of the season sent round under the sanction of the wassail-bowl.
St. Stephens Day (Boxing Day), December 26th:
This day, which, in our calendar, is still dedicated to the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen... is more popularly known by the title of Boxing-day; and its importance amongst the Christmas festivities is derived from the practice whence that title comes. The particular form of that practice whose donations are known by the title of Christmas-boxes....(passing from the rich to the poor and from the master to his dependants, are not reciprocal in their distribution) was, perhaps, originally one of the observances of Christmas Day, and made a portion of its charities. The multiplied business of that festival, however, probably caused it to be postponed till the day following, and thereby placed the Christmas-boxes under the patronage of St. Stephen.
The title itself has been derived, by some, from the box which was kept on board of every vessel that sailed upon a distant voyage, for the reception of donations to the priest, who. In return, was expected to offer masses for the safety of the expedition, to the particular saint having ' charge of the ship, and above all, of the box. This box was not to be opened till the return of the vessel... The mass was at that time called Christmass, and the boxes kept to pay for it were, of course, called Christmass-boxes. The poor, amongst those who had an interest in the fate of these ships, or of those who sailed in them, were in the habit of begging money from the rich, that they might contribute to the mass boxes; and hence the title which has descended to our day, giving to the anniversary of St. Stephen's martyrdom the title of Christmas-boxing day, and, by corruption, its present popular one of Boxing-day.
Boxing-day, however, is still a great day in London. Upon this anniversary, every street resounds with the clang of hall-door knockers...."Called out," says Spooner (1834), "by the parish beadle, dustmen, and charity-boys. The postman, street-sweepers, chimney-sweepers, lamp-lighters, and waits will all be sure to wait upon me. These fellows have cost me much money this Christmas, and will do more, the next." ...."to see him come a-boxing, alias, a-begging..."
This custom, which is called "hunting the wren," is generally practised by the peasantry of the south of Ireland on St. Stephen's Day. The Wren-boys in Ireland, who are also called Droleens, go from house to house for the purpose of levying contributions, carrying one or more of these birds in the midst of a bush of holly, gaily decorated with colored ribbons ; which birds they have, like the Manx mummers, employed their morning in killing. The following is their song;
of which they deliver themselves in most monotonous music :
"The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen's-day was caught in the furze, Although he is little, his family 's great, I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
"My box would speak, if it had but a tongue, And two or three shillings would do it no wrong ; Sing holly, sing ivy sing ivy, sing holly, A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.
"And if you draw it of the best, I hope, in heaven your soul will rest; But if you draw it of the small, It won't agree with these Wren-boys at all."
The story told to account for the title of "king of all birds," here given to the wren, is a curious sample of Irish ingenuity, and is thus stated in the clever "Tales of the Munster Festivals," by an Irish servant in answer to his master's inquiry:
"Saint Stephen! why what the mischief, I ask you again, have I to do with Saint Stephen?"
"Nothen, sure, sir, only this being his day, when all the boys o' the place go about that way with the wran, the king of all birds, sir, as they say (bekays wanst when all the birds wanted to choose a king, and they said they 'd have the bird that would fly highest, the aigle flew higher than any of 'em, till at last when he could n't fly an inch higher, a little rogue of a wran that was a-hide under his wing took a fly above him a piece, and was crowned king, of the aigle an' all, sir), tied in the middle o' the holly that way you see, sir, by the leg, that is. An old custom, sir."
New Years Eve, 31st of December:
This is the last day of the year, and the feelings which belong to it are of a tangled yarn. Regrets for the past are mingled with hopes of the future; and the heart of man, between the meeting years, stands like the head of Janus looking two ways.
The day and eve which precede the New Year are marked, in England, by few outward observances, save such as are common to the season; and it is in the peculiar trains of thought to which they give rise that they have a character of their own.
...an ancient custom, which he says is still retained in some parts of England, in which young women go about on this eve carrying a wassail-bowl, and singing certain verses from door to door, which custom has certainly some analogy with the hogmanay practice in Scotland. And we may further state, while we are in the way of tracing resemblances, that the het pint, which, in Scotland, was formerly carried about the streets at the midnight of the New Year's coming in, and which was composed of ale, spirits, sugar, and nutmeg or cinnamon, is neither more nor less, though it was borne about in a kettle, than a Scottish version of the wassail-bowl.
There are still many places of the northern kingdom, in which the youth waits impatiently for the striking of the midnight hour, that he may be the earliest to cross the threshold of his mistress, and the lassie listens eagerly, from the moment when its chiming has ceased, to catch the sound of the first-foot on the floor :
"This first foot' s entering step,
That sudden on the floor is welcome heard,
Ere blushing maids have braided up their hair;
The laugh, the hearty kiss, the good New Year,
Pronounced with honest warmth "
This singing of a thousand bells is likewise a striking feature of the day in London ; and no one who has not heard the mingling voices of these high choristers in a metropolis, can form any notion of the wild and stirring effects produced by the racing and crossing and mingling of their myriad notes. It is as if the glad voices of the earth had a chorus of echoes in the sky ; as if the spirit of its rejoicing were caught up by "airy tongues, " and flung in a cloud of incense-like music to the gates of heaven.
...among the merry evenings of the Christmas-tide, not the least merry is that which closes New Year's Day.
Twelfth Day and Twelfth Night, January 6th:
Twelfth-Day (so called from its being the twelfth after Christmas Day) is that on which the festival of the Epiphany is held. This feast of the Christian Church was instituted, according to Picart, in the fourth century, to commemorate the manifestation of our Saviour to the Gentiles ; and the name Epiphany, which signifies an appearance from above, was given to it in allusion to the star described in Holy writ, as the guide of the Magi or Wise Men to the cradle of the Blessed Infant. "In Italy," says Mr. Leigh Hunt, "the word has been corrupted into Beffania or Beffana, as in England it used to be called Piffany; and Beffana in some parts of that country has come to mean an old fairy or Mother Bunch, whose figure is carried about the streets, and who rewards or punishes children at night, by putting sweetmeats or stones and dirt into a stocking hung up for the purpose, near the bed's head.
... many of the practices of our modem Christian festivals as echoes of ancient pagan observances. Of this, Twelfth-day presents a remarkable instance. The more we examine the Saturnalia of the Romans and compare those revels with the proceedings of our Twelfth-night, the more satisfied do we feel of the correctness of Selden's view. "Christmas," he says, in his "Table Talk," "succeeds the Saturnalia; the same time, the same number of holy-days. Then the master waited upon the servants, like the Lord of Misrule."
The merry bowl which, notwithstanding that it had been so often drained, was still kept brimming throughout all the Christmas holidays, was now when they were drawing to a close actually flowing over.
A pleasant custom of this kind is... that "the farmer, attended by his workmen with a large pitcher of cider, goes to the orchard on this evening ; and there, encircling one of the best bearing trees, they drink the following toast three times :
"Here 's to thee, old apple-tree !
Whence thou mayst bud,
and whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow !
Hats full ! caps full !
Bushel, bushel-sacks full !
And my pockets full too ! Huzza ! "
This done they return to the house, the doors of which they are sure to find bolted by the females, who, be the weather what it may, are inexorable to all entreatries to open them till some one has guessed at what is on the spit, which is generally some nice little thing difficult to be hit on, and is the reward of him who first names it. The doors are then thrown open ; and the lucky clodpole receives the titbit as a recompense. Some, it is added, "are so superstitious as to believe that if they neglect this custom the trees will bear no apples that year. "
"How to eat twelfth-cake," says Hone, "requires no recipe; but how to provide it, and draw the characters, on the authority of Rachel Revel's ' Winter Evening Pastimes, ' may be acceptable. First, buy your cake. Then, before your visitors arrive, buy your characters, each of which should have a pleasant verse beneath. Next, look at your invitation list, and count the number of ladies you expect, and afterwards the number of gentlemen. Then, take as many female characters as you have invited ladies, fold them up exactly of the same size, and number each on the back, taking care to make the king No. 1. And the queen No. 2. Then prepare and number the gentlemen's characters. Cause tea and coffee to be handed to your visitors, as they drop in. When all are assembled, and tea over, put as many ladies' characters in a reticule as there are ladies present ; next, put the gentlemen's characters in a hat. Then call on a gentleman to carry the reticule to the ladies as they sit ; from which each lady is to draw one ticket, and to pre- serve it unopened. Select a lady to bear the hat to the gentlemen for the same purpose. There will be one ticket left in the reticule, and another in the hat, which the lady and gentleman who carried each is to interchange, as having fallen to each.
Next, arrange your visitors, according to their numbers; the king No 1, the queen No. 2, and so on. The king is then to recite the verse on his ticket, then the queen the verse on hers ; and so the characters are to proceed, in numerical order. This done, let the cake and refreshments go round; and hey! for merriment!"
In the copy of Langley's characters which we possess, the same love of alliteration, upon which we have already commented as encouraged in the Court of Misrule, is observable. We have, for instance, " Bill Bobstay, " " Prudence Pumpkin, " " Percival Palette, " "Judy Juniper, " " Peter Punch- eon, " Simon Salamander, " " Countess Clackett, " " Leander Lackbrain, " " Nelly Nester, " " Felicia Frill, " etc.
Where the monarch of the evening and his queen are not determined by this kind of pictorial lottery, a bean and a pea are put into the cake; and whoever finds them in the pieces taken, he and she become the king and queen of the evening. Other matters, such as a small coin, a ring, etc., are often introduced into Twelfth-night cakes, and give to the finders characters to be supported for the evening.
St. Distaff's Day, 7th of January:
Thus, on the day which followed Twelfth-night, the implements of labor were prepared and the team was even yoked for a space; but the business of turning the soil was not required to be laboriously engaged in until the Monday which followed, and which therefore bore (and bears) the title of Plough Monday. After a few hours of morning labor, a sort of half-holiday was the concluding privilege of this privileged season; and the husbandman laid aside his plough, and the maiden her distaff, to engage in certain revels which were peculiar to the day and to the country districts. From the partial resumption of the spinning labors of the women on this morning, the festival in question takes its name.
These seem to have consisted in the burning, by the men who had returned from the field, of the flax and tow belonging to the women, as a sort of assertion of the supremacy of the spirit of fun over his laborious rival for this one day more, and a challenge into his court; and this challenge was answered by the maidens, and the mischief retorted, by sluicing the clowns with pails of water. It was, in fact, a merry contest between these two elements of water and of fire; and may be looked upon as typical of that more matter-of-fact extinction which was about to be finally given to the lights of the season when the sports of this day should be concluded.
"Partly work and partly play,
You must on S. Distaff's day;
From the plough soone free your teame,
Then come home and fother them,
If the maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow ;
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the maides bewash the men :
Give S. Distaff's all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night :
And next morrow, every one
To his own vocation."
OUR REVELS NOW ARE ENDED; and our Christmas prince must abdicate. In flinging down his wand of misrule... we trust, it may survive to furnish the directions for many a future scheme of Christmas happiness.
And now Father Christmas has at length departed... the gloomy portal of this merry season, on whose face is inscribed, in characters which there is no mystifying, its own appropriate and unbeloved name, BLACK MONDAY!
And lo! through its windows, just caught in the distance, the last nutter of the coat-tails of old Father Christmas!
OUR REVELS ARE, indeed, ENDED !
Illustrations from the book: