The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Robert Herrick

Source: Henry Vizetelly, Christmas With The Poets (London: David Bogue, 1851).

Among all our English poets, the one, who has left us by far the most complete contemporary picture of the Christmas season, was a country clergyman of the reign of Charles I., who held a small living in a remote part of Devonshire. Robert Herrick, for it is of him we speak, was born in London, received his early education, it is supposed, at Westminster School, from whence he removed to Cambridge, and after taking his degree, spent some few years in London, in familiar intercourse with the chief wits, and writers of the age. Herrick had for his early intimates Ben Jonson, Seldon, William Lawes the eminent composer, and Endymion Porter, groom of the chamber to the King, besides many others of equal note, and it was with regret that he resigned the enjoyment of their society, to enter upon the duties connected with the living of Dean-Prior's, to which he was presented in 1620.

For near twenty years, until he was ejected from his cure by the committee appointed by the Long Parliament, on account of his Royalist opinions, he led the retired life of a country priest; and, during this period, it would appear that most of his poems were written descriptive of the ceremonies, superstitions, and festivities of the Christmas season. On leaving Dean-Prior's, deeply regretted by his parishioners, who styled him their "ancient and famous poet," and Herrick was then fifty-seven years of age he moved to London, where he settled down at his "beloved Westminster."

The hand of death, during his twenty years' absence, had been laid upon most of his old companions. Jonson had died, just as the troubles with which the reign of Charles was so thickly beset had commenced in earnest. Lawes had fallen at the siege of Chester, mourned for by his King. Endymion Porter had died abroad. Seldon alone survived in the enjoyment of a green old age. Herrick, however, found new friends in Charles cotton, and Sir John Denham, the bard of Cooper's Hill, but deprived of his income he lived a life of penury, and dependence, until the restoration of Charles II., when he was again inducted to the living from which he had been expelled, and died in 1674, at the advanced age of eighty-three.

The Christmas poems of Herrick form quite a series of themselves, and for this reason they are comprised in a distinct section of this work, instead of being mixed up with contemporary productions by other hands. The first poem is descriptive of the ceremony attending the bringing in the Christmas or Yule log, a custom of very ancient date; yet, nevertheless, this is the first occasion that we find allusion to it in the writings of our earlier poets.

In Herrick's time, the Watchman and Bellman were one and the same. The latter appellation arose, we expect, from its being the practice of these ancient guardians of the night to carry with them a large bell, either for the purpose of summoning assistance when required, or else to enable them the more effectually to disturb the slumbers of those who, snug asleep, cared very little to know how the hours happened to be progressing. Now-a-days the Bellman is quite a Christmas character. The office is generally usurped by the beadle or parish constable, who constitutes himself Bellman for one day in the year, viz., Boxing Day [December 26], in the hope that, by the presentation of some miserable doggerel rhymes to his "worthy masters," the inhabitants of the parish, of which he is so important an officer, he may reap a rich and unmerited reward.

Although the following poem contains no immediate reference to the Christmas season, still, the pictures which it presents of the hospitality of the period, and the character of the entertainment met with at the table of a county gentleman, of the reign of Charles I., render it peculiarly applicable to that particular season of the year, when open-handed liberality, such as it commemorates, is in the ascendant.

The following refers to a custom that prevailed in Devonshire, and other cider counties, of throwing the dregs of the Wassail-bowl against the stems of the best bearing fruit trees, on the eve of Twelfth-day. [See also Ceremonies For Christmas - A. H. Bullen]

A Spell

Wassail the trees, that they may bear
You many a plum and many a pear;
For more or less fruit they will bring,
As you do give them wassailing.

In Herrick's time it was customary with the country people to prolong the merriment of the Christmas season until Candlemas Day -- a circumstance referred to in the following couplet: --

Candlemas Day

End now the white-loaf and the pie,
And let all sports with Christmas die.

See:

Newcastle University: The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick
Christmas Customs - Robert Herrick.
The Lyrical Poems Of Robert Herrick


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