William Sandys, F. S. A.
London: John Russell Smith, 1852
Chapter 1 - Edward the First's Offering at the Epiphany
It would not be consistent with the proposed character of this work to enlarge on the Christian dispensation, as connected with the sacred feast of Christmas; to show Christianity as the Creation; that the fall of man naturally involved punishment; and hence the vicarious sacrifice of our Savior to redeem us from sin and death. These are subjects to be entered on by those who have had opportunities, if not of thinking more, at least of reading more, relative to than the writer of these pages, whose leisure hours are few, and whose endeavor will be to give, in as popular and interesting a manner as his abilities will enable him, some information respecting the mode of keeping this Holy Feast, particularly in England, in the olden times, and in the middle ages.
The Nativity is hailed by Christians of all denominations, as the dawn of our salvation; the harbinger of the day-spring on high; that promise of futurity, where care, sin, and sorrow enter not, where friends long severed shall meet to part no more; no pride, no jealousy, no self (that besetting sin of the world) intruding. Well, then, may we observe it with gratitude for the unbounded mercy vouchsafed to us; for the fulfillment of the promise pronounced in the beginning of the world, releasing us from the dominion of Satan. A promise which even the Pagans did not lose sight of, although they confused its import, as a glimmering of it may be traced through their corrupted traditions and superstitious ceremonies.
Has the early dream of youth faded away purposeless? —the ambition of manhood proved vanity of vanities? Have riches made themselves wings and flown away? or, has fame, just within the grasp, burst like a bubble? Have the friends, the companions of youth, one by one fallen off from thy converse; or the prop of advancing age been removed, leaving thee weak and struggling with the cares of life; or, has “the desire of thine eyes” been taken from thee at a stroke? Under these and other trials, the Christian looks to the anniversary of the Nativity (that rainbow of Christianity) as the commemoration of the birth of the Blessed Redeemer, who will give rest to the weary, and receive in his eternal kingdom all those who truly trust in him. And well may His name be called, “Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."
The season of Christmas, however, was not only set apart for sacred observance, but soon became a season of feasting and revelry; so much so, that even our sumptuary laws have recognized it, and exempted it from their operation. When Edward the Third, in his tenth year, endeavored to restrain his subjects from over luxury in their meals, stating that the middle classes sought to imitate the great in this respect, and thus impoverished themselves, and became the less able to assist their liege lord, he forbade more than two courses, and two sorts of meat in each, to any person, except in the great feasts of the year, namely, “La veile et le jour de Noël, le jour de Saint Estiephne, in jour del an renoef (New Year’s Day), les jours de la Tiphaynei et de la Purification de Nostre Dame,” &e.
A cheerful and hospitable observance of this festival being quite consistent with the reverence due to it, let us—after having as our first duty repaired to the house of our Lord, to return humble thanks for the inestimable benefits now conferred—while preparing to enter into our own enjoyments, enable, as far as in our power, our dependents and poorer brethren, to participate in the earthly comforts, as they do in the heavenly blessings of the season. Remember the days of darkness will come, and who can say how soon, how suddenly? and if long and late to some, yet will they surely come, when the daughters of music are laid low, then the remembrance of a kindly act of charity to our neighbor will soothe the careworn brow, and smooth the restless pillow of disease. “Go,” then, “your way; eat the fat and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord.”1
A great similarity exists in the observances of the return of the seasons, and of other general festivals throughout the world; and indeed the rites and ceremonies of the various pagan religions have, to a great extent, the marks of a common origin; and the study of popular antiquities involves researches into the early history of mankind, and their religious ceremonies.
Immediately after the deluge, the religion of Noah and his family was pure; but a century had scarcely elapsed before it became perverted among some of his descendants. That stupendous pagan temple, the Tower of Babel, was built, and the confusion of tongues, and dispersion of mankind, followed As the waves of population receded farther from the center, the systems of religion—except with the chosen people—got more and more debased, and mingled with allegories and symbols. But still, even the most corrupt preserved many allusions to the fall of man, and his redemption; to the deluge, and the deliverance by the ark; and to a future state. Thus, whether in China, Egypt, India, Africa, Scandinavia, in the rites of Vitzliputzli in Mexico, and of Pacha Camac, in Peru, among the Magi, the Brahmins, the Chaldæans, the Gymnosophists, and the Druids, the same leading features may be traced. It has even been supposed, that amongst a chosen race of the priests, some traditionary knowledge of the true religion prevailed, which they kept carefully concealed from the uninitiated.
One of the greatest festivals was that in celebration of the return of the sun; which, at the winter solstice, began gradually to regain power, the year commenced anew, and the season was hailed with rejoicings and thanksgivings. The Saxons, and other northern nations, kept a feast on the 25th of December, in honour of Thor, and called it the Mother-Night, as the parent of other nights; also Mid-Winter. It was likewise called Gule, Gwyl, Yule, or Iul, and half a dozen similar names, respecting the meaning of which learned antiquaries differ: Gebelin and others stating they convey the idea of revolution or wheel; while others, equally learned, consider the meaning to be festival, or holy-day. Gwyl in Welsh, and Geol in Saxon, both signify a holy-day; and as Yule, or I-ol, also signifies ale, an indispensable accompaniment of Saxon and British feasts, they were probably convertible terms. The word Yule may be found in many of our ancient metrical romances, and some of the old mysteries, as applied to Christmas, and is still so used in Scotland, and parts of England. The word Gala would seem to have a similar derivation. The curious in these matters may, however, refer to the learned Hickes’s two folios, Gebelin’s nine quartos, and Du Cange’s ten folios, and other smaller works, and satisfy their cravings after knowledge.
The feast of the birth of Mithras was held by the Romans on the 25th of December, in commemoration of the return of the sun; but the most important heathen festival, at this period of the year, was the Saturnalia, a word which has since become proverbial for high-jinks, and all manner of wild revelry. The origin seems to be unknown, but to have been previous to the foundation of Rome, and to have had some reference to the happy state of freedom and equality in the golden age of Saturn, whenever that era of dreams existed; for, when we go back to the olden times, no matter how far, we find the archaeologists of that age still looking back on their older times: and so we are handed back, not knowing where to stop, until we stumble against the Tower of Babel, or are stopped by the prow of the Ark, and then decline going any farther.
The Greeks, Mexicans, Persians, and other great nations of antiquity, including of course the Chinese, who always surpassed any other country, had similar festivals. During the Saturnalia among the Romans, which lasted for about a week from the 17th of December, not only were masters and slaves on an equality, but the former had to attend on the latter, who were allowed to ridicule them. Towards the end of the feast a king or ruler was chosen, who was invested with considerable powers, and may be supposed to be intimately connected with our Lord of Misrule, or Twelfth Night King, — presents also were mutually-given, and public places decked with shrubs and flowers. The birth of our Saviour thus took place at that time of the year, already marked by some of the most distinguished feasts. And why should it not have been so? We know that, at whatever period of the year it took place, it would have been, for Christians, "The Feast of Feasts;" and it is surely no derogation to imagine, that it was appointed at this time as the fulfillment of all feasts, and the culmination of festivals. The rising of the Christian Sun absorbed in its rays the lesser lights of early traditions, and it has continued to illuminate us with its blended brilliancy. Abercrombie, in his work on the Intellectual Powers, has some able remarks on the value of an unbroken series of traditional testimony or rites, especially as applicable to Christianity. “If the events, particularly, are of a very uncommon character, these rites remove any feeling of uncertainty which attaches to traditional testimony, when it has been transmitted through a long period of time, and, consequently, through a great number of individuals. They carry us back, in one unbroken series, to the Period of the events themselves, and to the individuals who were witnesses of them. The most important application of the principle, in the manner now referred to, is in those observances of religion which are intended to commemorate the events connected with the revelation of the Christian faith. The importance of this mode of transmission has not been sufficiently attended to by those who have urged the insufficiency of human testimony, to establish the course of events which are at variance with the common course of nature.”
During the Commonwealth, some of the Puritan party endeavored to show that the 25th of December was not really the Birth of our Savior, but that it took place at a different time of the year. Thomas Mockett, in ‘Christmas, the Christian’s Grand Feast,’ has collected the principal statements corroborative of this view—arguments they cannot be called; and after all, his conclusion is nothing more than, be the 25th of December the right day or not, Christians were not bound to keep it as a feast, because the supreme authority of the land, and ordinances of both Houses of Parliament, bad directed otherwise, Parliament, however, cannot control the day of the Nativity, though it can do a great deal; having, on one occasion, according to tradition, nearly passed an act against the growth of poetry (an enactment perhaps not much wanted at present), though this was said to have been a clerical error; and, at another time, after inflicting a punishment of fourteen years’ transportation, gave hail to the king and half to the informer; this, as may be supposed, was subsequently repealed. If, however, it is safe to say anything against Parliament, even of two hundred years since, without fear of the pains and penalties of contempt, it might be presumed that, like the patient in the ‘Diary of a Physician,’ they had “turned heads.” Dr. Thomas Warmstry, in ‘The Vindication of the Solemnity of the Nativity of Christ,’ published three years previous to Mockett’s tract, gives satisfactory replies to the objections made by the Puritans, and seems to have embodied the arguments against them, considering it sufficient for us that the Church has appointed the 25th of December for our great feast.
Whether the Apostles celebrated this day, although probable, is not capable of proof; but Clemens Romanus, about the year 70, when some of them were still living, directs the Nativity to be observed on the 25th of December. From his time to that of Bernard, the last of the Fathers, A.D. 1120, the feast is mentioned in an unbroken series; a tract, called ‘Festorum Metropolis,’ 1652, naming thirty-nine Fathers, who have referred to it, including Ignatius, Cyprian, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrosius, Chrysostom, Augustine, and Bede; besides historians and more modern divines. ‘The Feast of Feasts,’ 1644, also contains many particulars of the celebration during the earlier centuries of Christianity. About the middle of the fourth century, the feasting was carried to excess, as may have been the case occasionally in later times; and. Gregory Naziansen wars against such feasting, and dancing, and crowning the doors, so that the temporal rejoicing seems to have taken the place of the spiritual thanksgiving, In the same age there occurred one of those acts of brutality, which throughout all ages have disgraced humanity. The Christians having assembled in the Temple at Nicomedia, in Bithynia, to celebrate the Nativity, Dioclesian, the tyrant, had it enclosed, and set on fire, when about 20,000 persons are said to have perished; the number, however, appears large.
The early Christians, of the eastern and western Churches, slightly differed in the day on which they celebrated this feast: the Easterns keeping it, together with the Baptism, on the 6th of January, calling it the Epiphany; while the Westerns, from the first, kept it on the 25th of December; but in the fourth century the Easterns changed their festival of the Nativity to the same day, thus agreeing with the Westerns. The Christian epoch was, it is said, first introduced into chronology about the year 523, and was first established in this country by Bede. New Year’s Day was not observed by the early Christians as the Feast of the Circumcision, but (excepting by some more zealous persons, who kept it as a fast) with feasting, songs, dances, interchange of presents, &c., in honor of the new year; though the bishops and elders tried to check these proceedings, which were probably founded in some measure on the Roman feast of the double-faced Janus, held by them on this day. According to Brady, the first mention of it, as a Christian festival, was in 487; and it is only to be traced from the end of the eleventh century, under the title of the Circumcision; and was not generally so kept until included in our liturgy, in 1550; although, from early times, Christmas Day, the Nativity, and Twelfth Day, were the three great days of Christmastide. Referring to the probability, that the feasting on New Year’s Day might have been derived from the feast of Janus, it must be observed, that some of the early Christians, finding the heathens strongly attached to their ancient rites and customs, which made it difficult to abolish them (at least until after a considerable lapse of time), took advantage of this feeling, and engrafted the Christian feasts on those of the heathen, first modifying and purifying them. The practice may have been wrong, but the fact was so. Thus, Gregory Thaumaturgus, bishop of Neocæsarea, who died in 265, instituted festivals in honor of certain Saints and Martyrs, in substitution of those of the heathens, and directed Christmas to be kept with joy and feasting, and sports, to replace the Bacchanalia and Saturnalia. Pagan temples were converted into Christian churches; the statues of the heathen deities were converted into Christian saints; and papal Rome preserved, under other names, many relics of heathen Rome. The Pantheon was converted into a Romish church, and Jupiter changed to St. Peter.
When Pope Gregory sent over St. Augustin to convert Saxon England, he directed him to accommodate the ceremonies of the Christian worship as much as possible to those of the heathen, that the people might not be too much startled at the change; and, in particular, he advised him to allow the Christian converts, on certain festivals, to kill and eat a great number of oxen, to the glory of God, as they had formerly done to the honor of the devil. St. Augustin, it appears, baptized no fewer than 10,000 persons on the Christmas day next after his landing in 596, and permitted, in pursuance of his instructions, the usual feasting of the inhabitants, allowing them to erect booths for their own refreshment, instead of sacrificing to their idols,— objecting only to their joining in their dances with their pagan neighbors. Thus several of the pagan observances became incorporated with the early Christian festivals; and to such an extent, that frequent endeavors were made, by different Councils, to suppress or modify them; as, in 589, the songs and dances, at the festivals of Saints, were prohibited by the Council of Toledo, and by that of Chalon, on the Saone, in 650. In after times, the clergy still found it frequently requisite to connect the remnants of pagan idolatry with Christianity, in consequence of the difficulty they found in suppressing it. So, likewise, on the introduction of the Protestant religion, some of the Roman Catholic ceremonies, in a modified state, were preserved; and thus were continued some of the pagan observances. In this manner may many superstitious customs, still remaining at our great feasts, and in our games and amusements, be accounted for.
The practice of decorating churches and houses with evergreens, branches, and flowers, is of very early date. The Jews used them at their Feast of Tabernacles, and the heathens in several of their ceremonies, and they were adopted by the Christians. Our Savior Himself permitted branches to be used as a token of rejoicing, upon His triumphal entry to Jerusalem. It was natural, therefore, that at Christmas time, when His Birth, and the fulfillment of the promise to fallen man, were celebrated, that this symbol of rejoicing should be resorted to. Some of the early Councils, however, considering the practice somewhat savored of paganism, endeavored to abolish it; and, in 610, it was enacted, that it was not lawful to begirt or adorn houses with laurel, or green boughs, for all this practice savours of paganism. In the earlier carols the holly and the ivy are mentioned, where the ivy, however, is generally treated as a foil to the holly, and not considered appropriate to festive purposes.
“Holly And Ivy made a great party,
Who should have the mastery
In lands where they go.
Then spake Holly, I am friske and jolly,
I will have the mastery
In lands where they go.”
But in after times it was one of the plants in regular use. Stowe mentions holme, ivy, and bays, and gives an account of a great storm on Candlemas Day, 1444, which rooted up a standard tree, in Cornhill, nailed full of holme and ivy for Christmas, an accident that by some was attributed to the evil spirit. Old Tusser’s direction is “Get ivye and hull (holly) woman deck up thine house.” The mistletoe — how could Shakespeare cull it the "baleful mistletoe?" — was an object of veneration among our pagan ancestors in very early times, and as it is probable it was the golden branch referred to by Virgil, in his description of the descent to the lower regions, it may be assumed to have been used in the religious ceremonies of the Greeks and Romans. His branch appears to have been the mistletoe of the oak, now of great rarity, though it is found on many other trees. It was held sacred by the Druids and Celtic nations, who attribute to it valuable medicinal qualities, calling it allheal and guidhel, and they preferred, if not selected exclusively, the mistletoe of the oak. Vallancey says it was held sacred because the berries as well as the leaves grow in clusters of three united to one stalk, and they had a veneration for the number three; his observation, however, is incorrect as to the leaves, which are in pairs only. The Gothic nations also attached extraordinary qualities to it, and it was the cause of the death of their deity Balder. For Friga, when she adjured all the other plants, and the animals, birds, metals, earth, fire, water, reptiles, diseases, and poison, not to do him any hurt, unfortunately neglected to exact any pledge from the mistletoe, considering it too weak and feeble to hurt him, and despising it perhaps because it had no establishment of its own, but lived upon other plants. When the gods, then, in their great assembly, amused themselves by throwing darts and other missiles at him, which all fell harmless, Loke, moved with envy, joined them in the shape of an old woman, and persuaded Hoder, who was blind, to throw a branch of mistletoe, and guided his hand for the purpose; when Balder, being pierced through by it, fell dead. The Druids celebrated a grand festival on the annual cutting of the mistletoe, which was held on the sixth day of the moon nearest their new year. Many ceremonies were observed, the officiating Druid being clad in white, with a golden sickle, and received the plant in a white cloth. These ceremonies kept alive the superstitious feelings of the people, to whom no doubt the Druids were in the habit of dispensing the plant at a high price; and as late as the seventeenth century, peculiar efficacy was attached to it, and a piece hung round the neck was considered as a safeguard against witches. In modern times it has a tendency to lead us towards witches of a more attractive nature; for, as is well known, if one can by favor or cunning induce a fair one to come under the mistletoe he is entitled to a salute, at the same time he should wish her a happy new year, and present her with one of the berries for good luck; each bough, therefore, is only laden with a limited number of kisses, which should be well considered in selecting one. In some places people try lots by the crackling of the leaves and berries in the fire.
From the pagan Saturnalia and Lupercalia probably were derived those extraordinary but gross, and as we should now consider them, profane observances, the Feast of Asses and the Feast of Fools, with other similar burlesque festivals. In the early ages of Christianity, there were practices at the beginning of the year of men going about dressed in female attire or in skins of beasts, causing occasionally much vice and debauchery; but the regular Feast of Asses and Feast of Fools were not apparently fully established until the ninth or tenth century; a period when it was considered a sufficient qualification for a priest, if he could read the Gospels and understand the Lord’s Prayer. All sorts of buffooneries and abominations were permitted at these representations; mock anthems and services were sung; an ass, covered with rich priestly robes, was gravely conducted to the choir, and provided from time to time with drink and provender, the inferior clergy, choristers, and people dancing round him and imitating his braying; while all sorts of impurities were committed, even at the holy altar. A hymn was sung, commencing—
Puiclier et fortissimus,
Hez, Sire Asnes, car chantez;
Belle bouche rechignez;
Vous aurez du foin assez.
Et de l’avoine à planter.
Lentus erat pedibus,
Nisi foret baculus,
Et cum in clunibus
and after several verses in this strain, finishing with—
Hez va! hez va! hez Va, hez!
Bialx Sire Asnes car allez;
Belle bouche car chantez.
On the mock mass being completed, the officiating priest turned to the people and said, “Ite missa est,” and brayed three times, to which they responded by crying or braying out, Hinham, Hinham, Hinham. This festival is said to have been in commemoration of the flight to Egypt; but there was one kept at Rouen in honor of Balaam’s ass, where the performers, if they may be so called, walked in procession on Christmas Day, representing the prophets and others, as David, Moses, Balaam, Virgil, &c., just as General Wolfe may now be seen as a party in the Christmas play of St. George and the Dragon. Many attempts were made from the twelfth to the end of the sixteenth century to suppress these licentious ‘abuses of sacred things; and although by that time they were abolished in the churches, yet they were continued by the laity, and our modern mummers probably have their origin from them. A pupil of Gassandi, writing to him as late as 1645, mentions having seen, in the church at Aix, the Feast of Innocents (which was of a similar nature) kept by the lay brethren and servants in the church, dressed in ragged sacerdotal ornaments, with books reversed, having large spectacles, with rinds of scooped oranges instead of glasses. Louis the Twelfth, in the early part of the sixteenth century, ordered the representation of the ‘gambol of the ‘Prince des Sots’ and the ‘Mere sotte,’ in which, according to a note to Rabelais, liv. i, c. 2, ed. 1823, Julius the Second and the Court of Rome were represented. This was about the time probably when the principality of Chauny wishing to have some swans (cignes) for the waters ornamenting their town, unluckily wrote to Paris for some cignes (singe being then written with a c), and in due time received a wagonful of apes.2 They could, therefore, have readily proffered their scribe as the prince des sots, excepting that it takes a wise man to make a good fool. At Angers, there was an old custom called Aquilanneuf, or Guilanleu, where young persons went round to churches and houses on the first of the year, to collect contributions, nominally to purchase wax in honor of the Virgin, or the patron of the church, crying out, Au gui menez Rollet Follet, tiri tiri mainte du blanc et point du bis; they had a chief called Roi Follet, and spent their money in feasting and debauchery An order was made by the synod there, in 1595, which stopped the practice in the churches, but another, in 1668, was necessary to modify and restrain it altogether.
Feasts of this description were not much in vogue in England, though they were introduced, as we find them prohibited at Lincoln, by Bishop Grosthead, in the time of Henry the Third; but towards the end of the following century they were probably abolished. There are traces of the fool’s dance, where the dancers were clad in fool’s habits, in the reign of Edward the Third. A full account of these strange observances may be found in Ducange, and in Du Tilliot’s Mémoires de la Fête des Foux.
Christianity was introduced among the Britons at a very early period, but there are no records, that can be considered authentic, of their mode of keeping the feast of the Nativity, though it was doubtless observed as one of their highest festivals. Some of the druidical ceremonies might have been embodied, and even the use of the mysterious mistletoe then adopted, the aid of the bards called in, and ale and mead quaffed in abundance. The great and veritable King Arthur, according to the ballad of the “Marriage of Sir Gawaine,”—
“...... a royale Christmasse kept,
With mirth and princelye cheare;
To him repaired many a knighte,
That came both farre and neare.”
This, though ancient, is certainly of a date long subsequent to the far-famed hero; but it ought to be taken as authority, for, according to the modem progress of antiquarianism, the farther off we live from any given time or history, the more we know about it; the old Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and Medievals, knowing nothing respecting themselves and their next door neighbors, while we are as familiar as if we had been born and bred with them. By the same rule of remoteness, the modern chronicler, Whistlecraft (Frere), should be taken as authority, for the particulars of the ancient Christmas feast, on which he humorously thus dilates
“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,
Per porter, punch, and negus were not known.”
After the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, Easter, Whitsuntide, and Christmas, were kept as solemn festivals; the kings living at those times in great state, wearing their crowns, receiving company on a large scale, and treating them with great hospitality. The Wittenagemots were also then held, and important affairs of church and state discussed. Knowing the affection of~ the early Saxons for their ale and mead, and that quaffing these from the skulls of their enemies, while feasting from the great boar Scrymer, was — notwithstanding the apparent sameness of the amusement — one of their anticipated joys in a future state, we can readily imagine that excesses frequently took place at these festivals. The wassail bowl, of which the skull of an enemy would thus appear to have formed their beau idéal, is said to have been introduced by them. Rowena, the fair daughter of Hengist, presenting the British king, Vortigern, with a bowl of wine, and saluting him with “Lord King Wass-heil;” to which he answered, as he was directed, “Drine heile,” and saluted her then after his fashion, being much smitten with her charms. The purpose of father and daughter was obtained; the king married the fair cup-bearer, and the Saxons obtained what they required of him. This is said to have been the first wassail in this land; but, as it is evident that the form of salutation was previously known, the custom must have been much older among the Saxons; and, indeed, in one of the histories, a knight, who acts as a sort of interpreter between Rowena and the king, explains it to be an old custom among them. By some accounts, however, the Britons are said themselves to have had their wassail bowl, or lamb’s wool — La Mas Ubhal, or day of apple fruit — as far back as the third century, made of ale, sugar (whatever their sugar was), toast and roasted crabbs, hissing in the bowl; to which, in later times, nutmeg was added. The followers of Odin and Thor drank largely in honor of their pagan deities; and, when converted, still continued their potations, but in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and Saints; and the early missionaries were obliged to submit to this substitution, being unable to abolish the practice, which afterwards degenerated into drinking healths of other people, to the great detriment of our own. Strange! that even from the earliest ages, the cup-bearer should be one of the principal officers in the royal presence, and that some of the high families take their name from a similar office.
The feast of Christmas was kept in the same state on the Continent, and the bishops were accustomed to send their eulogies — Visitationis Scripta — on the Nativity, to kings, queens, and others of the blood royal. But it is foreign to the purpose of this work to refer to the customs abroad, unless it may be necessary to do so slightly, for the purpose of illustration. It may be mentioned, however, that at this festival, in 800, Charlemagne received from the pope, Leo the Third, the crown of Emperor, and was hailed as the pious Augustus the Great, and pacific Emperor of the Romans.
Alfred, as might be expected from his fine character, reverently observed the festival. On one occasion he gave to the celebrated Asser, by way of gift, an abbey, in Wiltshire, supposed to have been Amesbury; another, at Barnwell, in Somersetshire; a rich silk pall, and as much incense as a strong man could carry on his shoulder, — a truly princely New Year’s gift. He directed Christmas to be kept for twelve days; so that now, if not at an earlier date, the length of the feast was defined, and the name, probably, of Twelfth-day given to the last day of it; though, in the old Runic festivals, among the ancient Danes, it appears to have been more correctly called the thirteenth day, a name which would sound uncouth to our modern ears: Who would eat any thirteenth cake? Alfred was commemorating this festival, with his army, at Chippenham, in 878, when he was surprised by Guthrurn, and his Danes, and compelled to fly and conceal himself in the Isle of Athelney, his power fading away for a time, even like that of a twelfth-night king. Something similar happened a century before, when Offa, king of Mercia, about the year 790, was completing Offa’s dyke. The Welsh, despising the solemnity of the time, broke through, and slew many of Offa’s soldiers, who were enjoying their Christmas. The Danish kings kept the feast much in the same manner as the Saxons; and there is a story told of Canute, who had many good qualities about him, which shows the rudeness of the times, even in the royal circle, though such a scene may even now be realized in Oriental courts. While this monarch was celebrating his Christmas in London, A.D. 1017, Edric, earl of Mercia, who had treacherously betrayed and deserted Ethelred and Edmund Ironside, boasted of his services to Canute, who turned to Eric, earl of Northumberland, exclaiming, “Then let him receive his deserts, that he may not betray us, as he betrayed Elhelred and Edmund.”3 The Norwegian immediately cut him down with his battle-axe, and his body was thrown from a window into the Thames. Such speedy justice would rather astonish a drawing-room now-a-days.
Dancing seems then, even as at present, to have been a favorite Christmas amusement, and certainly in one instance was carried to an extreme. Several young persons were dancing and singing together on Christmas Eve, 1012, in a churchyard, and disturbed one Robert, a priest, who was performing mass in the church. He entreated them in vain to desist: the more he begged the more they danced, and, we may conclude, showed him some of their best entrechâts and capers. What would, in modern times, have been a case for the police, was then a subject for the solemn interference of the powers of the church. Robert, as they would not cease dancing, as the next best thing, prayed that they might dance without ceasing. So they continued without intermission, for a whole year, feeling neither heat nor cold, hunger nor thirst, weariness nor decay of apparel; but the ground on which they performed not having the same miraculous support, gradually wore away under them, till at last they were sunk in it up. to the middle, still dancing as vehemently as ever. Sir Roger de Coverley, danced down the whole length of the crystal Palace, would have been nothing to this. A brother of one of the girls took her by the arm, endeavoring to bring her away; the limb, however, came off in his hand, like Dr. Faustus’s leg, in the hand of the countryman, but the girl never stopped her dancing, or missed a single step in consequence. At the end of the year Bishop Hubert came to the place, when the dancing ceased, and he gave the party absolution. Some of them died immediately after, and the remainder, after a profound sleep of three days and three nights, went about the country to publish the miracle.4
It was at Christmas, 1065, that Westminster Abbey was consecrated, in the presence of Queen Edgitha, and a great number of nobles and priests, Edward the Confessor being himself too ill to attend; and indeed he died on the 5th of January, 1066, and was buried in the Abbey on the following day; his tomb there, and his name of the Confessor, given him by the priests, having caused him probably to be better known than any particular merits of his own deserve.
A great change was now about to take place in the government of our country: William of Normandy claimed it as his of right against Harold; and, having power to support his claim, in the space of a few months became King of England, placing his Norman followers in the high places of the land.
Notes from Sandys:
1. Nehemiah, viii, 10. Return
2. Rabelais, vol. i, 478, n. ed. 1823. Return
3. Lingard's Hist. Eng. ed. 1837, vol. i, 259. Return
4. John of Bromton. Twysden, X Scriptores. Return
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