The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmastide
its History, Festivities and Carols

William Sandys, F. S. A.
London: John Russell Smith, 1852

Chapter 7 - Pepys' Wassail Bowl

We have observed that the churchwardens of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, were fined in 1647 for decorating their church at Christmas. The practice, as before referred to, existed from the earliest times; and in the churchwardens’ accounts of various parishes in the fifteenth and following centuries, entries may be found of payments for holme, holly, and ivy; and even during the Commonwealth the practice was not extinct, although the puritans tried to abolish it; for in ‘Festovum Metropolis,’ 1652, the author, who supports the cause of Christmas, thou endeavoured to be suppressed by the puritans, mentions the trimming of churches and houses with bays, rosemary, holly, ivy, box, and privet, and answers the objections made to the practice. Coles also, in his "Art of Simpling," 1656, says, that in some places setting up holly, ivy, rosemary, bays, &c. in churches at Christmas, was still in rise. Aubrey mentions it as the custom in many parts of Oxfordshire for the maid-servant to ask one of the men for ivy to dress the house, and if he refused or neglected it, she was to steal a pair of his breeches, and nail them up to the gate in the yard or highway. Poor Robin, whose Almanac contains many allusions to Christmas customs, in a Christmas song of 1695, sings,

"With holly and ivy
So green and so gay,
We deck up our houses
As fresh as the day
With bays and rosemary,
And laurel compleate,
And every one now
Is a king in conceite."

The practice has continued to the present time, when the addition of the chrysanthemum, satin flower, and other everlastings, mingling with the red berry of the holly and the waxen one of the mystic mistletoe, together with occasionally the myrtle and laurustinum, have a very pleasing and cheerful effect. In most places these greens and flowers are taken down after Twelfth Day, except in churches, where they are frequently kept till Lent; but, according to Herrick, they should remain in houses until Candlemas Day, and then

"Down with the rosemary and so
Down with the baies and mistletoe
Don with the holly, ivie, all
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas hall;

That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind,
For look, bow many leaves there be
Neg1ected there, maide, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see”

After the Restoration, the festive as well as the sacred observance of Christmas was immediately resumed, and on the very first Christmas Day, Evelyn says, Dr. Rainbow preached before the king, when the service was performed with music, voices, &c., as formerly. The court revels, however, never recovered their former splendour plays, masks, and pageants were nearly abandoned, and the festivities gradually assumed the form of a mere state party) until in the time of our present gifted queen, the plays at court have been resumed with the utmost taste and talent. The manners of the country in general had been much changed during the ascendancy of the puritan party and the troubles occasioned by the civil wars; and the habits of Charles the Second were of too indolent and sensual a nature to care much for any trouble in the court pageants, though gambling at the groom-porter’s was prevalent — Charles generally opening there the Christmas revels, if they may be so called; the play was deep, of which many instances are given, the ladies joining in it. A pastoral, however, by Crowne, called ‘Calisto,’ was at one time acted by the daughters of the Duke of York (afterwards James the Second) and the young nobility; and Lady Anne, afterwards queen, about the same time acted the part of Seruandra, in Lee's ‘Mithridates.’ Betterton and his wife instructed the performers in remembrance of which, when Anne came to the throne, she gave the latter a pension of 100 a year.

Temple Revels Before Charles The Second

The Inns of Court continued their revels; and in January, 1662, Pepys mentions that while he was at Faithorne’s, the celebrated engraver’s, he saw the king’s life-guards, he being gone to Lincoln’s Inn, where, according to old custom, there was a prince and all his nobles, and other matters of sport and charge. Evelyn, who was present at these revels, speaks somewhat disdainfully of them, calling them “the solemn foolerie of the Prince de la Grange, where came the king, duke,” &c. It began with a grand mask, and a formal pleading before the mock princes, grandees, nobles, and knights of the sun. He had his lord chancellor, chamberlain, treasurer, and other royal officers, gloriously clad and attended; and ended in a magnificent banquet; one Mr. Lort being the “young spark” who maintained the pageantry.

In January, 1688, Evelyn went, after the meeting of the Royal Society, to see the revels at the Middle Temple, which he calls an old, but riotous, custom, and had no relation to virtue or policy. He did not know that the most eager in these sports are frequently among the wisest of their class, and that the philosopher can sometimes wear the garb of folly gracefully.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, however, these revels ceased, having gradually fallen off, and the dignity of master of the revels, instead of being eagerly sought for, as in former times, required a bribe or premium to induce any member to take it upon him. We find, for instance, in the records of Gray’s Inn, on the 3d of November, 1682, that Mr. Richard Gipps, on his promise to perform the office of master of the revels that and the next term, should be called to the bar, of grace, that is, without payment of the usual fees.

The amusing gossip Pepys was a much more agreeable Christmas companion apparently than Evelyn. How one would like to have joined such a party as he describes on the 4th of January, 1667, when having had company to dinner, at night, the last thing they had was a flagon of ale and apples drunk out of a wood cup as a Christmas draught, which made all merry! This was keeping up the old custom of the wassail bowl (was Knipp of this sociable party?); and no doubt Pepys entered heartily into all the old customs, and certainly was liberal as to his gifts; for, on December 28th, 1668, he says that drums, trumpets, and boxes cost him much money that Christmas. On the previous Christmas Day he had been quiet, though probably in expectation of some approaching party, having dined at home with his wife, who sat undressed all day until ten at night, altering and lacing of a “noble petticoat.” So, ladies we see, even in those times, contrived and worked a little to vary and ornament that apparel which adds so much grace to their charms; and though “when unadorned, adorned the most,” is frequently quoted with approbation, yet it probably is often misunderstood, and simplicity with taste in ornament is always an object of admiration. Pepys gives an amusing account of Sir George Downing, a man of thrift, who asked some poor people (poor relations probably) to dine with him at Christmas, and gave them nothing but beef, porridge, pudding, and pork; there was nothing said during the dinner, except his mother would remark, “It’s good broth, son.” “Yes, it is good broth,” he would answer. “Confirm all,” says the lady, and say, “Yes, very good broth” By and bye, she would say, “Good pork;” to which the son would respond, “Yes, very good pork.” And so throughout the scanty bill of fare, the humble guests saying nothing, as they went not out of love or esteem, but for the purpose of getting a good dinner, a rare occurrence perhaps to some of them.

The Rev. Henry Teonge, chaplain of one of our ships of war, gives the following description of a Christmas Day of quite another sort, in 1675. “Crismas Day wee keepe thus: At four in the morning our trumpeters all doe flatt their trumpetts, and begin at our captain’s cabin, and thence to all the officers’ and gentlemen’s cabins; playing a levite at each cabine door, and bidding good morrow, wishing a merry Crismas. After they goe to their station, viz. on the poope, and sound three levitts in honour of the morning. At ten we goe to prayers and sermon; text, Zacc. ix, 9. Our captaine had all his officers and gentlemen to dinner with him, where wee had excellent good fayre: a ribb of beefe, plumb-puddings, minct pyes, &c., and plenty of good wines of severall sorts; dranke healths to the king, to our wives and friends, and ended the day with much civill myrth.” Teonge and his Companions seem to have been a merry, pleasant set, and he thus describes their ensuing Twelfth Day. “Very ruff weather all the last night, and all this day. Wee are now past Zante; had wee beene there this day, wee had scene a greate solemnity; for this day being 12 day, the Greeke Bishop of Zante doth (as they call it) baptise the sea, with a great deale of ceremonie, sprinkling their gallys and fishing-tackle with holy water. But wee had much myrth on board, for wee had a greate kake made, in which was put a beane for the king, a pease for the queen, a cloave for the knave, a forked stick for the cuckold, a ragg for the slutt. The kake was cut into severall pieces in the great cabin, and all put into a napkin, out of which every one took his piece, as out of a lottery; then each piece is broaken to see what was in it, which caused much laughter, to see our leiuetenant prove the coockold, and more to see us tumble one over the other in the cabin, by reason of the ruff weather.” The celebrated Lord Peterborough, then a youth, was one of the party on board this ship, as Lord Mordaunt.

Poor Robin’s almanack, for 1675, gives some notion of the bill of fare for Christmas at this time among the middle classes.

Now the season of the year
Bids thee to provide good cheer,
For to feast thy needy neighbours,
Who do live by their hard labours;
Then thy coyn freely bestow
For raisins, sun, and maligo
No currans, prunes, nor sugar lack,
Pepper, both the white and black,
Nutmegs, ginger, cloves, and mace,
Rice for porridge i’ th’ first place;
Pork and mutton, veal and beef,
For hungry stomachs good. relief;
Pig, goose, turkey, capon, coney,
What may be had for thy money;
Plum-pudding, and furmity,
Mutton pasties, Christmas pye;
Nappy ale, a full carouse
To the master of the house;
And instead of tobacco pipes,
The fidler up an old dance strikes.”

In following years there are descriptions somewhat similar.

New Year’s Gifts were continued; and at court they seem to have been arranged according to rule, and were generally in money. The aggregate amount presented was about 3OOO, sent in purses, worth 30s. or 40s. each, the donors receiving gifts of gilt plate in return. Pepys mentions his going to the jewell office, on the 4th of January, 1661, to choose a piece of plate for Earl Sandwich, who had given twenty pieces of gold in a purse. His account will suffice to show the perfect matter of routine then existing, as well as the amount of recognised official peculation. He chose a gilt tankard, weighing thirty-one ounces and a half, but this was an ounce and a half more than the Earl, or the value of the Earl’s gift, was entitled to, this limit being thirty ounces; so Pepys was obliged to pay 12s. for the extra ounce and a half, so much was it a matter of calculation He adds, “Strange it was for me to see what a company of small fees I was called upon by a great many to pay there, which, I perceive, is the manner that courtiers do get their estates.”

The spirit of Christmas, however, had received a check in the time of the Commonwealth, which it struggled in vain to overcome entirely. The hospitality and festivities in private houses recovered, and were prevalent in the eighteenth century, and exist in many parts, and to a certain extent, even in the present utilitarian age; but the pageants and masks, in the royal household, and at the Inns of Court, had received a death-blow; although they were not actually abolished until the latter end of the century. Evelyn mentions a riotous and revelling Christmas at the Inner Temple, according to custom, as late as 1697, and says that his brother, who appears to have been a worthy, as well as a wealthy, squire, in the previous year more veterum, kept a Christmas at Wotton, in which they had not fewer than 300 bumpkins every holyday.

The Wassail Bowl

In 1702, Poor Robin makes complaints of the falling off of Christmas festivities.

But now landlords and tenants too
In making feasts are very slow;
One in an age, or near so far,
Or one perhaps each blaring star
The cook now and the butler too,
Have little or nothing for to do;
And fidlers who used to get scraps,
Now cannot fill their hungry chaps;
Yet some true English blood still lives,
Who gifts to the poor at Christmas gives,
And to their neighbours make a feast,
I wish their number were increast,
And that their stock may never decay,
Christmas may come again in play,
And poor man keep it holyday.”

Many of the popular ballads, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, refer to the same falling off in Christmas feasting, complaining of the degeneracy of the times. Poets and ballad writers, however, from the earliest times, certainly as far back as Homer, have been noted for this species of grumbling. Praising the bygone times, in order to conceal the annoyance at having had so many of our would-be-original good things said by our ancestors before us.

Nedham in his ‘History of the Rebellion,’ 1661, alluding to the times before the Commonwealth, stays—

Gone are those golden days of yore,
  When Christmas was a high day;
Whose sports we now shall see no more,
  ‘Tis turn’d into Good Friday.”

In ‘The Old and Young Courtier,’ printed in 1670, we have comparisons between the times of Elizabeth and the then modern times; including the following, lines as to Christmas,—

   “With a good old fashion, when Christmasse was come,
   To call in all his old neighbours with bagpipe and drum,
   With good chear enough to furnish every old roome,
   And old liquor, able to make a cat speak, and man dumb.
        Like an old courtier of the queen’s,
        And the queen’s old courtier.”

then comes the contrast,—

“With a new fashion, when Christmas is drawing on,
On a new journey to London, straight we all must begone,
And leave none to keep house, but our new porter, John,
Who relieves the poor with a thump on the back with a stone.
   Like a young courtier of the king’s,
   And the king’s young courtier.”1

In ‘Time’s Alteration; or, the Old Man’s Rehearsal,’ what brave dayes he knew a great while agone, when his old cap was new,” there is much in the same strain,—

“Black jacks to every man
Were fill’d with wine and beer;
No pewter pot nor can
In those days did appear

Good cheer in a nobleman’s house
Was counted a seemly show;
We wanted no brawn nor souse,
When this old cap was flour.”2

But, ‘Old Christmas Returned,’ probably ‘written at the time of the Restoration and prior to the last-named ballads, gives a more favourable view, and welcomes the return of Christmas:

  “All you that to feasting and mirth are incin’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.

  "A long time together he hath been forgot,
  They scarce could afford for to hang on the pot;
  Such miserly sneaking iii England hath been,
  As by our forefathers ne’er us’d to be seen;
  But now he’s returned you shall have in brief,
    Plum-pudding, goose, capon, minc’d pies and roast beef.”3

The last line forms the burden of every stanza. A few years later, in 1695, Poor Robin welcomes Christmas much in the same terms,—

“Now, thrice welcome, Christmas,
Which brings us good cheer,
Minc’d pies and plumb-porridge,
Good ale and strong beer;
With pig, goose, and capon,
The best that may be,
So well doth the weather
And our stomachs agree.”

Really, one may say with Terence, “jamdudum animus est in patinis,” and eating seems to be a happy invention, occupying a valuable portion of our existence. Old Tusser, long before) had recommended somewhat similar dishes for Christmas,—

  Brawn, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withal,
  Beef, mutton, and pork, shred pies of the best,
  Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well dressed;
  Cheese, apples, and nuts, jolly carols to hear
  As then in the country is counted good cheer” -

This was hearty and hospitable fare, fit for the fine old gentry of England; but Massinger talks of something more luxurious, hardly to be surpassed in our scientific days.

  “Men may talk of country Christmasses,
  Their thirty pound butter’d eggs, their pies of carps’ tongues,
  Their pheasants drench’d with ambergris, the careases
  Of three fat wethers bruised for gravy to
  Make sauce for a single peacock.”4

Old Christmas Festivities.

The well-known minced or Christmas pie is of considerable antiquity, and many references are made to it in early writers. It is customary, in London, to introduce them at the lord-mayor’s feast, on the 9th of November, where many hundreds of them appear; but this is an irregularity that some archaeological lord-mayor will, no doubt, by and bye, correct; at any rate they should be eaten under protest, or without prejudice, as lawyers say. They ought to be confined to the season of Christmas, and the practice of using up the remnant of the mince meat, even up to Easter, should be put a stop to by some of our ecclesiastical reformers. So much were they considered as connected with Christmas, that the puritans treated their use as a superstitious observance, and after the Restoration they almost served as a test of religious opinions, Bunyan, when in confinement and in distress for a comfortable meal, for some time refused to injure his morals by eating them when he might have done so. Misson, in the beginning of the last century, says they were made of neats’ tongues, chicken, eggs, sugar, currants, lemon and orange peel, with various spices.

The modern receipts are similar, and the less meat they contain the better. The following is a well-tried and much approved one, and has been handed down in the same family for generations “A pound of beef suet, chopped fine; a pound of raisins, do. stoned; a pound of currants, cleaned dry; a pound of apples, chopped fine; two or three eggs; allspice beat very fine, and sugar to your taste; a little salt, and as much brandy and wine as you like:” a small piece of citron in each pie is an improvement, and the cover or case should be oblong, in imitation of the crache or manger where our Saviour was laid, the ingredients themselves having been said to have some reference to the offering of the wise men.

James the First’s dislike to the look of a naked sword took its rise from about the time of his birth; but Lord Feesimple, a cowardly character, in ‘Amends for Ladies,’ one of Field’s plays, attributes his lack of courage to an incident during that extensive chopping season, the necessary precursor of minced pies. “I being in the kitchen, in my lord my father’s house, the cook was making minc’d pies; so, sir, I standing by the dresser, there lay a heap of plums; here was he mincing; what did me? I, sir, being a notable little witty coxcomb, but popp’d my hand just under his chopping-knife, to snatch some raisins, and so was cut o’er the hand; and never since could I endure the sight of any edge tool.” There is a superstition that in as many different houses as you eat minced pies during Christmas, so many happy months will you have in the ensuing year; you have only therefore to go to a different house each day in the Christmas to ensure a happy twelvemonth, a simple receipt, if effectual. Something like this is mentioned in ‘Dives and Pauper,’ by W. de Worde, 1496, where the custom is reprobated of judging of the weather of the coming year by that of the days of Christmas. This was also prognosticated by the day of the week on which Christmas Day fell, and there are some old Christmas songs referring to it, In the ‘Golden Legend,’ of the same printer, is a more laudable prejudice, “That what persone, beynge in clene lyfe, desyre on thys daye a boone of God; as ferre as it is ryghtfull and good for hym; our lorde at reuerēce of thys blessid and hye feste of his Natiuite wol graūt it to hym.”

The north of England is celebrated for its Christmas pies of a different description, composed of turkeys, geese, game, and various small birds, weighing sometimes half a hundred weight and upwards, and calculated to meet the attacks of a large Christmas party throughout the festival. Plum-pudding, of which the old name is said to have been hackin, until the time of Charles the Second, is another valuable dish; though, fortunately for its admirers, not confined to Christmas time. Plum-porridge seems to be something like the French edition of plum-pudding brought up to our ambassador many years since, which had been boiled without the cloth; it is, however, mentioned by Misson, and not very many years since the custom existed of serving up a tureen of it at the table of the royal chaplains at St. James’s Palace.

Au amusing little book, called ‘Round about our coal-fire, or Christmas Entertainments,’ gives an account of the manner of observing this festival, by the middling classes, about the middle of the seventeenth century, and as the writer, in the spirit of grumbling, refers to former times, he may be supposed to carry back his reference to old times for a century earlier. “The manner of celebrating this great course of holydays,” he says, “is vastly different now to what it was in former days: there was once upon a time hospitality in the land; an English gentleman, at the opening of the great day, had all his tenants and neighbours enter’d his hail by day-break, the strong beer was broach’d, and the blackjacks went plentifully about with toast, sugar, nutmeg, and good Cheshire cheese; the rooms were embower’d with holly, ivy, cypress, bays; laurel, and mistletoe, and a bouncing Christmas log in the chimney, glowing like the cheeks of a country milk-maid; there was the pewter as bright as Clarinda, and every bit of brass as polished as the most refined gentleman; the servants were then running here and there, with, merry hearts and jolly countenances; every one was busy in welcoming of guests, and look’d as snug as newlick’d puppies; the lasses were as blithe and buxom as the maids in good Queen Bess’s days, when they eat 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.” “In these times all the spits were sparkling, the hackin (pudding) must be boil’d by day-break, or else two young men took the maiden by the arms, and run her round the market-place, till she was ashamed of her’ laziness.” “This great festival was, in former times, kept with so much freedom and openness of heart, that every one in the country where a gentleman resided, possessed at least a day of pleasure in the Christmas holydays; the tables were all spread, from the first to the last, with the sirloyns of beef, the minc’d pies, the plumb-porridge, the capotis, turkeys, geese, and plumb-puddings, were all brought upon the hoard; and all those who had sharp stomacks and sharp knives, eat heartily and were welcome, which gave rise to the proverb, Merry in the hall where beards way all. There were then turnspits employed, who, by the time dinner was over, would look as black arid as greasy as a Welsh porridge-pot, but the jacks have since turned them all out of doors. The geese, who used to be fatted for the honest neighbours have been of late sent to London, and the quills made into pens, to convey away the landlord’s estate; the sheep are drove away, to raise money to answer the loss at a game at dice or curds, and their skins made into parchment for deeds and indentures; nay, even the ‘poor innocent bee, who was used to pay its tribute to the lord once a year at least in good metheglin, for the entertainment of the guests, arid its wax converted into beneficial plaisters for sick neighbours, is now used, for the sealing of deeds to his disadvantage.” He adds, however, the spirit of hospitality has not quite forsaken us several of the gentry are gone down to their respective seats in the country in order to keep their Christmas in the old way, and entertain their tenants and tradesfolks as their ancestors used to do; and I wish them a merry Christmas accordingly.”

He gives a ridiculous example of the influence of the squire in former times; that if he asked a neighbour what it was o’clock, the answer would be with a low scrape, “It is what your worship pleases.” Dr. Arbuthnot, however, is reported to have given a similar answer to Queen Anne, “‘Whatever time it pleases your majesty.”

Among the amusements mentioned are mumming or masquerading, when the squire’s wardrobe was ransacked for dresses, and burnt corks were in requisition; blind-man’s buff, puss in the corner, questions and commands, hoop and hide, story-telling, and dancing. In some places it seems to have been the custom to dance in the country churches, after prayers, crying out, “Yole, yole, yole !’ &c.

Previous to the time of Queen Anne, it had been the custom for the officers of his court and for the suitors to present gifts to the chancellor; the officers also exacting gifts from the suitors to reimburse themselves. The chancery bar breakfasted with the chancellor on the 1st of January, and gave him pecuniary New Year’s Gifts to gain his good graces according to their means and liberality. The practice also was common to the other courts; and the marshal of the King’s Bench used to present the judges with a piece of plate, a gift which Sir Matthew Hale wished to decline, but fearing he might injure his successors, he received the value in money, and distributed it among the poor prisoners. Sir Thomas More always returned the gifts, and being presented on one occasion, by one Mrs. Goaker, with a pair of gloves containing forty angels, he said to her, “Mistresse, since it were against good manners to refuse your New-year’s gift, I am content to take your gloves, but as for the lining I utterly refuse it.” When Lord Cowper, however, became lord keeper, in 1705, be determined to abolish the practice, and mentioned the subject to Godolphin, the prime minister, that he might not injure his patronage in the value of the place, but he was desired, in effect, to act as he thought proper. He incurred much obloquy at first from the other courts and public offices where the practice likewise existed, but he persevered, and his example was followed, though slowly, by them.

There is an old custom in the north of England, according to Brockett’s ‘North Country Glossary,’ that the first person who enters the house on New Year’s Day is called First-Foot, who is considered to influence the fate of the family, especially the female part, for the whole of the year. Need we doubt that the fair damsels of the household take good care that some favoured swain shall be this influential First-Foot, hoping perhaps that ere the next season he may have a dwelling of his own to receive such characters, instead of enacting it himself; of course he comes provided with an acceptable New Year’s Gift.5

Notes from Sandys:

1. Percy's Reliques, ed. 1840, 169. Return

2. Evan's Ballads, iii, 262. Return

3. Evan's Ballads, i, 146. Return

4. City Madam, ii, 1. Return

5. Toper's Life of Sir T. More, 73. Return

Editor's Note:

Washington Irving, in Old Christmas, had this note concerning lavish feasts of those days:

The peacock was anciently in great demand for stately entertainments. Sometimes it was made into a pie, at one end of which the head appeared above the crust in all its plumage, with the beak richly gilt; at the other end the tail was displayed. Such pies were served up at the solemn banquets of chivalry, when Knights-errant pledged themselves to undertake any perilous enterprise; whence came the ancient oath, used by Justice Shallow, "by cock and pie."

The peacock was also an important dish for the Christmas feast; and Massinger, in his City Madam, gives some idea of the extravagance with which this, as well as other dishes, was prepared for the gorgeous revels of the olden times:

"Man may talk of country Christmasses,
Their thirty pound butter'd eggs, their pies of carps' tongues:
Their pheasants drench'd with ambergris; the carcases of three fat wethers bruised for gravy, to make sauce for a single peacock!"

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