The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmastide
its History, Festivities and Carols

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

Chapter 8 - Modern Christmas Plays

The masks and pageants at court appear to have been gradually abandoned from the time of the Restoration, as before mentioned. They were succeeded by grand feasts and entertainments, which also fell gradually into disuse, and latterly even that relic, the Christmas tureen of plum-porridge, served up at the royal chaplains’ table, was omitted, and the crown-pieces under their plates for New Year’s Gifts soon followed. The poet-laureate has long since been relieved from that tax on his imagination, the New Year’s Ode; and the only remaining ceremony is, I believe, the offering on Twelfth Day. George the First and Second were in the habit of playing at hazard in public at the groom-porter’s, where several of the nobility, and even some of the princesses, staked considerable sums; but in the time of George the Third the practice was abolished, and a handsome gratuity given to the groom-porter by way of compensation.

It will be understood that the remarks as to the abatement in Christmas festivities, apply more particularly to what may be considered as state or public observances; for Christmas feasting and revelry were still kept up throughout the last century in many parts, according as the spirit of hospitality prevailed, accompanied, but too frequently, by that excess for which those times have gained an unenviable celebrity, and where the motto appears to have been —

Fill up the bowl, then, fill it high,
Fill up the glasses then, for why
Should every creature drink but I ?
Why, man of morals, tell me why ?1

Hals, in that very scarce book, his ‘History of Cornwall,’ reprinted, with some omissions, a few years since, by the late Davies Gilbert, P.R.S., mentions the hospitality existing in that county in the beginning of the eighteenth century, referring particularly to the establishment of John Carminow, who kept open house for all corners and goers, drinkers, minstrels, dancers, and what not, during the Christmas time; his usual allowance of provisions for that season being twelve fat bullocks, twenty Cornish bushels of wheat (about sixty of usual measure), thirty-six sheep, with hogs, lambs, and fowls, of all sorts, and drink made of wheat and oat malt proportionable; barley-malt being then little known in those parts. Genuine hospitality was indeed to be met with in most of the provinces; but still the general effect was a falling off in the observance of Christmas. Garrick, in returning thanks to ins friend Bunbury (the caricaturist) for some Norfolk game, at Christmas, says,—

Few presents now to friends are sent,
Few hours in merry-making spent;
Old-fashioned folks there are indeed,
Whose hogs and pigs at Christmas bleed;
Whose honest hearts no modes refine,
They send their puddings and, their chine.”2

Even down to the present time — although the spirit has sadly abated, and been modified, and is still abating under the influence of the genius of the age, winch requires work and not play — the festivities are yet kept up in many parts in a genial feeling of kindness and hospitality, not only in the dwellings of the humbler classes, who encroach upon their hard-gained earnings for the exigencies of the season, and of those of higher grade, where the luxuries mingle with the comforts of life; but also in the mansions of the opulent, and in the baronial hall, where still remain the better privileges of feudal state; and especially in the palace of our sovereign, who wisely considers the state of royalty not incompatible with the blessings of domestic enjoyment, and has shown bow the dignity of a reigning queen is perfectly consistent with the exemplary performance of the duties of a wife and mother.

And surely a cheerful observance of this festival is quite allowable with the requirements for mental exertion of the present times; and hospitality and innocent revelry may be used as safety valves for our high pressure educational power, —

“ Kind hearts can make December blithe as May,
And in each morrow find a New Year’s Day.”3

In some parts the wassail-bowl may yet be found, though most commonly in the guise of toast and ale, without the roasted apples.

In juvenile parties, snap-dragon, throwing its mysterious and witch-like hue over the faces of the bystanders, is sometimes yet permitted. Not Poins’s, who swallowed down candle-ends for flap-dragons; but the veritable Malaga fruit, carolling away in the frolicsome spirit, burning the fingers but rejoicing the palate of the adventurous youth, and half frightened little maiden reveller. The custom is old, but not quite so old as stated in the curious play of ‘Lingua;’ by the performance of one character, wherein — Tactus— Oliver Cromwell is said to have had his first dream of ambition.

     “Memory. O, I remember this dish well; it was first invented by Pluto, to entertain Proserpina withal.

     Phantastes. I think not so, Memory; for when Hercules had kill’d the flaming dragon of Hesperia, with the apples of that orchard he made this fiery meat; in memory whereof he named it snapdragon.”

There is still a species of slapdragon in the west, among the peasantry, by means of a cup of ale or cyder with a lighted candle standing in it: the difficulty being for a man to drink the liquor, without having his face singed, while his companions are singing some doggrel verses about Tom Toddy.

The waits still remain, as we know from auricular experience, though their performances are of a most heterodox nature, generally comprising a polka or galope, with some of the latest opera airs, instead of the genuine old carol tunes; and indeed the street carol singer himself is almost extinct, and when met with, his stock is confined to three or four different carols, with one tune, while the broadside carols themselves are much limited, in variety, even to what they were a few years back, my own collection, which is large, having been commenced long since. Christmas-boxes still prevail; self-interest will endeavour to keep these alive, and most housekeepers have a list of regular applicants, besides a few speculators, who think it worth while to ask. The principal wait claims his privilege, under a regular appointment, by warrant and admission, with all the ancient forms of the city and liberty of Westminster, having a silver badge and chain, with the arms of that city. The constant dustmen, who have “no connection with the scavengers,” in order to warn against base pretenders, leave printed applications, sometimes of a classical nature, as, for instance, requesting “you will not bestow your bounty on any persons who cannot produce a medal, having on one side a bust of Julius Csar’s wife, surrounded with the superscription, ‘Pornpeia, Jul. Cs. Uxor.’” One hardly sees the connection between “Julius Csar’s wife” and the dustman’s Christmas-box, and it gives a curious sort of fame to be so selected; and, by parity of reasoning, it may be assumed that the dustmen of Rome would have carried round a medal with Nimrod’s wife. These Christmas boxes, like New Year’s gifts, are probably of pagan origin, but seem to differ, inasmuch as they are more commonly given to dependents, while the latter are frequently reciprocal, and if given by an inferior, as an offering to a superior, meet generally with some return. Some have derived the Christmas box from the practice of the monks to offer masses for the safety of all vessels that went long voyages, in each of which a box, under the controul of the priest, was kept for offerings;4 this was opened at Christmas, whence the name arose but this does riot seem a probable derivation. Apprentices, journeymen, and servants, even of the higher class, such as butlers of the Inns of Court, had their boxes. John Taylor, the water poet, without due reverence of the law, compared Westminster Hall to a butler’s box, at Christmas, amongst gamesters; for whosoever loseth the box will be sure to be a winner. Some of these were earthen boxes, with a slit to receive money, and was broken after the collection was made; similar boxes of wood may still be seen. Many entries may be found in old accounts of payments made in the nature of Christmas boxes, and the kings of France indeed used to give presents to their soldiers at this time. In the countries where the disgraceful practice of slavery yet remains, a young slave child would appear to be considered as a desirable present, and advertisements to the following effect may be occasionally seen, outraging the feelings, and showing an utter indifference to the common ties of humanity. “To be sold, a little mulatto, two years of age, very pretty, and well adapted for a festival present.” It is to be presumed this “very pretty” child had a mother. Poor creature! When will this abomination of man selling his fellow-man cease on the earth? How would the slave-holders like to give the blacks their turn? We may remember that about the time of Julius Csar’s wife, we have lately mentioned, and long before America was known, white slaves from Britain were imported into Rome, as valuable articles for the sports of the amphitheatres. However, we must leave slavery to the lash of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin;’ but in describing a festival peculiarly commemorative of peace, good will, and freedom to man, one could not help raising a voice, however feeble, against such an evil.

In our younger days—addressing now of course those whose younger days are past—the magic-lantern, even the common Dutch toy of the class, and especially the ‘Galanti show,’ used to afford great amusement; and when the phantasmagoria was introduced it seemed inexplicable. The dissolving views, and the great advances made in exhibitions of this class have placed the old lantern much in the back ground, and even the old-fashioned conjuring tricks are now known to nearly every school-boy, without taking into account the penetrating eyes of clever little ladies fixed on you, to find you out.

The Christmas Tree

In recent times the Christmas tree has been introduced from the continent, and is productive of much amusement to old and young, and much taste can be displayed and expense also incurred in preparing its glittering and attractive fruit. It is delightful to watch the animated expectation and enjoyment of the children as the treasures are displayed and distributed; the parents equally participating in the pleasure, and enjoying the sports of their childhood over again. And where can the weary world-worn man find greater relief from his anxious toil and many cares, and haply his many sorrows, than in contemplating the amusements of artless children, and assisting as far as he is able; for it is not every one has tact for this purpose, and our young friends soon detect this, and discover the right “Simon Pure.”

In the younger days of many of us the Christmas Pantomime was looked forward to as a source of the highest gratification, and the promise was in general realized; for who that ever saw the Grimaldi can ever forget the genuine pleasure afforded by his inimitable humour, laughable simplicity, and irresistible fun? Surely he never could belong to private or domestic life, but must have been always the same — stealing tarts from his own baker, and legs of mutton from his own butcher, and filling his pockets with his wife’s dresses and bed-furniture. When, in after life, we were introduced to him, in private, and found a quiet, respectable gentleman, in plain clothes, and no red half-moon cheeks, talking as rationally as other people, we could hardly believe but that we had been imposed upon. Peace to thy memory, Grimaldi! for many a joyous hour hast thou given the young, and of many a weary hour haul thou relieved the old.

It is not our province to argue here whether the modern pantomime is derived from the ancient Greek, harlequin being Mercury; columbine, Psyche; pantaloon, Charon; and the clown, Momus — still retaining, in his painted free and wide mouth, the resemblance of the ancient masks, it is more probable that they were introduced into Italy, as Sismondi says, with other characters of the same class, in the sixteenth century, by the wandering comedians of the time.

The harlequin and scaramouch in early times were, however, speaking characters, and often celebrated wits. Constantini, Tiberio Fiurilli (the inventor of the character of scaramouch), Cecchini, Sacchi, and Nicholas Barbieri, were all highly patronised by royalty; and the reputation of Domenic, who was occasionally admitted to the table of Louis the Fourteenth, is well known. The harlequinade or pantomime, as it is popularly called, was introduced here in 1717, by Mr. Rich, who was a celebrated harlequin himself, and acted miner the name of Lun. This pantomime was called ‘Harlequin Executed,’ and was performed at time theatre in Lincoln’s Jun Fields. Between 1717 and 1761, when he retired, he composed several harlequinades, which were all successful. The present handsome though somewhat bizarre dress of harlequin, is said to have been introduced by Mr. Byrne, a celebrated performer, who was never excelled in this character, at Christmas, 1799, in ‘Harlequin Amulet,’ and at the same time he introduced new steps and leaps. Before this time the dress was a loose jacket and trousers, but the party-coloured jacket, though of inferior quality, was worn by merry-andrews at least a century before this time, and may have been modified from the motley of the fool. The wand of harlequin would seem to be somewhat akin to the dagger of lath of the old vice, but used for a different purpose, and the cap is an article of mystery, as, when placed on his head, he is rendered invisible to the other characters.

The pantaloon was taken from the Venetians, and his former dress, a gown over a red waistcoat, was that of a Venetian citizen. Pulcinello, or Punch, as I am informed by an Italian friend, of considerable literary acquirements — the Chevalier Mortara — is derived from one Paolo or Paol Cinello, who was an attendant or buffoon at an inn at Acerras, about the year 1600, and so famous for his humour, that Silvio Fiorilo, the comedian, persuaded him to join his troop, whence his fame soon spread.

In some parts, particularly in the west and north of the kingdom, the old Christmas play is still kept up, and a specimen is hereafter given. The subject of these plays, which agree in general effect, although varying in detail, is ‘St. George and the Dragon, with the King of Egypt, and Fair Sabra, his daughter;’ usually accompanied by ‘Father Christmas and the Doctor,’ and sometimes by very incongruous characters; as the great and exemplary man, whose loss the nation is now lamenting, as that of the first character in its history, the Duke of Wellington; and General Wolfe, who fights St. George, and then sings a song about his own death, beginning —

“Bold General Wolfe to his men did say,
Come, come, ye lads, come follow me,
To yonder mountain, which is so high
Ye lads of honour, all for your honour,
Gain the victory or die.”

Occasionally burlesque characters are introduced, who have nothing to do with the piece, as Hub-Bub, Old Squire, &c., and they generally announce themselves, as one mentioned about 1760, by Jackson, in his ‘ History of the Scottish Stage.’

“My name it is Captain Calf-tail, Calf-tail,
  And on my back it is plain to be seen;
Although I am simple and wear a fool’s-cap,
  I am dearly beloved of a queen.”5

The buffoon of the Piece used formerly to wear a calf-skin, “I’ll go put on my devilish robes, I mean my Christmas calf’s-skin suit, and then walk to the woods,” says Robin Goodfellow, in the time of James the First. “I’ll put me on my great carnation nose, and wrap me in a rousing calf-skin suit, and come like some hobgoblin.” The performers, who are usually young persons in humble life, are attired, including St. George and the Dragon, much in the same manner, having white trousers and waistcoats, showing their shirt-sleeves, and decorated with ribbons and handkerchiefs; each carrying a drawn sword or cudgel in his hand: as one of the Somersetshire mummers says, “Here comes I liddle man Jan in’ my sword in my han!“ They wear high caps of pasteboard, covered with fancy paper, and ornamented with beads, small pieces of looking-glass, bugles, &c., and generally have long strips of pith hanging down from the top, with shreds of different coloured cloth strung on them, the whole having a fanciful and smart effect. The Turk sometimes has a turban; Father Christmas is represented as a grotesque old man, with a large mask and comic wig, and a huge club in his hand; the Doctor has a three-cornered hat, and painted face, with some ludicrous dress, being the comic character of the piece; the lady is generally in the dress of last century, when it can be got up; and the hobby-horse, when introduced, which is rarely, has a representation of a horse’s hide. Wellington and Wolfe, when they appear, are dressed in any sort of uniform that can be procured for the nonce, and no doubt will now be found as militia men of the county where the play is represented.

These plays are of very remote origin, and founded probably on the old mysteries before mentioned, the subject of St. George being introduced at the time of the crusades. A play was performed before Henry the Fifth at Windsor, in 1416, when the Emperor Sigismund was with him, founded on the incidents of the life of St. George, and “his ridyng and fighting with the dragon, with his speer in his hand.”6

It is curious to observe how near, in many cases, the style of the early drama approaches to the homeliness of our present country Christmas plays; so that one may suppose that not only their structure is derived from the ancient representations, but that even some of the speeches have been carried down with some little modification. When St. George struts in, saying, “Here am I, St. George,” he is but repeating the introduction of characters sometimes used of old. Johnson, who wrote the favourite romance of the ‘Seven Champions of Christendome,’ about the time of Elizabeth, took his subject from early metrical romances, and particularly from the story of St. George and the fair Sabra, in the old poetical legend of Sir Bevis of Hampton, which is older than Chaucer.

The Cornish had their Guary or Miracle Play from a very early date, and am1ihitheatres are still existing where they used to be performed.

The ‘Creation of the World,’ by William Jordan, of Helstone, in 1611, has been published by the late Davies Gilbert, as also two other Cornish mysteries, of much earlier date, ‘The Passion of our Lord,’ and the ‘Resurrection.’ Carew, in his ‘Survey of the County,’ gives an amusing anecdote of the stupidity, feigned or real, of one of the performers. It having come to his turn, the ordinary or manager, said “Goe forthe, man, and shew thy selfe.” The actor stepped forward, and gravely repeated, “Goe forthe man, and shew thy selfe.” The ordinary, in dismay, whispered to him, “Oh, you marre all the play.” The actor, with very emphatic gesture, repeated aloud, “Oh, you marre all the play.” The prompter, then losing his patience, reviled the actor with all the bitter terms he could think of, which the actor repeated with a serious countenance, as if part of the play. The ordinary was at last obliged to give over, the assembly having received a great deal more sport than twenty such guaries could have afforded.

The play of ‘Alexander the Great,’ acted in the north, and printed at Newcastle, in 1788, is very similar to the Cornish St. George; and others, all showing from their likeness a common origin, may be found in Scotland, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, Dorsetshire, and other parts. In Yorkshire and Northumberland, and other places in the north, they had the sword or rapier dance, where the performers were dressed in frocks, or white shirts, with paper or pasteboard helmets, — calling themselves Hector, Paris, Guy of Warwick, and other great names, and performing many evolutions with their swords, accompanied by a fiddler or doctor, and a character called Bessy.

Cards, dancing, and music, are still resorted to; but the brawl, the pavan, the minuet, the gavot, the saraband, and even the country dance, excepting in the exhilirating form of Sir Roger de Coverley, have given place to the quadrille, the polka, and the galope; and if we look at the figures of some of the old dances, our drawing-room coryphees will not be sorry to be spared the task of learning them. Take the account of the brawl in one of our old plays, which one of the characters says she has forgotten: “Why! ‘tis but two singles on the left, two on the right, three doubles, a traverse of six round; do this twice, curranto pace; a figure of eight, three singles broken down, come up, meet two doubles, fall back, and then honour.”7 But if we have not gained much in the exhibition of this accomplishment, it is amply made up in the quality of our domestic musical acquirements, where, instead of a ditty or lesson, or sonata, droned out on the virginals or harpsichord, our ladies now treat us not only with the elegant compositions of the talented Osborne, and other able modern writers, but with the classical works of Beethoven, Mozart, and other masters of the noble science. Many of our male amateurs also, both, vocal and instrumental, have acquired considerable skill; but as they in general are pretty well aware of their own merits, it will not be necessary to remind them here. Singing, however, is more particularly in quest at Christmas time, but the old carol is rarely now to be met with, though several of them possess much pleasing harmony. One of the great gratifications, however, of these Christmas meetings, where they can take place, is the re-union, even though for a short space, of relations and friends, renewing, as it were, the bonds of love and friendship; casting off for a time the cares of the world joining, if not audibly, yet mentally, in the praise of that Creator, who has given us so much “richly to enjoy;” and, if it be his will that loved and familiar faces, one by one, drop off; yet are we not left comfortless; for though they cannot return to us, we, through faith in Him, whose Nativity we now commemorate, shall join them, in that blessed region, where the cares and trials of our weary pilgrimage here will be forgotten, as a dream that is past; and hope shall be fulfilled, when “the desire cometh,” that “is a tree of life.”

Our pagan ancestors observed their sacred festival at this season, in honour of their unknown gods, and of a mystic mythology, founded on the attributes of the Deity; but corrupted in the course of ages into a mass of fables and idolatry: but we keep it in commemoration of Him, who, as at this time, mercifully revealed Himself to us; who is omniscient and omnipresent, and of whom my lamented and learned friend, Dr. Macculloch,8 has emphatically said, referring to the true Christian, “Not an object will occur to him, in which he will not see the hand of God, and feel that he is under the eye of God; and if he but turn to contemplate the vacancy of the chamber around him, it is to feel that he is in the presence of his Maker; surrounded, even to contact, by him who fills all space. Feeling this, can he dare to be evil?”

Notes from Sandys:

1. Cowley's Anacreontiques, No. 2. Return

2. Wine and Walnuts, ii, 157. Return

3. New Year's Day, by Hartley Coleridge. Return

4. Brady Clavis Calendaria, ii, 316, 17. Return

5. In Wily Beguiled. Return

6. Collier's Annuals of the Stage, i, 22. Return

7. Malcontent, by Marston, iv, 2. Return

8. Dr. Macculloch's Proofs and Illustrations of the Attributes of God, i, 358, a work of remarkable learning and information joined to sincere and unaffected piety the production of a gifted and accomplished man, whose death will ever be regretted by those who, in his lifetime, enjoyed his friendship. Return

Editor's Note:

An excellent site concerning Christmas and similar holiday plays is the Folk Play Research site.

Go To Previous PageGo to Top of PageGo to Home PageGo To Next Page