The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Profusion of Food at Christ-tide

Source: John Ashton, A Righte Merrie Christmasse!!! The Story of Christ-tide (London: Leadenhall Press, Ltd., 1894). Illustrator: Arthur C. Behrend.

CHAPTER XXII

Profusion of Food at Christ-tide - Old English Fare - Hospitality - Proclamations for People to spend Christ-tide at their Country Places - Roast Beef - Boar's Head - Boar's Head Carol - Custom at Queen's Coll. Oxon. - Brawn

If any exception can be taken to Christ-tide in England, it is to the enormous amount of flesh, fowl, etc., consumed. To a sensitive mind, the butchers' shops, gorged with the flesh of fat beeves, or the poulterers, with their hecatombs of turkeys, are repulsive, to say the least. It is the remains of a coarse barbarism, which shows but little signs of dying out. Profusion of food at this season is traditional, and has been handed down from generation to generation. A Christmas dinner must, if possible, be every one's portion, down to the pauper in the workhouse, and even the prisoner in the gaol. Tusser, who, though he could write —

At Christmas we banket, the riche with the poore,
Who then (but the miser) but openeth his doore.
At Christmas, of Christ, many Carols we sing;
And give many gifts, for the joy of that King,
could also sing of "Christmas husbandly fare" —

Good husband and huswife, now chiefly be glad,
Things handsome to have, as they ought to be had.
They both do provide against Christmas do come,
To welcome their neighbor, good chere to have some.
Good bread and good drinke, a good fier in the hall,
Brawne, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withall.
Biefe, Mutton, and Porke, shred pies of the best,
Pig, veale, goose, and capon, and Turkey well drest.
Cheese, apples, and nuttes, ioly Carols to here,
As then, in the countrey, is compted good chere.
What cost to good husband is any of this?
Good houshold provision, only, it is.
Of other, the like I do leave out a meny,
That costeth the husband man never a peny.
But his intention in this provision is not for personal gratification —

At Christmas, be mery, and thankfull withall,
And feast thy poore neighbours, the great with ye small.
Yea, al the yere long, to the poore let us give,
God's blessing to follow us while we do live.

This hospitality in the country was made the subject of legislation, for James I. much disliked the flocking of the gentry, etc., to London, as he said in his address to the council of the Star Chamber: "And therefore, as every fish lives in his own place, some in the fresh, some in the salt, some in the mud, so let every one live in his own place -- some at Court, some in the city, some in the country; specially at festival times, as Christmas, and Easter, and the rest." Nay, he issued a proclamation ordering the landed gentry to repair to their country seats at Christmas, which is thus noticed in a letter from Mr. Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton (21st December 1622): "Diverse Lords and personages of quality have made means to be dispensed withall for going into the country this Christmas, according to the proclamation; but it will not be granted, so that they pack away on all sides for fear of the worst." And Charles I. inherited his father's opinions on this matter, for he also proclaimed that "every nobleman or gentleman, bishop, rector, or curate, unless he be in the service of the Court or Council, shall in forty days depart from the cities of London and Westminster, and resort to their several counties where they usually reside, and there keep their habitations and hospitality."

As to Christmas fare, place must be given, I think, to "The Roast Beef of Old England," which used to be a standing dish on every table — from the "Sir Loin," said to have been knighted by Charles II. when in a merry mood, to the "Baron of Beef," which is, like a "saddle" of mutton, two loins joined together by the backbone. This enormous dish is not within the range of ordinary mortals; but the Queen always keeps up the custom of having one wherever she may be, at Windsor, or Osborne. Beef may be said to be the staple flesh of England, and is procurable by every one except the very poorest, whilst it is not given to all to obtain the lordly boar's head, which used to be an indispensable adjunct to the Christmas feast. One thing is, that wild boars only exist in England either in zoological gardens or in a few parks — notably Windsor — in a semi-domesticated state. The bringing in the boar's head was conducted with great ceremony, as Holinshed tells us that in 1170, when Henry I. had his son crowned as joint-ruler with himself, "Upon the daie of coronation King Henrie, the father, served his sonne at the table, as server, bringing up the bore's head with trumpets before it, according to the maner."

In "Christmasse carolles, newely enprinted at Londo, in the fletestrete at the Sygne of the Sonne, by Wynkyn de Worde. The Yere of our lorde M.D.XXI.," is the following, which, from its being "newely enprinted," must have been older than the date given: —

A carol bringyng in the bores heed.

Caput apri differo[75]
Reddens laudes domino.

The bores heed in hande bring I,
With garlands gay and rosemary.
I praye you all synge merely
Qui estis in conuiuio.

The bores heed I understande
Is the chefe servyce in this lande
Loke where euer it be fande[76]
Servite cum cantico.

Be gladde lordes bothe more and lasse,[77]
For this hath ordeyned our stewarde
To chere you all this Christmasse
The bores heed with mustarde.
Finis.

Footnotes

[75] Defero.

[76] Found.

[77] Great and small.

The custom of ceremoniously introducing the boar's head at Christ-tide was, at one time, of general use among the nobility, and still obtains at Queen's College, Oxford; and its raison d'être is said to be that at some remote time a student of this College was walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover (Chateau vert), and whilst reading Aristotle was attacked by a wild boar. Unarmed, he did not know how to defend himself; but as the beast rushed on him with open mouth he rammed the Aristotle down its throat, exclaiming, "Græcum est" ["It is Greek"], which ended the boar's existence. Some little ceremony is still used when it is brought in; the head is decorated, as saith the carol, and it is borne into the hall on the shoulders of two College servants, followed by members of the College and the choir. The carol, which is a modification of the above, is generally sung by a Fellow, assisted by the choir, and the boar's head is solemnly deposited before the Provost, who, after helping those sitting at the high table, sends it round to all the other tables.

Dr. King, in his Art of Cookery, gives the following recipe for dishing up a boar's head: —

Then if you would send up the Brawner's head,
Sweet rosemary and bays around it spread;
His foaming tusks let some large pippin grace,
Or midst these thundering spears an orange place.
Sauce, like himself, offensive to its foes,
The roguish mustard, dangerous to the nose.
Sack, and the well-spic'd Hippocras the wine,
Wassail the bowl with ancient ribbons fine,
Porridge with plums, and turkies with the chine.

Of the boar's head was made brawn, which, when well made, is good indeed; and this was another Christmas dish. Sandys says: "The French do not seem to have been so well acquainted with brawn; for on the capture of Calais by them they found a large quantity, which they guessed to be some dainty, and tried every means of preparing it; in vain did they roast it, bake it, boil it; it was impracticable and impenetrable to their culinary arts. Its merits, however, being at length discovered, 'Ha!' said the monks, 'what delightful fish!' and immediately added it to their stock of fast day viands. The Jews, again, could not believe it was procured from that impure beast, the hog, and included in their list of clean animals."

Translations of the Latin from Adams, Round About Our Coal Fire (ca. 1860)

W. H. Davenport Adams provided these handy Latin translations for those of us who were unable to take a course of study in this ancient tongue.

1. Quot estis in convivio. = Ye who are now at the feast.
2. Caput Apri defero | Reddens laudes Domino. - I bring the boar's head, returning praise to the Lord.
3. Let us servire cantico. = Let us serve it with a song.
4. In Reginensi Atrio. = In the Queen's Hall.

Translations from W. H. Davenport Adams, Round About Our Coal Fire (London: James Blackwood, no date; "1860" written in pen, and the date of the Preface), p. 163.

Pages on this web site concerning the Boar's Head Carols:

Notes On The Boar's Head Carols

Boar's Head, W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore. Two Volumes. London: Reeves and Turner, 1905. ("Forming A New Edition of 'The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain' By Brand and Ellis.")

The Boar's Head, William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, 1825, December 25).

The Boar's Head, Washington Irving, Old Christmas - From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving (London: Macmillan & Co., Fifth Edition, 1886), p. xx; Illustrated by Randolph Caldecott.

The Boar's Head, William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833).

Boars Head Carols, Henry Vizetelly, Christmas With The Poets (London: David Bogue, 1851).

Profusion of Food at Christ-tide, John Ashton, A Righte Merrie Christmasse!!! The Story of Christ-tide (London: Leadenhall Press, Ltd., 1894), Chapter XXII. Illustrator: Arthur C. Behrend. (this page)

See: Boar's Head Carol, Wikipedia.

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