The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmas Holidays

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 1, pp. 118-21

"If we compare," says Prynne, "our Bacchanalian Christmasses and New Years Tides with these Saturnalia and Feasts of Janus, we shall finde such near affinitye betweene them both in regard of time (they being both in the end of December and on the first of January) and in their manner of solemnizing (both of them being spent in revelling, epicurisme, wantonesse, idlenesse, dancing, drinking, stage-plaies, masques, and carnall pompe and jollity), that we must needes conclude the one to be but the very ape or issue of the other. Hence Polydor Virgil affirmes in expresse tearmes that our Christmas Lords Of Misrule (which custom, saith he, is chiefly observed in England) together with dancing, masques, mummeries, stage-playes, and such other Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalia and Bacchanslian festivals; which (concludes he) should "cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them." Selden was of opinion that from Christmas Day to Epiphany morning no one should fast save of his own option or at the bidding of the priest. Analecton Anglo-Britannicum, lib. ii, p. 208.

The Christmas of 1502 appears to have been kept with some splendour, for in the "Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York," there is a payment of twenty pounds to the grooms and pages of the Queen’s chamber alone "against Cristmas." According to his biographer, Sir Thos. More "was, by his father’s procuremont, received into the house of the right reverend, wise, and learned prelate Cardinall Mourton, where (thoughe hee was yonge of yeares, yet) would he at Christmas tyd sodenly sometymes stepp in among the players, and never studinge for the matter, make a parte of his owne there presently amonge them, which made the lookers-on more sport than all the players besid. In whose witt and towardnesse the Cardinall much delightinge, would often say of him unto the nobles that divers tymes dyned with him: ‘This child here wayting at the table, who soever shall live to see it, will prove a marveilous man.’"

Andrews, in his "Hist. of Great Britain," vol. i. pt. 2, 4to. 1795, p. 329, mentions "the humorous Pageant of Christmas, personified by an old man hung round with savory dainties" which, he says, in common with "dancing round the Maypole and riding the hobby-horse," suffered a severe check at the Reformation. In the East of London, about Shoreditch and Mile-End, while the district was still open country, there were periodical celebrations of sports in holiday time. In 1577 we observe a licence to print the History of the High and Mighty William, Duke of Shoreditch, a personage named William Barlow who had obtained the favour of Henry VIII. by his skill as a bowman, and on whom his Majesty had conferred this and other jocular titles. Nothing farther is known of such a publication, and of a later one in 1583 there is only a late print at the end of Wood’s Bowman’s Glory, 1682.

In 1588 Queen Elizabeth attended a grand spectacle at Mile End, called Arthur’s Show, q.v. Braithwaite, in his "Rules for the House of an Earle" (circa 1640) laments the expenditure of money which would have been better laid out in the good old substantial fare, upon confectionery. He says: "I have knowen that the finest confectionary shoppe in Bearbinder Lane and the Blacke Fryers must be sought into for all kindes of conserved, preserved, and candied fruictes, and flowers, the chardge of a banquet arrising to as great a summe of monye as woulde have kept a good house all Christemas, wherin should have been great dishes filled with great peecos of beefe, veale, swanne, venison, capons, and such like English meates." The same author, in his "Whimzies," 1631, describing a good and hospitable housekeeper, has left the following picture of Christmas festivities:

"Suppose Christmas now approaching, the evergreen ivie trimming and adorning the portals and partcloses of so frequented a building; the usual carolls, to observe antiquitie, cheerefully sounding; and that which is the complement of his inferior comforts, his neighbours, whom he tenders as members of his owne family, joyne with him in this consort of mirth and melody."

In the second part, he calls a piper "an ill wind that begins to blow upon Christmasse Eve, and so continues, very lowd and blustring, all the twelve dayes: or an airy meteor, composed of fatuous matter, that then appeares, and vanisheth, to the great peace of the whole family the thirteenth day."

Bretou, also, in his "Fantasticks," 1626, has much that is highly interesting on this subject. Under November, he says: "The cooke and the comfitmaker make ready for Christmas, and the minstrels in the Countrey beat their boyes for false fingring." Of Christmas Day itself he observes "It is now Christmas. and not a cup of drinke must passe without a carroll, the beasts, fowle, and fish, come to a general execution, and the come is ground to dust for the bakehouse and the pantry: Cards and dice purge many a purse, and the youths shew their agility in shooing of the wild mare."

The twelve days’ rejoicing and merry-making at this season of the year are mentioned in "The Praise of Christmas," a ballad about 1630:

"When Christmas-tide comes in like a bride,
With holly and ivy clad,
Twelve days in the year, much mirth and good cheer
To every household is had."

One of the most curious pictures in little of an old Christmas is that given (glimpse- like) in Laurence Price’s unique Christmas Book for 1657. He there describes the sea-faring man’s Christmas dinner and the tradesman’s, and admits us to the interior of an honest cobbler’s house, where there was merry-making in an humble way, and music. One of the last pages is occupied with "The Cobbler’s Song." In a tract of 1651, Old Christmas is introduced describing the former annual festivities of the season as follows:

"After dinner we arose from the boord and sate by the fire where the harth was embrodered all over with roasted apples, piping hot, expecting a bole of ale for a cooler, which immediately was transformed into Lamb's-wool. After which we discoursed merily, without either prophaness or obscenity; some went to cards; others sang carols and pleasant songs (suitable to the times); then the poor labouring hinds and maid-servants, with the plow-boys, went nimbly to dancing; the poor toyling wretches being glad of my company, because they had little or no sport at all till I came amongst them; and therefore they skipped and leaped for joy, singing a carol to the tune of Hey,

‘Let’s dance and sing, and make good cheer,
For Christmas comes but once a year.

"Thus at active games and gambols of hot-cockles, shooing the wild mare, and the like harmless sports, some part of the tedious night was spent, and early in the morning I took my leave of them, promising they should have my presence again the next 25th of December." Vindication of Christmas, 4v. 1651.

Stevenson, speaking of January, says, "For the recreations of this month, they are within doors, as it relates to Christmasse; it shares the chearfull carrols of the wassell cup. The Lord of Misrule is no meane man for his time; masking and mumming, and choosing king and queen."

Under December are the following notices: " Now capons and hens, besides turkeys, geese, and ducks, with beef and mutton — must all die — for in twelve days a multitude of people will not be fed with a little. Now plumbes and spice, sugar and honey, square it among pies and broath. Now a journeyman cares not a rush for his master though he begs his plum-porridge all the twelve dayes. Now or never must the music be in tune, for the youth must dance and sing to get them a heat, while the aged set by the fire. The country maid leaves half her market, and must be sent againe if she forgets a pair of cards on Christmasse Even. Great is the contention of holly and ivy, whether master or dame weares the breeches. Dice and the cards benefit the butler: and, if the cook do not lack wit, he will sweetly lick his fingers."

"Christmase is come, make ready the good cheare:
Apollo will be frolicke once a yeare:
I speake not here of Englands twelve dayes madness,
But humble gratitude and hearty gladnesse.
These but observed, let instruments speak out,
We may be merry, and we ought, no doubt;
Christmas, ‘tis the birth-day of Christ our King;
Are we disputing when the angels sing?’’

Twelve Moneths, 1661, p. 4. "Poor Robin" for 1677 notes the festive doings of Christmas as follows

"Now grocer’s trade
    Is in request,
For plums and spices
    Of the best.
Good cheer doth with
    This month agree,
And dainty chaps
    Must sweetned be.
Mirth and gladness
    Doth abound,
And strong beer in
    Each house is found.
Minc’d pies, roast beet
    With other cheer
And feasting, doth
    Conclude the year."

In 1682 appeared "The Christmas Ordinary a private show; wherein is expressed the jovial Freedom of that Festival: as it was acted at a Gentleman’s House among other Revels, by W. R. Master of Arts," Another account of the Christmas gambols occurs in Speed’s "Batt upon Batt," 1694, p. 5:

"Our Batt can, dance, play at high jinks with dice,
At any primitive, orthodoxal vice.
Shooing the wild mare, tumbling the young wenches,
Drinking all night, and sleeping on the benches.
Shew me a man can shuffle fair and cut,
Yet always have three trays in hand at Putt:
Shew me a man can turn up Noddy still,
And deal himself three fives too when he will
Conclude with one and thirty, and a pair,
Never fail ten in stock, and yet play fair,
If Batt be not that wmght, I lose my aim."

Misson says: "From Christmas Day till after Twelfth Day is a time of Christian rejoicing; a mixture of devotion and pleasure. They give treats, and make it their whole business to drive away melancholy. Whereas little presents from one another are made only on the first day of the year in France, they begin here at Christmas; and they are not so much presents from friend to friend, or from equal to equal (which is less practis’d in England now than formerly), as from superior to inferior. In the taverns the landlord gives part of what is eaten and drank in his house that and the next two days: for instance, they reckon you for the wine, and tell you there is nothing to pay for bread, nor for your slice of Westphalia," i.e., ham. He had observed, p. 29, "The English and most other Protestant nations are utterly unacquainted with those diversions of the carnival which are so famous at Venice, and known inure or loss in all other Roman Catholic countries. The great festival times here are from Christmas to Twelfth Day inclusive, at Easter, and at Whitsuntide." Travels in England, trans. by Ozell, p. 34.

The Minister of Montrose tells us: "At Christmas and the New Year, the opulent burghers begin to feast with their friends, and go a round of visits, which takes up time space of many weeks. Upon such occasions, the gravest is expected to be merry, and to join in a cheerful song." Stat. Acc. of Scotland, v., 48. In the "World," No. 104, the following occurs: "Our ancestors considered Christmas in the double light of a holy commemoration and a chearful festival; and accordingly distinguished it by devotion, by vacation from business, by merriment and hospitality. They seemed eagerly bent to make themselves and every body about them happy. With what punctual zeal did they wish one another a merry Christmas? and what an omission would it have been thought, to have concluded a letter without the compliments of the season? The great ball resounded with the tumultuous joys of servants and tenants, and the gambols they played served as amusement to the lord of the mansion and his family, who by encouraging every art conducive to mirth and entertainment, endeavoured to soften the rigour of the season, and mitigate the influence of winter. What a fund of delight was the chusing King and Queen upon Twelfth Night! and bow greatly ought we to regret the neglect of minced pyes, which, besides the ideas of merrymaking inseparable from them, were always considered as the test of schismatics! How zealously were they swallowed by the orthodox, to the utter confusion of all fanatical recusants! If any country gentleman should be so unfortunate in this age as to lie under a suspicion of heresy, where will he find so easy a method of acquitting himself as by the ordeal of plumb-porridge?"

"In Christmas holidays," says the author of "Round about our Coal Fire," (about 1730), "the tables were all spread from the first to the last; the sirloins of beef, the minced pies, the plumb-porridge, the capons, turkeys, geese and plumb-puddings, were all brought upon the board: every one eat heartily, and was welcome, which gave rise to the proverb, ‘Merry in the hall when beards wag all.’ "

Sir Walter Scott, in a letter to Joanna Baillie, 1st January 1819, says: "I wish you could have seen about a hundred children, being almost supported by their fathers’ or brothers’ labour, come down yesterday to dance to the pipes, and get a piece of cake and bannock, and pence apiece (no very deadly largess) in honour of Hagmanay. I declare to you, my dear friend, that when I thought the poor follows who kept these children so neat, and well taught, and well behaved, were slaving the whole day for eighteenpence or twentypence at the most, I was ashamed of their gratitude, and of their becks and bows." In another letter (Jan. 1, 1815), Scott says: "Yesterday being Hogmanay, there was a constant succession of Guisards i.e., boys dressed up in fantastic caps, with their shirts over their jackets, and with wooden swords in their hands. These players acted a sort of scene before us, of which the hero was one Goloskin."

In an amusing news-letter from John Pory to a friend, dated December 13th, 1632, the writer says:— "Sir William Curtis writes from Brussells, that the French there with the Queen Mother and monsieur made account to have kept a brave Christmas here in London, and for that purpose had trussed up their trinkets halt-topmast high; but it seemeth they reckoned before their host." An agreeable writer describes the busy and bright scene in the churches of Rome on this anniversary, when the people of all ranks flock thither, the peasantry in their holiday, attire, and there are processions of priests everywhere. The ceremonial observances last during the whole night until the advent of Christmas Day itself. The Pope and College attend service at Santa Maria Maggiore. Diary of an Invalid, by H. Matthews, 1820.

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