The Christmas Masque
Source: Washington Irving, Old Christmas – From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving (London: Macmillan & Co., Fifth Edition, 1886), pp. 150-7; Illustrated by Randolph Caldecott.
Old Christmas – Christmas Dinner
The door suddenly flew open, and a train came trooping into the room, that might almost have been mistaken for the breaking up of the court of Fairy. That indefatigable spirit, Master Simon, in the faithful discharge of his duties as lord of misrule, had conceived the idea of a Christmas mummery, or masquing ; and having called in to his assistance the Oxonian and the young officer, who were equally ripe for anything that should occasion romping and merriment, they had carried it into instant effect. The old housekeeper had been consulted ; the antique clothes-presses and wardrobes rummaged and made to yield up the relics of finery that had not seen the light for several generations ; the younger part of the company had been privately convened from the parlour and hall, and the whole had been be dizened out, into a burlesque imitation of an antique masque. (See Note J.)
Master Simon led the van, as "Ancient Christmas,” quaintly apparelled in a ruff, a short cloak, which had very much the aspect of one of the old housekeepers petticoats, and a hat that might have served for a village steeple, and must indubitably have figured in the days of the Covenanters. From under this his nose curved boldly forth, flushed with a frost-bitten bloom, that seemed the very trophy of a December blast. He was accompanied by the blue-eyed romp, dished up as “Dame Mince-Pie,” in the venerable magnificence of faded brocade, long stomacher, peaked hat, and high-heeled shoes.
The young officer appeared as Robin Hood, in a sporting dress of Kendal green, and a foraging cap, with a gold tassel. The costume, to be sure, did not bear testimony to deep research, and there was an evident eye to the picturesque, natural to a young gallant in the presence of his mistress. The fair Julia hung on his arm in a pretty rustic dress, as “Maid Marian.” The rest of the train had been metamorphosed in various ways ; the girls trussed up in the finery of the ancient belles of the Bracebridge line, and the striplings bewhiskered with burnt cork, and gravely clad in broad skirts, hanging sleeves, and full-bottomed wigs, to represent the characters of Roast Beef, Plum Pudding, and other worthies celebrated in ancient maskings. The whole was under the control of the Oxonian, in the appropriate character of Misrule ; and I observed that he exercised rather a mischievous sway with his wand over the smaller person ages of the pageant.
The irruption of this motley crew, with beat of drum, according to ancient custom, was the consummation of uproar and merriment. Master Simon covered himself with glory by the stateliness with which, as Ancient Christmas, he walked a minuet with the peerless, though giggling, Dame Mince-Pie. It was followed by a dance of all the characters, which, from its medley of costumes, seemed as though the old family portraits had skipped down from their frames to join in the sport. Different centuries were figuring at cross hands and right and left ; the dark ages were cutting pirouettes and rigadoons ; and the days of Queen Bess jigging merrily down the middle, through a line of succeeding generations.
The worthy Squire contemplated these fantastic sports, and this resurrection of his old wardrobe, with the simple relish of childish delight. He stood chuckling and rubbing his hands, and scarcely hearing a word the parson said, not withstanding that the latter was discoursing most authentically on the ancient and stately dance at the Paon, or Peacock, from which he conceived the minuet to be derived. (See Note K.) For my part, I was in a continual excitement, from the varied scenes of whim and innocent gaiety passing before me. It was inspiring to see wild-eyed frolic and warm hearted hospitality breaking out from among the chills and glooms of winter, and old age throwing off his apathy, and catching once more the freshness of youthful enjoyment. I felt also an interest in the scene, from the consideration that these fleeting customs were posting fast into oblivion, and that this was, perhaps, the only family in England in which the whole of them were still punctiliously observed. There was a quaintness, too, mingled with all this revelry, that gave it a peculiar zest ; it was suited to the time and place ; and as the old Manor House almost reeled with mirth and wassail, it seemed echoing back the joviality of long departed years.
Notes from Irving:
Maskings or mummeries were favourite sports at Christmas in old times ; and the wardrobes at halls and manor-houses were often laid under contribution to furnish dresses and fantastic disguisings. I strongly suspect Master Simon to have taken the idea of his from Ben Jonson's Masque of Christmas. Return
Sir John Hawkins, speaking of the dance called the Pavon, from pavo, a peacock, says, “It is a grave and majestic dance ; the method of dancing it anciently was by gentlemen dressed with caps and swords, by those of the long robe in their gowns, by the peers in their mantles, and by the ladies in gowns with long trains, the motion whereof, in dancing, resembled that of a peacock.”- History of Music. Return
See also: 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."): Lord Of Misrule, Christmas Mummers, and Mumming. Also see The Custom Of Mumming - Henry Vizetelly.
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