The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Folk Lore of a Cornish Village

By Thomas Q. Couch, Cornwall

Notes and Queries, Series I, Volume 11 (London, Saturday, May 26, 1855), pp. 397-398.

Beginning with the issue published on May 26, 1955, Thomas Q. Couch published a series of articles concerning the Folk Lore of his home town, the Cornish village of Polperro. He began:

Having pleasingly occupied my leisure in getting together all that is noteworthy respecting the past history and present condition of the place of my birth, I have thought that those chapters which treat of its folk lore might find an appropriate place in " N. & Q.," if abridged, and modified to suit its pages. Though the papers in another shape were read some time since before a provincial antiquarian society, they have never been published.

The place, whose popular antiquities are here to be recorded, is situated on the eminently romantic coast of the south-eastern part of Cornwall. The bold-bluff hills resting by the sea-line on a margin of craggy transition slate, alike attractive to the artist, and interesting to the geologist, have here, seemingly, suffered some disruption, and in the fissure is dropped the village, its houses resting on ledges in the hills, or skirting the inlets of the sea which forms its harbour. The inland country, for some distance, is a rapid succession of well- cultivated hill and "coomb," for that can scarcely be called valley which is but the acute junction of the bases of opposite hills. The population is part seafaring, part agricultural, and in reference to education as well off as such people generally are. In this quiet corner lurk many remnants of faded creeds, and ancient usages which have vanished from districts more subject to mutation with the circumstances which gave rise to them, as the side eddies of a stream retain those sticks and straws which the current would have swept off to the ocean. I begin with an account of our fairy mythology.

Editor's Note:

The balance of the article is not included (this is a Christmas web site, after all). In subsequent articles, Mr. Couch discussed:

On October 20, 1855, Mr. Couch began to examine "Fasts and Feasts," noting:

Of our village it may be said, in the words of old Herrick :

" For sports, and pageantry, and plays,
Thou hast thy eves and holidays."

And of these I proceed to give some account :

He began with New Year's Day and continued through Whitsunday. (Notes and Queries, Series I, Volume 12, Pages 297-298). In the issue of December 29, 1855, he began discussing the Christmas-tide.

Christmas comes next, season of mirth and misrule, its advent proclaimed by the evergreens with which every wall and window is garnished. The old women "go a-gooding" round the parish, collecting from their richer neighbours the measure of meal wherewith to make the cake or pudding, and giving many benedictions in return.

On Christmas eve the mirth begins, when the "mock" or log is lighted by a portion saved from the last year's fire. The family gather round the blaze, and amuse themselves by various games ; and even the younger children are allowed, as a special favour, to sit up till a late hour to see the fun, and afterwards to "drink to the mock." In the course of the evening the merriment is increased by the entry of the "goosey dancers" (guised dancers), the boys and girls of the village who have rifled their parents' wardrobes of old coats and gowns, and thus disguised, dance and sing, and beg money to make merry with. They are allowed, and are not slow to take, a large amount of license in consideration of the season. It is considered to be out of character with the time, and a mark of an ill-natured, churlish disposition, to take offence at anything they do or say. If kindly treated they create a little mirth, and leave without doing any mischief. This mumming Is kept up during the week.

The Christmas play was a favourite amusement with our forefathers, but is dying out. It is a remnant of the guary mirkl, or miracle play, which in remote times was performed in the "round," or amphitheatre. The later dramas have not been, like the older ones, on Scripture subjects ; the one at present in use having for its subject the achievements of St. George. The play is exhibited in the largest room of the Inn, or some other public place, and occasionally repeated as one of the entertainments of any feast which may happen in the Christmas week. The players are the young men of the village, and a subscription is made for the purchase of properties, the young damsels contributing their services in the manufacture of the costumes. "Very tragical mirth" indeed it is, like that with which the swains of Athens sought to amuse the bridal of Theseus and Hippolyta. The play has been printed entire by Davis Gilbert in his Christmas Carols.

Early on Christmas morning we are awoke by the waits (not here known by that name), singing and playing their hymns under our windows.

The itinerant bookseller now brings his Christmas carols. Among these are a few modern hymns of some pretensions to poetry, but the greater number are only remarkable for their absurdity; they would, indeed, be ludicrous if on a less solemn subject. In a broadsheet just published, I find the carols entitled,

"The moon shone bright,"
"Heavenly Union,"
"Hark, what news the Angels bring,"
"The Holy Well" (a legendary incident In the life of our Saviour),
"The first good joy our Mary had,"
"Joy to the World,"
"Shepherds rejoice,"
"The Star of Bethlehem" (Kirke White),
"While shepherds watch their flocks by night,"
"Christ in the manger,"
"Bethlehem's babe,"
"As I sat on a sunny bank,"
"O well, and O well, the Angels did say,"
"Hark, all around the welkin rings,"
"Righteous Joseph."

On Christmas night It is believed that the cattle in the stalls observe the time by falling on their knees.

Innocents' Day Our housewives strictly refrain from scrubbing and cleaning on this day, on what account I cannot discover.

Thomas Q. Couch.
Cornwall

Source: Thomas Q. Couch, "Christmas Folk Lore of a Cornish Village," Notes and Queries, Series I, Volume 12. (London, Saturday, December 29, 1855), p. 507.

Note: In this series of articles, Mr. Couch did not identify the name of his home town, but in 1871, he published The History of Polperro: A Fishing Town on the South Coast of Cornwall compiled from notes gathered by his father, Jonathan Q. Couch (1789-1870), and supplemented by his own observations. On pages 161-2, Mr. Couch discusses Christmas customs in the village, in language that is clearly an edited version of the account given by him in Notes and Queries in 1855.

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