The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmas In The Olden Time

Words from Sir Walter Scott's Marmion
(Introduction to Canto VI)


Source: A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), pp. 231-3.

Heap on more wood! — the wind is chill;
But let it whistle as it will,
We'll keep our Christmas merry still.
Each age has deemed the new born year
The fittest time for festal cheer.
And well our Christian sires of old.
Loved when the year its course had rolled,
And brought blithe Christmas back again,
With all his hospitable train.
Domestic and religious rite
Gave honour to the holy night:
On Christmas eve the bells were rung;
On Christmas eve the mass was sung;
That only night, in all the year,
Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.
The damsel donned her kirtle sheen;
The hail was dressed with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry men go,
To gather in the mistletoe,
Then opened wide the baron's hail
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,
And ceremony doff'd his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose.
The lord, underogating, share
The vulgar game of "post and pair!'
All hailed with uncontroll'd delight
And general voice, the happy night
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down.

The fire with well dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide;
The huge hail table's oaken face,
Scrubb'd till it shone, the day to grace,
Bore then upon: its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
Then was brought in the lusty brawn,
By old, blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar's head frowned on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.
Well can the green-garbed ranger tell,
How, when, and where, the monster fell;
What dogs before his death he tore,
And all the baiting of the boar.
The wassail round in good brown bowls,
Garnished with ribbon, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reeked: hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie;
Nor failed old Scotland to produce
At such high tide her savoury goose.

Then came the merry masquers in,
And carols roar'd with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visor made
But oh! what masquers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!
England was merry England when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
'Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale,
'Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft would cheer
A poor man's heart through half the year.

Bullen also adds this illustration from Henry G. Wells.

"Then the grim boar's head frowned on high."

Artwork by John A. Hows from Christmas In Art And Song. New York: The Arundel Printing and Publishing Company, 1879.

Also found in Henry Vizetelly, Christmas With The Poets (London: David Bogue, 1851), which provided additional lines not found in Bullen.

Note from Bullen, pp. 271-7:

"It may not be amiss here to quote a lengthy passage, relating to Christmas observances, from the fourth book of Barnabe Googe’s “Popish Kingdom,” (1570), a translation of Thomas Kirchmaier’s [Naogeorgus’] “Regnum Papisticum” (1553). The writer is describing the customs observed in Germany; but in many respects the description would be equally applicable to English society in the middle of the sixteenth century:

Three weeks before the day whereon was born the Lord of grace,
And on the Thursday boys and girls do run in every place,
And bounce and beat at every door, with blows and lusty snaps
And cry, the advent of the Lord, not horn as yet perhaps
And wishing to the neighbours all, that in the houses dwell,
A happy year, and everything to spring and prosper well:
Here have they pears and plums, and pence, each man gives willingly,
For these three nights are always thought unfortunate to he
Wherein they are afraid of sprites and cankered witches’ spite,
And dreadful devils black and grim, that then have chiefest might.|
In these same days young wanton girls that meet for marriage be,
Do search to know the names of them that shall their husbands he.
Four onions, five, or eight, they take, and make in every one
Such names as they do fancy most and best do think upon.
Thus near the chimney then they set, and that same onion than
The first doth sprout doth surely hear the name of their good man.
Their husband’s nature eke they seek to know and all his guise;
When as the sun hath hid himself, and left the starry skies,
Unto some woodstack do they go, and while they there do stand,
Each one draws out a faggot stick, the next that comes to hand,
Which if it straight and even be, and have no knots at all,
A gentle husband then they think shall surely to them fall.
But if it foul and crooked be, and knotty here and there,
A crabbed churlish husband then they earnestly do fear.
These things the wicked Papists bear, and suffer willingly,
Because they neither do the end, nor fruits of faith espie:
And rather had the people should obey their foolish lust,
Than truly God to know, and in him here alone to trust.
Then comes the day wherein the Lord did bring his birth to pass,
Whereas at midnight up they rise, and every man to Mass.
This time so holy counted is, that divers earnestly
Do think the waters all to wine are changed suddenly:
In that same hour that Christ himself was born, and came to light,
And unto water straight again transformed and altered quite.
There are beside that mindfully the money still do watch,
That first to altar comes, which then they privily do snatch.
The priests lest other should it have takes oft the same away,
Whereby they think throughout the year to have good luck in play,
And not to lose: then straight at game till daylight do they strive,
To make some present proof how well their hallowed pence will thrive.
Three masses every priest doth sing upon that solemn day,
With offerings unto every one, that so the more may play.
This done, a wooden child in clouts is on the altar set,
About the which both boys and girls do dance and trimly jet,
And carols sing in praise of Christ, and for to help them here,
The organs answer every verse, with sweet and solemn cheer.
The priests do roar aloud, and round about the parents stand,
To see the sport, and with their voice do help them and their hand.
Thus wont the Coribants perhaps upon the mountain Ide,
The crying noise of Jupiter new born with song to hide,
To dance about him round, and on their brazen pans to beat,
Lest that his father finding him, should him destroy and eat.
Then followeth Saint Stephen’s Day, whereon doth every roan
His horses jaunt and course abroad, as swiftly as he can.
Until they do extremely sweat, and then they let them blood,
For this being (lone upon this day, they say doth do them good,
And keeps them from all maladies and sickness through the year,
As if that Stephen any time took charge of horses here.
Next John the son of Zebedee bath his appointed day,
Who once by cruel tyrant’s will constrained was, they say,
Strong poison up to drink, therefore the Papists do believe,
That whoso puts their trust in him, no poison them can grieve.
The wine beside that hallowed is, in warship of his name,
The priests do give the people that bring money for the same.
And after with the selfsame wine are little manchets made, -
Against the boisterous winter storms, and sundry such like trade;
The men upon this solemn day do take this holy wine,
To make them strong, so do the maids to make them fair and fine.
Then comes the day that calls to mind the cruel Herod’s strife,
Who seeking Christ to kill, the King of everlasting life,
Destroyed the infants young, a beast unmerciless,
And put to death all such as were of two years age or less.
To them the sinful wretches cry, and earnestly do pray
To get them pardon for their faults, and wipe their sins away.
The parents when this day appears, do beat their children all
(Though nothing they deserve), and servants all to beating fall.
And monks do whip each other well, or else their Prior great,
Or Abbot mad, doth take in hand their breeches all to beat
In worship of these Innocents, or rather as we see,
In honour of the cursed king that did this cruelty.
The next to this is New Year’s Day, whereon to every friend
They costly presents in do bring and New Year’s gifts do send.
These gifts the husband gives his wife and father eke the child,
And master on his men bestows the like, with favour mild,
And good beginning of the year they wish and wish again,
According to the ancient guise of heathen people vain.
These eight days no man doth require his debts of any man,
Their tables do they furnish out with all the meat they can:
With marchpanes, tarts, and custards great they drink with staring eyes,
They rout and revel, feed and feast as merry all as pies,
As if they should at the entrance of this New Year have to die,
Yet would they have their bellies full and ancient friends ally.
The wise men’s day here followeth, who out from Persia far,
Brought gifts and presents unto Christ, conducted by (star.
The Papists do believe that these were kings, and so them call,
And do affirm that of the same there were but three in all.
Here sundry friends together come, and meet in company,
And make a king amongst themselves by voice or destiny;
Who after princely guise appoints his officers alway,
Then unto feasting do they go, and long time after play:
Upon their boards in order thick the dainty dishes stand,
Till that their purses empty be and creditors at hand.
Their children herein follow them, and choosing princes here,
With pomp and great solemnity, they meet and make good cheer
With money either got by stealth, or of their parents eft,
That so they may be trained to know both riot here and theft.
Then also every householder to his ability,
Doth make a mighty cake, that may suffice his company:
Herein a penny doth he put, before it come to fire,
This he divides according as his household doth require;
And every piece distributeth, as round about they stand,
Which in their names unto the poor is given out of hand;
But whoso chanceth on the piece wherein the money lies
Is counted king amongst them all, and is with shouts and cries
Exalted to the heavens up, who taking chalk in hand,
Doth make a cross on every beam and rafters as they stand
Great force and power have these against all injuries and harms
Of cursed devils, sprites and hugs, of conjurings and charms.
So much this king can do, so much the crosses bring to pass,
Made by some servant, maid or child, or by some foolish ass.
Twice six nights then from Christmas they do count with diligence,
Wherein each master in his house doth burn up frankincense:
And on the table sets a loaf, when night approacheth near,
Before the coals, and frankincense to be perfumed there
First bowing down his head he stands, and nose and ears and eyes,
He smokes and with his mouth receive[s] the fume that doth arise
Whom followeth straight his wife, and doth the same full solemnly,
And of their children every one, and all their family:
Which doth preserve they say their teeth, and nose, and eyes, and ear,
From every kind of malady, and sickness all the year.
When every one received hath this odour great and small,
Then one takes up the pan with coals, and frankincense and all.
Another takes the loaf, whom all the rest do follow here,
And round about the house they go, with torch or taper clear,
That neither bread nor meat do want, nor witch with dreadful charm
Have power to hurt their children, or to do their cattle harm.
There are that three nights only do perform this foolish gear,
To this intent, and think themselves in safety all the year.
To Christ dare none commit himself. And in these days beside
They judge what weather all the year shall happen and betide:
Ascribing to each day a month, and at this present time
The youth in every place do flock, and, all appareled fine,
With pipers through the streets they run, and sing at every door
In commendation of the man rewarded well therefore,
Which on themselves they do bestow, or on the church, as tho’
The people were not plagued with rogues and begging friars enow.
There cities are where boys and girls together still do run,
About the street with like, as soon as night begins to come,
And bring abroad their wassail bowls, who well rewarded be
With cakes and cheese and great good cheer and money plenteously.

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