Ancient English Christmas Traditions: The Christmas Box | Christmas in the 18th century

This is a  fascinating little essay from 1829 – The Christmas Box – discussing some ancient English Christmas traditions dating back to the 1700s. It includes a fine description of mummery in the 18th century, some festivities at the court of a young Prince Richard, a recipe for Boar’s Head and finally, an explanation of the The Christmas Box.

Our ancestors considered Christmas in the double light of a holy commemoration and a cheerful festival; and accordingly distinguished it by devotion, by vacation from business, by merriment, and hospitality. They seemed eagerly bent to make themselves and everybody 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.

That we may not be reproached with any like omission to the above mentioned, we shall in the first place assure our readers we most sincerely congratulate them on the arrival of the welcome season which brings with it holidays, sports, and feasting. We would participate in, and if possible, by our New Christmas Box, contribute to their entertainment; aud we wish we could shake hands with each of them in person, and repeat what we have said.

We still possess a lively remembrance of our own joy on the approach of that happy time when mince pies and merriment succeeded the half year’s pilgrimage through grammars, dictionaries, copy-books, and all the other torments, as we then thought them, before we were convinced of their full benefit.

Taking it for granted that our readers, one and all, are prepared to enjoy every amusement that may be offered them, we have no doubt they will gladly travel with us some hundred years back, and inquire how the good people of former times spent their Christmas. We shall probably find that some of those pastimes, which yet make many a snug country house echo with laughter, have been handed down to us from our great great grandfathers and grandmothers.

Did you ever know of an approaching holiday without beginning to rejoice, at least, several hours before- it actually arrived? So it was with the old celebrators of Christmas, who began their festivities some time before Christmas Day, going about from door to door, playing and singing,

And wishing to the neighbours all, that in the houses dwell,

A happy year, and everything to spring and prosper well.

No doubt, many of our readers are familiar enough with this custom, for even at present, in London, after midnight, the waits commence serenading in the streets; and, in some parts of England, the singing of Christmas carols begins as soon as December comes in, and the voices of children are heard at the door, with the ringing of a bell, or knocking till some one appears to repay their good wishes by a few halfpence. To be sure, one cannot often say much in favour of the poetry or the music of these songs. Here is the best that we have met with:—

Now balmy zephyrs from us fly,  –  To seek the gentler southern sky;

Winds of the north their place assume,  –  And wrap the day in mist and gloom;

Where late the fields were clothed in green,  –  Now winter’s snowy robe is seen;—

Then homeward haste, prepare thy cheer, – ” For Christmas comes but once a year.”

Let blazing fires on every hearth  –  Illume the glistening face of mirth.;

Let sprightly Youth his gambols play,  –  And Age begin his stories gay;—

With plenty let the board be crown’d„ – But never, there, let room be found

For sorrow past or future fear, – ” For Christmas comes but once a year.”

Bless’d season of the annual close, – Although array’d in fleecy snows,

Thus jocund should we pass thy hours:— – Spring is the reign of fragrant flowers;

Loose Summer lends his cooling shades; – His fruits delicious, Autumn spreads;—

But Mirth to thee alone is dear, – ” For Christmas comes but once a year.”

Here is also part of another carol:— – Lo! now is come our gladdest feast,

Let every man be jolly, – Each room with ivy leaves is dress’d-,

And every post with holly. – Now all our neighbours’ chimneys smoke,

And Christmas blocks are burning, – Their ovens they with baked meats choke,

And all their spits are turning. – Without the door let sorrow lie,

And if with cold it chance to die, – We’ll bury it in a Christmas pie,

And evermore be merry.

It may well be imagined, from this, that Christmas is a rare time for those who love good things; and plenty of merry-making there was formerly, for the feasting was but part of the many rejoicings.

The grand dish on Christmas Day was one not often seen in our times; it was ‘ a boar’s head soused,’ and was carried into the hall where the company were to dine with great state and solemnity ; a particular carol, beginning with

Caput apri refero, – Reddens laudes Domino. – The boar’s head in hand bring  – I, With garlands gay and rosemary, – I pray you all sing merrily, – Qui estis in convivio.—

was sung whilst it was bringing in. And you may think in how great respect this boar’s head was held, when it is related, that at a grand festival in the year 1170, King Henry the Second served his son, the young prince, at table, bringing up the boar’s head, with trumpeters going before him. We can even inform our readers how the boar’s head was dressed upon these occasions. Here is the receipt:—

” 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 spiced hippocras, the wine;

Wassail, the bowl with ancient ribands fine,

Porridge with plums, and turkeys with the chine.”

Sack and hippocras have long gone out of the wine-merchants’ stores; but the custom of the wassail bowl is not yet quite extinct.

This was on Christmas Day itself; but the night before, or Christmas Eve, was a grand time of celebration, and is so yet indeed. Then it was that huge candles, called Christmas candles, were lighted up, and a monstrous block of wood, half a tree perhaps, called the Yule log, was put on the fire, and the night was turned into day with the splendid blaze. Then, when the wind and snow were driving coldly around the old house, the merry inmates, warm and happy, would dance about the Christmas fire, singing such an old song as this;—

Come, bring with a noise,  –  My merry, merry boys,

The Christmas log to the firing;  –  While my good dame she

Bids you all be free, – And drink to your hearts’ desiring.

With the last year’s brand – Light the new block, and

For good success in his spending, –  – On your psalteries play,

That sweet luck may – Come while the log is a tending.

Drink now the strong beer, – Cut the white loaf here,

The while the meat is a shredding – For the rare mince pie,

And the plums stand by – To fill the paste that’s a kneading.

And in the daytime the villages were all in an uproar with the mummers,—people who, fantastically dressed and wearing masks, went about jumping and frolicking, to the great delight of the spectators. The Hobby-horse was an important character, and was represented by a man, who appeared to sit astride on a figure of a horse made of thin boards, and whose rough jests and capering gave much delight to the crowds who attended the festivities. Christmas without a hobby-horse would have been thought little about formerly.

These sports were not confined to the vulgar people, for we read of a mummery on a large scale having taken place for the amusement of young Prince Richard, the grandson of Edward the First. No less than a hundred and thirty citizens left London on this occasion, disguised and on horseback, and rode to Kennington, where the prince was. Before them went bands of musicians, and numberless attendants bearing torches and wax lights. Some were dressed as knights, some as esquires; one was apparelled in a crown and fine robes like a king, another as a pope attended by four and twenty cardinals, and some had their faces covered with black masks. These, when they arrived at Kennsington, played at dice with the prince, and made fine presents to him, and to his mother, and the noblemen who were there; and, after much feasting, and music, and dancing, they rode home again with the same sport.

Let it not, however, be thought that the Christmas games were without any order or government. ‘A lord of misrule’ was appointed to regulate the pastimes of those in his neighbourhood ; even in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge this was done, and in both these places the lord of misrule was a master of arts. So it was in the king’s household, and in the establishments of the great noblemen at Christmas; lords of misrule were’ appointed, and had officers to attend them like real potentates. The lord mayor of London, and the sheriffs also, had these governors of the Christmas games, without whom the festivities would have been imperfect.

The lord of misrule and his attendants were gaily dressed in many colours, and decorated with scarves, ribands, and handkerchiefs; laces and tinsel ornaments of the gayest kind, with bells tied to their legs jingling at every step. ” Then,” says an old writer, who appears to have had a great dislike to the Christmas mummeries, ” then march this heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping, drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, their hobbie horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the crowd, and in this manner they go to the church. Then, after this, about the church they go again and again, and so forth into the churchyard, where they have commonly their summer halls, their bowers, arbours, and banqueting houses set up, wherein they feast, banquet, and dance all day.” But these amusements at last grew, like boys’ play, so riotous, that they very properly were suppressed.

Not so the mince pies, dear sweet things, which we and our readers love, these still flourish in all their glory, though many a Christmas sport and dainty have gone by. Among the forgotten atables are the plum porridge and the Yule cakes, or little images made of paste, which the bakers used to form and give to their customers at this season. Then, as now,

The grocers’ trade was in request,

For plums and spices

Of the best,

Minced pies, roast beef,

With other cheer,

And feasting, did

Conclude the year.

Many idle and superstitious notions formerly prevailed about Christmas Eve, and the power of imaginary spirits and demons at that time; but the increase of knowledge has dispelled most of these foolish ideas. Among them was a belief that at twelve o’clock on Christmas Eve the oxen in the stalls are always found on their knees as if praying. It is, however, to be hoped that all such silly remains of superstition will, ere long, be entirely forgotten, or remembered only as matters of curiosity.

Ah, well! though these old things are gone by, more modern sports are still in vogue, and better ones too, we believe they are, for quiet orderly people like us and our young readers, who

At Feed the Dove (with laurel leaf in mouth),

Or Blindman’s Buff, or Hunt the Slipper play,

Replete with glee. Some, haply, Cards adopt;

Or if to Forfeits they their sport confine,

The happy folk adjacent to the fire

Their station take.

What have we been about? We had almost forgotten to mention the old and honourable custom of the Christmas Box ; which was an earthen pot with a narrow slit in it, into which money might be put, but which was too small to let any be shaken out again. These boxes were carried about by apprentices and young people, who, if they were lucky in having kind friends, got a store which was well worth breaking the box to come at.

Our Christmas Box (made of nice paper instead of dull clay) has this year received many contributions from our very kind friends. Here it is, for the reader to open, and we hope that both amusement and instruction may be derived from the perusal.

| ….. December – Christmas Indexes


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