Christmas In England (1833) | Christmas Pastimes: The Waits, Carols, Mistletoe, Feasting


‘ Christmas comes but once A year,’ 

Rapid indeed are the advances of time ! A few short days, and behold another year dawns upon us; a happy and a merry one may it prove to all our readers ! The silent moments glide away imperceptibly, and ere we cast one long and lingering look behind, another Christmas comes! that happy season, when all is mirthful, when our fondest associations are awakened by the pleasing recollections of our youthful days, and when all our dispositions are attuned, or ought to be, to the desire of gratifying and being gratified.

In the days of our ancestors, Christmas was a period sacred to mirth and hospitality. Though not wholly neglected now, it cannot boast the honours it once had : the veneration for religious seasons fled with Popery, and Old English hospitality has long since been on the decline. Our modern ‘playthings of fortune’ (and there are many of them) who make the whole year one continued round of dissipation and joyless festivity, never can fully appreciate the delights which formerly attended this festive season.

The ancient Christmas gambols were far superior to our modern spectacles and amusements. We may now paint our pastimes in more lively colours to the eye, but the amusements of by-gone days spoke truly to the heart. Among the few ancient customs with which the present generation are familiar (at least by name) will be found the following: —


‘ Left have the waits from Southwark ;
They’re are rare fellows as any In England.’

Beaumont and Fletcher.

Ay, and the first harbingers of the ‘ festival of the Nativity,’ for they sound the note of preparation in due time, breaking the sweet silence of the night with their merry mirthful strains.

Waits were originally attendant musicians on great personages—mayors, and bodies corporate,—generally furnished with superb dresses, or splendid cloaks. By an old work in the British Museum, we find that these marauding minstrels, these Midnight Banditti, called ‘waits, in ancient times, meant watchmen; they were minstrels at first attached to the King’s Court, who sounded the watch every night, and paraded the streets during the winter to prevent depredations.’

It also informs us ‘that the waits are remains of the musicians attached to the corporation of the city under that denomination. They cheer the hours of the dreary long nights before Christmas with instrumental music. To denote that they were “the Lord Mayor’s music,” they anciently wore a cognizance or badge on the arm.’


Carol is, according to Bourne, a derivation from the words cantare, to sing, and also, an interjection of joy. It is rightly observed by Jeremy Taylor, that ‘ Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, and good will towards men,’ the song of the angels on the birth of the Saviour, is the first Christmas carol.

Anciently, bishops carolled among the clergy. These ditties, which now almost exclusively enliven the industrious servantmaids and the humble labourer, gladdened the festivities of Royalty in ancient times.


With holly and ivy,

So green and to gay.
We deck up our houses

As fresh as the day.
With bays and rosemary.

And laurel complete,
And every one now

Is a king in conceit.’—Old Song.

One old custom of decking our churches with evergreens at this festive season of the year has existed from the very establishment of Christianity, and was unquestionably derived from the similar practice of our Pagan ancestors. The Druids were particularly famed for the distinguished regard which they paid to the mistletoe of the oak ; they attributed to it numerous virtues, and are stated to have wrought wonderful cures by its means.

At certain seasons of the year, especially at yule-tide of Christmas, they were accustomed to gather it with great solemnity, and the sacrifice of two milk-white bullocks that had never been yoked, nor, till then, had their horns bound up.

It was cut from the tree with a golden bill, or pruning knife, by a priest habited in a white vestment, and was received into a white woollen cloth : many orations were then made over it, and the ceremony being deemed complete, the ‘ sacred’ plant was preserved for use with religious care.

In the solemn processions which the Druids made when about to gather the mistletoe bough, they were accustomed to ‘ invite,’ as Borlace terms it, ‘ all the world’ to assist at the ceremony, with words importing ‘ the new year is at hand, gather the mistletoe.’

A remnant of this practice was a few years since to be met with in several places on the Continent, particularly in France, where, at New Year’s tide, the youth of the villages went round to the different inhabitants, and at their doors wished them good fortune, with the cry—’ Au guy Fan neuf.’

As the ivy is dedicated to Bacchus, so should the mistletoe be to Love ; not, however, to the chaste Eros, but to the sportive, lively, and ingenious Cupid. The sacred regard given to this plant in Pagan and Druidical rites has long since terminated, but it is still beheld with emotions of pleasurable interest when hung up in our servants’ hall or kitchen, at Christmas. It gives licence to seize ‘ the soft and balmy kiss ‘ from the ruby lips of whatever fair one can be enticed or caught beneath its branches.

So custom authorizes, and it enjoins also, that one of the berries of the mistletoe be plucked after every chaste salute. Though coy in appearance, the fairest and chariest maid, whether of high or low degree, at this season of mirth, happiness, and festivity, is seldom loth to submit to the established usage, especially when the swain who tempts her is one whom she approves.

•Then hey for Christmas revelling,
Fur all its pastime’s pleasures bring.*


The great Barons and fine old English gentlemen formerly kept open house during this season, when their vassals were entertained with the best of good cheer, and a silver groat at parting. ‘ Now,’ says Stevenson,’ capons and hens, besides turkeys, geese, and ducks, with beeves and sheep, must all die; for the multitude will not now be fed with a little.

Now or never must be the time to be in tune, for the youth must dance, and sing, and get into a heat, while the aged sit by the fire. The country-maid leaves half her market, if she forgets a pack of cards on Christmas eve—great is the contention for holly and ivy.’

Christmas-day is a holiday all over the United Kingdom, observed by the total suppression of all business, public and private, and the general congregating of friends and relations for ‘comfort and joy.’ Great is the pleasure we now experience in beholding at this festive season the merry, happy groups of girls and boys, just arrived from school to celebrate the Christmas with joyous merry-making: it reminds us of that period when we sought no higher amusement ourselves, and sighed only for a repetition of those hours, which could bring us such delights again.

As we advance in life, we look for higher and more intellectual enjoyments. Our faculties expand, we ‘forget the boy, and find ourselves busied with life, its cares, and its vexations.


Source: The court journal: court circular & fashionable gazette, 1833
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