Christmas-keeping In London, England 1822

This writer contrasts Christmas in London in the early 1800s

with Christmases past of the 1600s and 1700s.


Amidst the wintry desolation of the present month, the remembrance of a season once anticipated in joyous hope  by all ranks of people, refers to the lovers of ” Auld lane: syne”—to those who remember with what pleasure they once welcomed its chill atmosphere and snow storms with the vivid rapture of youth.

Even in this huge city, the memory of its festivities is not yet wholly extinguished. But in the remote parts of the island it is still hailed as the period of enjoyment—it is still marked hy genial appearances; and round the social hearth on Christmas-eve, the less artificial inhabitants of the country will he found as Burns describes them —

The lasses feat, an’rlaanly neat,

More hraw than when they’re fine ;

Their faces Mythe, ‘fu sweetly kythe,

Hearts leal, an’ warm, an’ kin :

The ln.ds sae trig:, wi’ wooer-hahs,

Weel knotted on their garten,

Some unco-Mate, an’ some wi’ gahs,

Gar lasses hearts Erang starfin.

Whites fast at night

Christmas is supposed hy some to he founded on the Saturnalia of the Koiimns, and was distinguished a century or two ago by its ” festival of fools.” The mummeries practised at that season were performed in disguises made with the skins of animals ; and the lower orders who could not afford masques and dresses, dabbed their faces with soot, the sexes changing clothes. The Saturnalia were celebrated in a similar manner.

Such a resemblance, and the obvious policy of transmuting the heathen festivities into rejoicings of some kind, after the introduction of Christianity, that the people might not he deprived of their customary pleasures, gives a plausible ground for supposing that the early Christians availed themselves of the opportunity to estahlish a. fete in honour of the hirth of their founder.

But this can only be conjecture, like a thousand other opinions we read of the same nature, and must forever remain so. The decision of the question, indeed, might gratify curiosity, hut could he of no utility to the interests of mankind It is a more pleasing occupation to dwell on the celebration of Christmas at later periods among ourselves, to go over ground that is interesting from its proximity to our own, and to realize the agreeable feeling always excited in the human bosom at the contemplation of everything, however insignificant,which is tinged with the grey melancholy of age.

In London, as in all great cities, particularly in those which are commercial, where strangers continually arrive, and new customs are daily introduced, ohservances of a nature similar to those formerly kept at Christmas must soon he lost. That season is accordingly marked here by few of the pleasantries and simple enjoyments with which it is even now characterized in the country.

The merchant and shopkeeper are ahsorbed in traffic and the closing up of their accounts: and but a short space is devoted to that drunkenness and gluttony among the lower orders, which are the hesetting sins of the time. The genuine cockney, however, though on the verge of hankruptcy, considers it a moral duty to spend his creditors’ guinea for a fat turkey on Christmasday: which, with a plenary potation of some kind of liquor, a minute fraction within the quantity necessary to produce ehriety, among the more soher citizens, and a fraction heyond it, among those less concerned as to outward deportment, completes the annual memorial of the time.

The canaille may he seen, as usual when rejoicing, in all the sty-grovelling stupidity of the most inexcusahle sensuality, reeling from lamp-post to lamp-post. The ginshops overflow with ragged visitants and the bloated porter-drinkers, saturating themselves with doses of coculus indieus, and divers adulterating narcotics, which muddle the brain and clog the circulation, fill every pot-house.

Intoxicated draymen, dustmen, and hutchers’ attendants, flie to the suburhs to fight their dogs; and, finally, to fight among themselves. St. Giles’s vomits forth its mass of vice and contamination, mingled with the filth and vociferations of drunken Irish harrow-women and wretches squalid and hectic from dram dringing.

Such is a London Christmas-keeping. — Among viands once common there at this season, plum-puddings and mince Pies are still found, and most prohably will long remain, on the score of their intrinsic value to gastronomists.

Pantomimic representations are proffered at that time in ti.eatrical entertainments, to attract such little children and their parents as can afford to laugh at them, but once a-year.

In London no yule log now hlazes in the contracted chimneys as in days of yore on its once ample hearths no yule-songs are sung, and the wassail-howl, as in most parts of the country, is quite forgotten. The hearty, hut natural and simple merriment of the rustic, has no parallel in such overgrown congregations of men; and the festive activity of the Christmas halldance, where Jest and youthful jollity, Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles, Nods and hecks, and wreathed smiles, tmee abunded, has taken its flight, and left nothing half so heart-cheering hehind. Thus mortal customs perish like those who were ohservers of them, hut only with a little less rapidity.

But the celehration of Christmas in London was formerly marked with pomp and teas, and revelry, With masque and antique pageantry.

The Lord of Misrule,, a personage whose origin is lost in the obscurity of years, superintended the sports in every nobleman’s and gentleman’s house. Each parish had also a ruler of sports with the same title. The Lord Mayor of London and the Sheriffs were not behind-hand in these jocularities, and, besides a fool, they had each a sovereign, of mummeries on their estahlishments.

His reign hegan on All-hallows eve. Even royal authority afterwards sanctioned the use of these officers, whose post always continued until the eve of the Purification. During the entire period of his sway, Stow says, “there were fine and suhtle disguisings, masks, and mummeries.”

King Edward the Sixth appointed one George Ferrers to hold the office. This man was a ” poet, lawyer, and historian,” and wes the first’ styled “Lord of the Pastimes.” Even the grave lawyers of Lincoln’s Inn doffed their sober hahits at Christmas; they, too, had a King of Christmas-day with his attendants, who presided in their hall; and so earnest were they in these matters, that on Childermass-day, they elected another officer, who presided with attendants in a similar manner, and was styled ” King of the Cockneys.”

The gentlemen of the gown thus kept a carnival in the very court of gravity itself. How edifying would it now he for the augmented numher of students in the profession, to witness the hewigged judges and henchers relaxing from that stiff solemnity of physiognomy, which so often passes current in the profession for wisdom; to see sheep-tails and periwigs tilling the atmosphere of the legal arena with showers of perfumed dust—dissipating the lahours of Danbv and other eminent big architects, by the shaking of their curls at the mummeries of the Zany and his followers decked with fools caps and hells, and the keeper of the king’s conscience himself’holdinghoth his sides” at the sight of Robin Goodfellow and the bear’s-skin man, formerly called a Wodehouse, forgetting even chancery suits and fees, for a moment, in the indulgence of uurestrainable laughter.

The Middle Temple lawyers, not to he outdone by their “learned hrethren” of Lincoln’s Inn, elected a Prince of Christmas so late as the year 1635. This personage dined with them in their hall, having eight attendants. He was seated under a cloth of state, and served with great attention. To complete the climax of foolery, this Zany was afterwards introduced at court, and actually knighted at Whitehall, and was most probahly not the first of his character who received that honour, as the present generation can testify he was not the last.

But, as later periods have also shewn, the lawyers were far outdone hy the clergy in matters appertaining to feasting and revalry. The former soon relapsed into their wonted hahits, the departure from which had heen hut momentary ; for very few chancellors hesides Sir Thomas More would have admitted, even in ancient days, that they were good throwers at cocks, though even Sir Thomas does not say he practised it after he came to the Lord Chancellorship.

The clergy, however, seem to have had no scruples, and to have shared largely in Christmas sports and revels ofall sorts. Even at the universities they elected a King of the Bean on Christmas-day. In cathedral churches, there was an Archhishop or Bishop of Fools elected, and in Catholic times a Pope of Fools. The office of ” King of Fools” (RexStultorum) was aholished in 1391, perhaps as heing derogatory to the tlignity of kingship. These mummers attended divine service in pantomimical dresses, and were followed hy crowds of the laity in masks of different forms. Abroad, some assumed the hahit of females, and displayed the most wanton gestures.

One ceremony consisted in shaving a ” Precentor of Fools” hefore the church-door, in presence of the populace, who were amused hy a vulgar sermon. In England, a Boy-Bishop was regularly elected in the churches at Christmas, who mimicked the service and office of hishop; and the clergy even enjoined the children of St. Paul’s school to attend at the cathedral, and give the hoy-hishop a pennv each! This mockery was abolished at the Reformation, in the thirty-third year of Henry VIII.; and though revived hy Mary, in ceased entirely at her death.

The exercise of quintain was anciently much practised in London at Christmas: a quintain was set up at that season in Cornhill near Leadcnhall. Plays were also exhihited at court; hut they only consisted of pantomime and buffoonery until the reign of Edward III. The clergy in the reign of Richard II. possessed the exclusive right of getting up Christmas plays from Scripture snbjects; and in that reign a petition was presented to the crown hy the scholars of Saint Paul’s, complaining that secular actors infringed on their right.

Cards were forhidden to apprentices in London except at Christmas; and at that season the servant-girls and others danced every evening before their masters’ doors. Honest Stow laments the decay of the manner of keeping festivities in his time, which seems to have become “unwarlike and effeminate-” Oh,” says he, ” what a wonderful change is this! Our wrestling at arms is turned into wallowing in ladies’ laps; our courage to cowardice, our running into royot; our howles into (?,) and our darts into dishes.”

The English, according to Polydore Virgil, ” celehrated the feast of Christmas with playes, masques, and magnificent spectacles, together with games and dancing, not common with other nations.” Camden says, ” that few men plaid at cards in England hut at Christmas.”

But it is to the country, at present, that we must look for what remains of the customs practised hy our ancestors at that season. These relics of old and ridiculous observances, deprived of all their ohbectionahle parts toy the improving spirit of successive years, arc hallowed in our memories, and always recall the vernal season of life and its regretted pleasures. In the north they have yet their ” fool’s plough,” and in Cornwall their goosedancers. The latter still exhihit an old hunchhacked man called the ” King of Christmas,” and sometimes the ” Father:” like customs mav he traced in other counties. The yule-log still hlazes in the chimney of the rustic at Christmas-eve, under the different appellations of Christmas stock, log, block, &c .

The wassail-howl was regularly carried from door to door in Cornwall forty or fifty years ago; and even now a measure of flip, ale, porter and sugar, or some heverage, is handed round while the yule-log is hurning, or stock, as denominated in the western counties. The wassail howl is of Saxon origin, and merits notice on an historical account. Vortigern, prince of the Silures, fell in love with Rowena, the niece of Hengist the Saxon warrior. She presented the Prince with a howl of spiced wine, saying m Saxon, ” Waes Heal Hlaford Cyning,” which signified “Be of health, Lord King.” Vortigern married her, and thus is kingdom fell to the Saxons. Rohert of Gloucester noticed this incident :— ” Kutesliire and sitte hire adoune, and glad drink hire heil, And that was in this land the Verst’ Was hail,’ As in language of Saxoyne that we might evere iwite, And so well he paieth the fole ahout, that he is not Yet vorgute.” Waes-heil thus became the name of the drinking-cup of the Anglo-Saxons, and those cups were afterwards constantly used at puhlic entertainments.

In parts of the country remote from the metropolis, the singing of Christmas carrols yet ushers in the mornings. After hreakfast, the busy housewife prepares her plumhbpuddings, mince-pies, and confectionary, which she decorates with the emblems of the time :—a scratch in the dough in the shape of a hay-rack, denoting the manger of the infant Saviour, is one of those emblems most commonly in use.

The younger part of the household hunt the garden for evergreens to decorate the interior of the apartments; and the woods are sought to hring home the mistletoe, which is to he suspended in the room where the pleasures of the evening are to take place, and beneath which the “sighing lips,” as Moore calls them, of many a lovely girl still continue to he pressed, despite of that coy resistance, and those blushes that so much heighten the charms of heauty.

They also paint candles of different colours to be lighted in the evening, a custom perhaps borrowed from ancient Romish practice; though some imagine that lighting up houses formed a part of the worship ‘ of the Teutonic god Thor, heing one of the ceremonies ohserved at Juul-tide, or the feast of Thor, from which it was introduced into the Christian feast of Christmas.

Thus if some part of our Christmas ceremonies was derived from the Saturnalia, another was evidently of northern origin. The mistletoe was a plant held sacred hy the Druids. The Christmas-carrols also were, it is prohahle, Juul or Ule-songs first sung in honour of the heathen deity ; and the use of evergreens may he ascribed to the same origin. In the evening the Ulelog, or Christmas-stock, as at present denominated, is placed on the fire in the principal apartment of the house. The company seat themselves round it, and the cheerful cup is yet handed ahout which often contains nothing more than ale in the cottages of the peasantry.

What remains to modern times of Christmas gambols then commences, and ancient Christmas plays are even still plainly to he traced among them. Blindman’s-huff, hunt the slipper, the game of the goose, snap-dragon, or push-pin, and dancing, form the amusements of the younger part of the assemhlage, and cards of the elder; though among the more suhbtantial people, as they are denominated in the language of the country folks, the simpler amusements begin to lose their value. But their very simplicity recalls the memory of past times: they have a certain charm about them worth all that is artificial, and they would not be bereft of attraction to minds of sensibility, if they were wholly abandoned to the lowly ; for they have that in them which is far more endearing than the sordid heartlessness of fashionable entertainments, and the formality of high life. B

ereft of superstition, Christmas is thus a season of innocent mirth—a pleasing interlude to lighten and beguile the horrors of our inclement winters. It affords a period for the exhihition of hospitable greetings, and the pleasing interchange of good offices, of which, in the country, opportunities are rare.

How many innocent hearts rejoice there at anticipating the season and its festivities, whose feelings have never heen chilled hy the artificial and calculating civilities of metropolitan intercourse. But the humhler ranks have heen accused of superstition hecause the stocking is still thrown, the pod with nine peas hid over the door, and all the little ceremonies so admirahly depicted hy Burns in his Hallowe’en still practised.

These, however, are now generally looked upon as a diversion, and few have faith in their efficacy; for in our days the poor have as good common sense as their superiors. These diversions come to them hut once a year, and it is to he hoped they may long continue to practise them.

Source: The Babbler, 1822

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