Old Christmas Celebrations in England

| 12/18/2019 10:13:00 AM

Christmas tree
The family gathered around the Christmas Tree and receiving their gifts. Illustrations from William Sandys’ 1852 book.

“At Christmas be mery, and thanke god of all;
And feast thy pore neighbours, the great with the small.”

Sam MooreI recently found an old book called Christmastide, by William Sandys and published in London in 1852, which tells the story of ancient Christmas celebrations in England. Of course, the stories are mostly of the festivities of the royal household and those of the landed gentry – poor folks had to celebrate as best they could with very little or nothing. The following is an example of the manner of keeping Christmas by an English gentleman, as told in Armin’s 1601 book, Nest of Ninnies. “At a Christmas time, when good logs furnish the hall fire, when brawne [head cheese] is in season, and indeed all reveling is regarded, this gallant knight kept open house for all commers, where beefe, beere, and bread was plentiful. Amongst all the pleasures provided, a noyse of minstrells and a Lincolnshire bagpipe was prepared; the minstrells for the great chamber, the bagpipe for the hall; the minstrells to serve up the knight’s meate, and the bagpipe for the common dauncing.”

While the Christmas-block or yule log is not much in evidence these days, it once was an important part of Christmas. “Heap on more wood – the wind is chill; But let it whistle as it will, We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.”

A large log was dragged in and placed, with rejoicing and merriment, in the fireplace of the great hall or kitchen. A small portion of the log was to be carefully preserved to light the one of the following year; and on the last day of its being in use, usually Candlemas Day [2 February], a chunk of this year’s log was ignited to satisfy the old custom of “Kindle the Christmas brand and then till sunne-set let it burne; Which quench, then lay it up agen, Till Christmas next returne.”

After lighting the log, each family member then sat down on it in turn, sang a Yule song, and drank to a merry Christmas and happy New Year: after which they had, as part of their feast, currant-filled Yule upon which cakes which were impressed the figure of the infant Jesus. The wassail bowl, or the tankard of spiced ale, formed a prominent part of the entertainment as well.


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