Old Christmas Celebrations in England

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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.”

I 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.

Gathered around the “groaning board” as be-wigged servants pour the wine.

We would recognize some of the Yuletide decorations of the day. An almanac from 1695 tells us: “With holly and ivy so green and so gay, We deck up our houses as fresh as the day; With bays and rosemary and laurel compleat, And every one now is a king in conceite.” Other evergreens were used as well, including myrtle and the “mystic mistletoe,” but most of these were taken down after Twelfth Day [Epiphaney].

Today we see gaily lit Christmas trees everywhere but this decoration made its first appearance in England sometime in the 1830s. Mr. Sandys tells us, “In recent times the Christmas tree has been introduced from the continent, and is productive of much amusement to old and young, and much taste can be displayed and expense also incurred in preparing its glittering and attractive fruit. It is delightful to watch the animated expectation and enjoyment of the children as the treasures are displayed and distributed; the parents equally participating in the pleasure, and enjoying the sports of their childhood over again.”

Then, as now, feasting was a huge part of the Christmas celebrations, and strong drink was much in evidence as well – one ditty ran: “Fill up the bowl, then, fill it high, Fill all the glasses then, for why, Should every creature drink but I? Why, man of morals, tell me why?”

Enjoying the yule log and the “mystic mistletoe,” as well as food and drink and “dauncing.” The party is getting a little rowdy by now.

Gervase Markham in his 1651 English Housewife, describes an ideal holiday dinner of this time. He wrote that the first course should consist of “sixteen full dishes; that is, dishes of meat that are of substance, and not empty, or for show – as thus, for example; first, a shield of brawn [head cheese], with mustard; secondly, a boyl’d capon; thirdly, a boyl’d piece of beef; fourthly, a chine [back bone] of beef, rosted; fifthly, a neat’s [cow’s] tongue, rosted; sixthly, a pig, rosted; seventhly, chewets [mince-meat] baked; eighthly, a goose, rosted; ninthly, a swan, rosted; tenthly, a turkey, rosted; the eleventh, a haunch of venison, rosted; the twelfth, a pasty of venison; the thirteenth, a kid, with a pudding in the belly; the fourteenth, an olive-pye; the fifteenth, a couple of capons; the sixteenth, a custard. Now, to these full dishes may be added, sallets [spinach cooked with vinegar], fricases [soups], quelque choses [?], and devised paste [a fruit dish], as many dishes more, which make the full service no less than two and thirty dishes; which is as much as can conveniently stand on one table. And after this manner you may proportion both your second and third courses, holding fulness on one half of the dishes, and show in the other; which will be both frugal in the splendour, contentment to the guest, and much pleasure and delight to the beholder.” This mountain of food was washed down with copious amounts of ale, porter, wine and cider, making one wonder why all English lords and ladies didn’t weigh 25 stone [350 pounds].

Gifts were given by an inferior to his superior, who gave something in return, usually money, and gifts were exchanged between equals. Tenants often gave capons to their landlords at this season, and some leases even required a capon at Christmas as part of the rent. Other gifts were given in a more generous spirit as this poem points out: “These giftes the husband gives his wife, And father eke [give] the childe, And maister on his men bestowes The like, with favour milde.”

So lavish celebrations of the Lord’s birth have been around for many millennia, and we see echoes of those long ago days in some our traditions today.

Merry Christmas and a Wonderful New Year to you all.

– Sam Moore

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