Sunday, December 25, 2011

800 Years of Christmas in England

by Katherine Ashe

Christmas trees, Santa Claus and heaps of presents: none of what we now take for Christmas traditions are indigenous to old England. The indoor, decorated tree is German, appearing first at the Georgian Court and in noble English households as a branch of yew set with candles, introduced by Queen Charlotte. By 1800 Charlotte had enlarged her display to a whole potted yew, and aristocratic families were starting to imitate the beloved queen's custom. Yet the popularization of the Christmas tree dawdled until 1840 when Prince Albert's decorated trees were much lauded in the contemporary press. These first English yew boughs and trees had candles and paper cones filled with candies for the children. And small presents were set out beneath them. But there was no Santa Claus.

Santa, in his quasi-Lappish outfit with his reindeer sleigh and predilection for chimneys, is purely American, birthed in the lovely poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” credited to Clement Moore but now thought to have been written by Henry Livingston Jr. Santa is a demigod of Plenty, like the Roman Ops, fat and opulent and merry, and a total stranger to ancient Christmas ways.

There was of course, Saint Nicholas, Bishop Nicholas of Myra, in what is now Turkey, whose feast day is December 6. He is famed for giving a great gift, but what he gave had nothing to do with Christmas: it was bags of money to provide three virtuous but penniless sisters with dowries. During the Reformation, as the interest in saints waned, Sinter Klaas remained a favorite in Holland, filling children's shoes with sweets and toys on Christmas Eve. It is this Dutch manifestation that has become Santa Claus. If he arrived in England with William and Mary, he seems not to have taken root, but in New York, where the old Dutch families still reigned in Society in the 19th century, he inspired the shy Mr. Livingston with his icon-making verse.

Christmas gift giving, in old English tradition, has neither to do with Saint Nicholas nor even Christmas day. It recalled the gifts the three magi brought to the Christ child, and the proper day was Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, January 6th.

If all we do is really not so very old, how was Christmas celebrated in times long gone by?

Christmas, in well-to-do households, from the twelfth into the 19th centuries, was the time of liveries: the giving of clothes to the servants. In noble establishments the liveries would be new and in the lord's heraldic colors. And the clothes given at Christmastide were to last all year. In poorer homes the clothes would be the master and mistress's used garments. Presumably their every-day ones. Their finer clothes would be turned, cut up and reused as long as there was any use left in the fine fabrics.

Children, parents, spouses and lovers exchanged gifts at Epiphany, in recollection of the gifts the Magi brought to the Christ child.


Christmas, in well-to-do households, from the twelfth into the 19th centuries, was the time of liveries: the giving of clothes to the servants. In noble establishments the liveries would be new and in the lord's heraldic colors. And the clothes given at Christmastide were to last all year. In poorer homes the clothes would be the master and mistress's used garments. Presumably their every-day ones. Their finer clothes would be turned, cut up and reused as long as there was any use left in the fine fabrics.

Children, parents, spouses and lovers exchanged gifts at Epiphany, in recollection of the gifts the Magi brought to the Christ child.

Washington Irving, traveling in England on business in 1814-15, bemoans the loss of the ancient customs, Protestant solemnity, by his time, having long since been replaced by urbane carousing in the cities. Dancing, feasting, winter revels such as those in which Caroline Lamb cavorted wildly to attract young, beautiful, lame George Gordon, Lord Byron, were far too heady to pause for an old church holiday still tainted with Calvinist sobriety.

In the countryside, Irving writes of the survival of the ancient traditions. Fiction or not, his “Old Christmas” is redolent of how Christmas was celebrated in English noble households from the Middle Ages onward to last flickers in the 19th century.
The oldest customs centered upon the church and the fief. In convents ancient lullabies, sung by nuns for their own joy, celebrated the birth of the Christ child, who was husband to them all in the mystical wedding of their vows. A few churches developed reenactments of the arrival of the shepherds and the Three Kings. Caroling grew, contrapuntal, melismatic, rondelled or in simple chant.

From convents and the choirs of high clergy to country churches where villagers with the best voices were pressed to serve, the music of Christmas moved from the church loft into the roadway, and caroling from door to door became a custom to be met with hot cider, milk punch and cakes. In cities the poor turned caroling into a means of earning a pittance in the cold and holy season when charity, Dickens tells us, was most mete.

And on the fiefs? In the village church, during the modest twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the villeins attended a very early Mass, then went to the lord's hall, where a great feast, the high point of the year, was held, with beef and braun and beer for the folk, a boar's head, wine and dainty dishes for the noble family at the table on the dais. Music, by strolling trouveres, or a talented tutor in the lord's household, or a villager with a flare for song with simple flute or drum, was the entertainment, with round dances for the young.

Until the dance was interrupted by the Bean King. As in the ancient Roman Lupercalia, Christmastide was a time for reversal of roles: villein became master, maid became man, man became housewife and clergy became… able to tell ribald jests. And over all ruled the Bean King: king for a day, since he or she had found - and nearly broken a tooth upon - the hard, dry bean baked in the cake. The finder reigned in a topsy turvy world of merriment.


When the dancing and buffoonery waned from tiring spirits and beer befuddled brains, it was time for the story teller: the wandering trouvere intoning his tales of Arthur, Tristan or more recent heroes to the plucked rhythms of his harp; or the village reeve or witten recounting the more humble doings of Wayland and a threatening fairy land. Finally, sodden with beer and overspent spirits, the villagers one by one crumpled to the lordly hall's floor, to sleep a snoring, whickering, dream-filled sleep in a deep litter of hay scented with mint and lady's bedstraw.

Feasting, though simple and hearty for the commoners, was remarkably elaborate for the table on the dais. Kitchen labor was abundant and Christmas preparations could take many days. Minced meats with fruit and spices were baked in pastry coffers: ancestors of mincemeat pie. Not only sweet and tart were favored combinations, but also sweet and salt. Since Roman times for health's sake high cuisine observed a balance of the “humors.” Thus meat could be stuffed with fruit. Turkey, an American bird, was Scrooge's Christmas present to the Cratchets, though goose was the more common bird for feasts, and at grand tables swan was served, or peacock pie enrobed with the bird's brilliant feathered skin and tail, the noble head wired erect.

But what of the mummers and the Morris dancers, you say. Mumming seems to have a divided history: holiday enactments by masked courtiers can be traced to the fourteenth century, developing into professional performances by the 16th. Shakespeare's “Twelfth Night” might be considered a prime mumming, with its Lupercalian reversal of roles, its typical counterpoint of virtuous (Viola, Olivia and the Duke) and base motivation (Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Malvolio) and its theme of miraculous resurrection (Sebastian and Viola saved from the sea.) A perfect model of the themes of early mummings.

Mumming as it has more recently come to be known in Britain, where villagers in costumes and disguises would beg fees for their performances, is a late arrival to Christmas, first appearing, so far as documentary evidence can reach, only in the eighteenth century. Here the chief characters are usually Saint George, the Turk and the Doctor who resuscitates Saint George. These plays would appear to have more in common, in regard of text, with the paladin puppet plays of Italy than old English enactments. Some scholars hold that mumming of this sort springs from very ancient folkways in Ireland.

Less organized and more common perhaps were “mummings” such as Washington Irving portrays when he has the children of Bracebridge Hall raiding the attics for the finery of ancestors, and appearing costumed in antique garb, declaring themselves to be Dame Mince Pie or the lord and lady of a long past chivalry. There is no play per se in this spontaneous “mumming,” but a striking of attitudes and much dance.

And the Morris Dancers? Those hearkeners back to Robin and Maid Marion who leap and batter with staves? They too are not so very old - so far as current scholarship can tell. “Morris” is a term used as early as the mid-fifteenth century but, in the way of non-standardized spelling, may refer to the Spanish moresca, which seems to have something to do with Moors.

Is the Morris Dance perhaps a survival of a pre Christian ritual? Possibly, as Robin Hood may have been a member of the triumvirate of Cunningman, lady-in-white and dying god, according to the researches of archeologist Margaret Murray, but modern scholarship likes neither Margaret Murray nor the notion of the survival of pre-Christian customs, and certainly not at Christmas time.

Teams, or “sides” of Morris Dancers are a part of present day British Christmas celebrations and derive from the work of Cecil Sharp who, in 1899, viewed a traditional Morris Dance at Headington and set about recording and reviving the custom. Washington Irving knew the Morris Dance as well. But between the 19th century and the old Spanish sword dance said to have been performed for Ferdinand and Isabella to celebrate their conquest of the Moors, there are wide gaps. How did a Spanish sword dance come to be associated with Robin Hood, or choreographed combat with staves come to keep company with Christmas?

As Santa and reindeer, trimmed trees and stuffed turkeys, Morris Dances and mumming are our present ways to celebrate, so the biblical gifts of the Magi, the legend of the medieval Jongleur de Notre Dame who, having nothing but his song and dance, offered those to the Christ child, form a slowly changing continuum in the spirit of giving what we can give, in Christianity's celebration of the birth of Jesus.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you very much for such an extensive article! I found it of great interest and educational value. I didn't know half of the things mentioned :-))

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  2. "Christmas gift giving, in old English tradition, has neither to do with Saint Nicholas nor even Christmas day. It recalled the gifts the three magi brought to the Christ child, and the proper day was Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, January 6th."

    Still is a day of gift giving in Spain and through out Latin America.

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  3. I love learning about traditions..thanks for sharing this. your blog is always so interesting. Merry Christmas :)

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  4. Barbara Gaskell DenvilDecember 25, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    Lovely article, thanks Katherine.

    Barbara

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