Friday, December 16, 2011

Before the Victorian Christmas

The Christmas we celebrate is a Victorian invention, a result of the nostalgia of such 19th century writers as Walter Scott, Leigh Hunt and Washington Irving, for a tradition that may have never existed.

In 1807, Robert Southey wrote:
All persons say how differently this season was observed in their fathers' days, and speak of old ceremonies and old festivities as things which are obsolete.

'Merrie Old England' was a creation of Walter Scott who said in Marmion, his epic poem of 1808:
England was merry England, when Old Christmas brought his sports again.

But the Examiner newspaper reported in 1817:
Merry Old England died in the country a great while ago; and the sports, the pastimes, the holidays, the Christmas greens and gambols...

The truth is that before the Victorians 'invented' Christmas trees, and Christmas dinners, and revived the Yule log, and Wassailing, many of the traditions of Christmas were regional, fostered by small closed societies created by difficulties of transportation and communication.

Some of the old traditions are the most interesting--many of them lost to use, but some revived for the 21st century. A few are familiar all over Britain, most are decidedly regional.

Trial of Old Father Christmas
Father Christmas - was a character evolved from the Saxon King Frost (also sometimes called Father Time or Father Winter), the Viking god Odin and his winter character Jul, and of course the Norman St. Nicholas. There are indications that he was occasionally know as Old Father Christmas, Sir Christmas and Lord Christmas. From the 15th century a carol offers: "Welcome, my lord, Sire Chistemas! Welcome to us all, both more and less!"Suffice it to say that every era had its traditional, benevolent, gift-giving figure.

Thomasing or 'gooding' - St. Thomas's Day, December 21, was a day for the poor to collect money (doles) for Christmas use.

Barring Out - usually occurred on St. Nicholas's Day, December 6 when the students of a school would lock out the staff, and keep them out until certain demands were met.

Boar's Head - was an ancient ceremony which did not actually occur at Christmas but somewhat earlier in the month--around December 16. The boar's head was a luxury dish, and the ceremony is mentioned in writings of 1603 and, it is said, has been performed at Queen's College Oxford since the 14th century.

Ashen Faggot - a Christmas Eve custom similar to the Yule log but limited to the west counties. A bundle of ash branches is burned to the accompaniment of cider drinking and singing while the bands holding the bundle burst.
A stern St. Nicholas 1810
Mumming - a house visitation practice which takes, in different areas, many different forms. The Hooden Horse in Kent, the Old Horse in Derbyshire, geese-dancing in Cornwall (derived from the word 'guise' meaning disguised), are only a few. In all cases the house visitors either performed set plays, or "engaged in licensed misbehaviour".

Sante-Claus 1821
predating Clement C. Moore's poem
Then there was Cattle Kneeling, Holy Thorn, Vessel Cups, and events such as 'Ringing the Devil's Knell' on Christmas Eve. All these practices and more are discussed in the excellent book "The English Year" by Steve Roud from Penguin Ltd.

Who knows which of the traditions each Regency family may have observed, but Christmas was then, as it is now, a time for family and charity, a time of love and a hope for peace. I hope that you enjoy all the delights and blessings of Christmas-tide, however you celebrate.

I will be taking a break from my blog next week, and on December 30, guest blogger Darlene Marshall will be here discussing Regency-era Florida.

Join me January 6, 2012 for a New Year of Regency research!

'Til then, all the best,



Anne Gallagher said...

Thank you so much for the Victorian Christmas traditions. Very interesting.

Have a wonderful holiday season, and I look very much forward to your posts in 1012.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thank you, Anne, for visiting and commenting this year past. Merry Christmas to you, and I'll look forward to seeing you in the new year!

Charles Bazalgette said...

Merry Christmas!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

And the same to you, Charles! Thank you for visiting, and commenting, this year...