The Ladies' Tea Guild

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas and Its Customs, from Godey's _Lady's Book_, December 1855: part 2

It requires but little imagination to construe the beautiful fable of the golden age, which the old Roman Saturnalia commemorated, into a prophetic myth of the universal peace and good will which the divine teaching of the Nazarite was calculated to effect upon earth, and which doubtless it will effect when the spirit of His precepts guides, in its simplicity and truth, the actions of His people.
During the continuance of this antique feast, every one interchanged presents with his neighbor; their houses were decorated with evergreens and laurel; no criminal was punished; no arms taken up; the very slaves were permitted to sit at the table with their masters, in allusion to the happy equality which was supposed to have existed during the reign of Saturn; nay, banquets were sometimes made for them, at which their masters served—a custom whose shadow still lingers with us in the yule feast once common in the baronial halls of England, and not yet quite exploded from them.

image from Grandma's Graphics
We know of hospitable hearths, whose yeomen-proprietors annually preside at a supper given to their laborers, or, if this part of the business be deputed to their bailiff or foreman, at least make their appearance amongst them, to utter the old-fashioned but hearty “Much good may it do you!” and to give and receive the gratulations of the season.
A friend, whose childhood was spent in a farmhouse, tells us that, besides the customary mince-pies and plum-puddings, there was a large cake called the yule-cake, overspread with leaves and ornaments; and that on Christmas Eve an immense candle, gaily decorated, and for which a candlestick used at no other period was brought forth, was lighted, and a huge block of wood, called the yule log, laid on the fire, both of which burnt till morning.
In the meantime a table was spread in the kitchen, covered with pork pies, bread and cheese, elder wine, and ale; and after the family had supped on furmity, all went to bed—not to sleep, it appeared, for about midnight the village singers, with the varied instruments that formed the choir of the church, in humble imitation of the “Gloria in excelsis,” that primal carol sounding by night above the sheep-folds on the plains of Bethlehem, burst forth beneath the windows, and the master of the house rose up and let them in.
It was unlucky, according to local superstition, for any but a black-headed person to enter the house first, and on these occasions the veteran of the party, who had headed the musicians on the annual recurrence of the vigil for some thirty years, always took precedence, though his hair was white as the winter snow—but then, it had once been black!
(to be continued)

No comments:

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)