The Ladies' Tea Guild

Friday, December 14, 2012

Victorian Christmas customs, ca. 1855

CHRISTMAS AND ITS CUSTOMS.  By Caroline A. White.  (from Godey's Lady's Book, December 1855)
THERE is something so congenial to human nature, so absolutely necessary to the health of mind and body, in the relaxation which festivals afford, that we do not wonder at the unwillingness which Sir Isaac Newton tells us the heathens felt to part with their holidays ... 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.
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.  ...

Herrick has left us, in his fresh and racy rhyme, a lively notion of Christmas Eve in his days:--
“Come bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bides ye all to be free,
And drink to your heart’s desiring;
With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending,
On your psalteries play
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is tending.”
What a picture these lines present to us, if we but follow the images they represent! the laughing, boisterous Group, hauling to the wide hearth the mighty block, and raising it upon the massive andirons (the Romans, by the way, burnt whole trees)!  We can see the smiling face of the good dame, on hospitable cares intent, and yet not so much so as to forget the remnant of the last year’s brand, which, according to the formula, was only to be burnt in the next year’s yule fire; and then the filling of drinking-horns, the interchanging of good wishes, the feasting on good cheer, and, while the Christmas-log hisses and roars in the capacious chimney a chorus to their mirth, the pouring forth of such rude minstrelsy and merry songs as best befitted the season and the singers.  ...

Speaking of evergreens, by the way, reminds us of the beautiful superstition of druidical times, when, according to Dr. Chandler, the people were in the habit of dressing their houses with green boughs on the first of December, in order that the sylvan spirits might repair to them, and remain unnipped by the frosts and cold winds till the return of spring renewed the foliage of their beloved abodes.
We know that the Christmas-boughs of our own times have gentle influences—that the tenderest sympathies of human nature nestle beneath them—that round the yule log fire, the world-worn links of kindred affection are re-forged, old covenants renewed, and friendships strengthened, and could almost deem this sheltering of the sylvan spirits of the past a type of the kindly gatherings and gracious feelings kept alive by this annual garlanding of our household hearths in the present.
May it long be continued amongst us, for these old-world usages are the pictorial embellishments of life’s book, and have in them a wordless poetry, full of refining and happy influences.

1 comment:

Steph said...

Yes, we all need a break and restoration! Happy holidays!

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)