The evergreens, with which the churches were usually ornamented at Christmas, are a proper emblem of that time, when as God says, by the prophet Isaiah, "I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree ; I will set in the desert the fir tree and the pine, and the box tree together", xli. 19. "The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary ; and I will make the place of my feet glorious."
As early as Christmas 1799 , Queen Charlotte had a tree at Windsor decorated with small candles, strings of almonds and raisins and gifts for the children. Her daughter in law the Duchess of York also had a tree.
A footman was stationed beside the tree to care for the candles and to prevent a fire.
There is not, perhaps, any part of Great Britain in which Christmas is kept so splendidly as in Yorkshire. The din of preparation commences for some weeks before, and its sports and festivities continue beyond the first month of the new year. The first intimation of Christmas, in Yorkshire, is by what are there called the vessel-cup singers, generally poor old women, who, about three weeks before Christmas, go from house to house, with a waxen or wooden doll, fantastically dressed, and sometimes adorned with an orange, or a fine rosy-tinged apple. With this in their hands, they sing or chant an old carol, of which the following homely stanza forms a part:
God bless the master of this house,
The mistress also,
And all the little children
That round the table go.
The image of the child is, no doubt, intended to represent the infant Saviour; and the vessel-cup is, most probably, the remains of the wassail bowl, which, anciently, formed a part of the festivities of this season of the year.
Another custom, which commences at the same time as the vessel-cup singing, is that of the poor of the parish visiting all the neighbouring farmers to beg corn, which is invariably given to them, in the quantity of a full pint, at least, to each. This is called mumping, as is the custom which exists in Bedfordshire, of the poor begging the broken victuals the day after Christmas-day.
Christmas-eve is, in Yorkshire, celebrated in a peculiar manner : at eight o'clock in the evening, the bells greet " old father Christmas" with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, or perhaps, in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire ; the yule candle lighted, and
High on the cheerful fire
Is blazing seen th' enormous Christmas brand.
Supper is served, of which one dish, from the lordly mansion to the humblest shed, is, invariably, furmenty*; yule cake, one of which is always made for each individual in the family, and other more substantial viands are also added. Poor Robin, in his Almanack for the year 1676 (speaking of The winter quartet) says, " and lastly, who would but praise it, because of Christmas, when good cheer doth so abound, as if all he world were made of minced pies, plum pudding, and furmenty?" And Brand says, ' on the night of this eve, our ancestors were wont to light candles of an enormous size, called Christmas candles."
To enumerate all the good cheer which is prepared at this festival, is by no means necessary. In Yorkshire, the Christmas pie is still a regular dish, and is regularly served to the higher class of visitants, while the more humble ones are tendered yule cake, or bread and cheese, in every house they. enter during the twelve days of Christmas. The Christmas-pie is one of the good old dishes still retained at a Yorkshire table; it is not of modern invention. Allan Rassay, in his poems, tells us, that among other baits by which the good ale-wife drew customers to her house, that there never failed to tempt them —
The Christmas pie of the present day generally consists of a goose, sometimes two, and that with the addition of half- a -dozen fowls. Such is the existing celebration of Christmas in Yorkshire, and we believe some other parts of England ; but these venerable customs are becoming every year less common : the sending of presents also, from friends in the country to friends in the town at this once cheerful season, is, in a great measure obsolete: " nothing is to be had for nothing'' now ; and without the customary bribe of a barrel of oysters, or a fish, we may look in vain for arrivals by the York Fly, or the Norwich Expedition
Ay at yule when'er they came
A bra goose pye.
Few presents now to friends are sent,
Few hours in merry-making spent ;
Old-fashioned folks there are, indeed,
Whose hogs and pigs at Christmas bleed:
Whose honest hearts no modes refine,
They send their puddings and their chine
No Norfolk turkeys load the waggon
Which once the horses scarce could drag on
And, to increase the weight with these,
Came their attendant sausages.
Should we not then, as men of taste
Revive old customs gone and past ?
And (fie for shame !) without reproach,
Stuff", as we ought, the Bury coach ?
With strange old kindness, send up presents
Of partridges and dainty pheasants..
Of the Christmas plays anciently perform ed at this season, some remains still exist in the west of England, particularly Cornwall; but the representation of the dramatic exhibitions is almost wholly confined to children, or very young persons. The actors are fantastically dressed, decorated with ribbons and painted paper, have wooden swords, and all the necessary to support the several characters they assume. To entertain their auditors. they learn to repeat a barbarous jargon in the form of a drama, which has been handed down from distant generations. War and love are the general topics; and St George and the Dragon are always the most prominent characters. Interlude, expostulation, debate, battle and death are sure to find a place among this mimicry; but a physician who is always at hand, immediately restores the dead to life. It is generally understood, that these Christmas plays derived their origin from the ancient crusades and hence the feats of chivalry, and the romantic extravagance of knight-errantry that are still preserved in all the varied pretensions and exploits. In many places in Cornwall, these Christmas plays are stil kept alive; in others they are known only by report; and in all they are rapidly on the decline. The election of an Abbot of unreason, attended with some grotesque and extraordinary exhibitions, was once common in England at this season.
The custom of saluting the apple trees at Christmas, with a view to another year, is still preserved, both in Cornwall and Devonshire. In some places the
parishioners walk in procession, visiting the principal orchards in the parish. In each orchard one tree is selected as the representative ol the rest; this is saluted with a certain form of words, which have in them the air of an incantation. They then either sprinkle the tree with cider or dash a bowl of cider against it, to ensure its bearing plentifully the ensuing year. In other places the farmer and his servants only assemble on the occasion ; and, after immersing cakes in cider, hang them on the apple-trees. They then sprinkle the tree with cider; and after uttering a formal incantation, they dance round it, and retire to the farm-house to conclude these solemn rites with copious draughts of cider.
Here's to thee, auld apple-tree,
Be sure you bud, be sure you blaw,
And bring forth apples good enough—
Hats full, caps full, three-bushel bags full,
Pockets full and all—
Hats full, caps full, three-bushel bags full,
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
From Liverpool as it was during the last quarter of the eighteenth century:
During the period which elapsed, between 1775 and the close of the 18th century, the periodical observance of old customs, festivals, and holydays, was much more attended to than at present. The recurrence of the time hououred festival of Christmas, was commemorated in Liverpool, to an extent much beyond what is now the usage, though in a degree inferior to the manner in which it was observed in the age which was gone by.(1) In this town the boar's head, garnished with rosemary, and with a pippin in its mouth, had ceased to be a standard dish at the table, it was not then considered essential for the Yule log to blaze on the hearth, and moms-dancers and mummers no longer contributed to the rude mirth of the Christmas guests ; but the churches and houses were still profusely decorated with holly, laurel, ivy, and other evergreens, hospitable and convivial meetings, visits of relations and friends, and the Christmas carols, marked the anniversary of the season, which was one of enjoyment, festivity, and relaxation....
The custom of having supper parties on new year's-eve, to let in, as it was termed, the new year, was then very prevalent ; as the clock struck twelve at midnight, a loyal or appropriate song was commonly sung, and sometimes the ceremony was gone through, of opening the window for a few seconds, to let in the new year. This custom still lingers in some places, though much less observed than formerly. A similar ceremony was not unfrequently observed on Christmas-eve, on letting in Christmas.
(1) The account given in Mr. Washington Irving'* Sketch Book, of the manner of celebrating Christmas, in England, is erroneous, and is also objectionable, as having a tendency to mislead persons who may not be conversant with English habits or customs. The Author of this Work had some acquaintance with him and his brother, Mr. Peter Irving, when they resided in Liverpool, in 1817, and is confident that there is not any material difference between the ages of Mr. W. Irving and the Author; and he feels no hesitation in asserting, that the mode of celebrating Christmas, by a combination of so many old ceremonies, observances and pastimes, as are there described, has never existed in England during the life time of either of them.
It is true that the Sketch Book is merely a work of imagination and not of history, and that it describes Mr. Bracebridge as an eccentric elderly gentleman, who was fond of keeping up or reviving ancient customs and old pastimes, but it is so expressed that a stranger to English habits, on reading it, can scarcely avoid falling into the error of imagining that such a mode of celebration, was observed at Christmas, in some parts of England, at the time when that book was written, or at least, in very modern times. Even if all the ceremonies, sports and observances which are there described, ever were commonly practised at Christmas, in English families, it was in an age long since past, and there is no reason to believe that the mode of observing or celebrating Christmas, described in the Sketch Book, ever occurred in England, within the last hundred years.
* Frumenty, from frumentum, wheat. It is made of "creed wheat," or wheat ,which after being beaten for some time with a wooden mallet, is then boiled, and eaten with milk, sugar, nutmeg &c.
*Mumping Day. St. Thomas’s Day, December 21. A day on which the poor used to go about begging, or, as it was called, “going a-gooding,” that is, getting gifts to procure good things for Christmas (mump, to beg). In Warwickshire the term used was “going a-corning,” i.e. getting gifts of corn. In Staffordshire the custom is spoken of simply as “a-gooding.” (Corn was wheat or other grains.