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The Great British Christmas
By Maria Hubert
The History PressCopyright © 2011 The Estate of Maria Hubert
All rights reserved.
William Makepeace Thackeray
Christmas books were a feature of the nineteenth century. They were small books designed to be given as presents and released by publishers hoping to catch Christmas sales. However, Christmas books rarely contained anything of a seasonal nature, which prompted that observer of social custom William Makepeace Thackeray to write an essay on the subject.
Thackeray wrote extensively on the theme of Christmas, among other subjects, and not one part of this festival escaped his wry humour from the expense of children's parties to the frivolity of the pantomime. He himself created a series of Christmas books which he had published during the 1840s and 1850s. It is not surprising perhaps that the following essay was encouraged by the rather scathing press he received for one of his Christmas books. The Times no less, which distressed Thackeray so, accused all writers and publishers of Christmas books of being scavengers, no better than the dustman knocking for his Christmas box! It is presented here, in an abridged form, as a tongue-in-cheek amusement by one such scavenger of Christmas boxes!
Being an Essay on Thunder and Small Beer
Any reader who may have a fancy to purchase a copy of this present second edition of the History of the Kickleburys Abroad, had best be warned in time that The Times newspaper does not approve of the work, and has but a bad opinion both of the author and his readers. Nothing can be fairer than this statement: if you happen to take up the poor little volume at a railroad station, and read this sentence, lay the book down, and buy something else. You are warned. What more can the author say? If after this you will buy, – amen! Pay your money, take your book, and fall to. Between ourselves, honest reader, it is no very strong potation which the present purveyor offers to you. It will not trouble your head much in the drinking.
It was intended for that sort of negus which is offered at Christmas parties; and of which ladies and children may partake with refreshment and cheerfulness. Last year I tried a brew which was old, bitter, and strong; and scarce any one would drink it. This year we send round milder tap, and it is liked by customers: though the critics (who like strong ale, the rogues!) turn up their noses. Heaven's name, Mr. Smith, serve round the liquor to the gentlefolks. Pray, dear Madam, another glass; it is Christmas time: it will do you no harm. It is not intended to keep, this sort of drink. (Come, froth up, Mr. Publisher, and – quickly round!) And as for the professional gentlemen, we must get a stronger sort for them some day.
The Times gentleman (a very difficult gent to please) is the loudest and noisiest of all, and has made more hideous over the refreshment offered to him than any other critic. There is no use shirking this statement: when a man has been abused in The Times, he can't hide it, any more than he could hide the knowledge of his having been committed to prison by Mr. Henry, or publicly caned in Pall Mall. You see it in your friends' eyes when they meet you. They know it. They have chuckled over it to a man. They whisper about it at the club, and look over the paper at you. My next-door neighbour came to see me this morning, and I saw by his face that he had the whole story pat. 'Hem!' says he, 'well, I have heard of it; and the fact is, they were talking about you at dinner last night, and entioning that The Times had – ahem! – "walked into you."'
Here is The Times piece:
It has been customary of late years for the purveyors of amusing literature – the popular authors of the day – to put forth certain opuscules denominated 'Christmas Books' with the ostensible intention of swelling the tide of exhilaration, or other expansive emotions, incident upon the exodus of the old and the inauguration of the new year.
We have said that their intention was such because there is another motive for these productions ... Oh that any muse should be cast upon a high stool to cast up accounts and balance a ledger! Yet it is so. And the popular author finds it convenient to fill up the declared deficit!, and place himself in the position the more effectually to encounter those liabilities which sternly assert themselves contemporaneously and in contrast with the careless and freehanded tendencies of the season by the emission of Christmas books – a kind of literary 'assignats' representing to the emitter expunged debts, to the receiver an investment of enigmatical value. For the most part wearing the stamp of their origin in the vacuity of the writer's exchequer rather than in the fullness of his genius, they suggest by their feeble flavour the rinsings of a void brain after the more portant concoctions of the expired year. Indeed, we should as little think of taking these compositions as examples of the merits of their authors as we should think of measuring the valuable services of Mr. Walker, the postman, or Mr. Bell, the dust-collector, by the copy of verses they leave at our doors as a provocative of the expected annual gratuity-effusions with which they may fairly be classed for their intrinsic worth no less than their ultimate purport.
... I suppose you and I had to announce the important news that some writers published what are called Christmas books; that Christmas books are so called because they are published at Christmas; and that the purpose of the authors is to try and amuse people. Suppose, I say, we had, by the sheer force of intellect, or by other means of observation or information, discovered these great truths, we should have announced them in so many words. And there it is that the difference lies between a great writer and a poor one; and we may see how an inferior man may fling a chance away.
... The popular author finds it convenient to fill up the declared deficit by the emission of Christmas books – a kind of assignats that bear the stamp of their origin in the vacuity of the writer's exchequer. There is a trope for you! You rascal, you wrote because you wanted money! His lordship has found out what you were at, and that there is a deficit in your till. But he goes on to say that we poor devils are to be pitied in our necessity; and that these compositions are no more to be taken as examples of our merits than the verses which the dustman leaves at his lordship's door 'as a provocative of the expected annual gratuity,' are to be considered as measuring his, the scavenger's, valuable services – nevertheless the author's and the scavenger's 'effusions may fairly be classed, for their intrinsic worth, no less than their ultimate purport.'
Heaven bless his lordship on the bench – What a gentlemanlike badinage he has, and what a charming and playful wit always at hand! What a sense he has for a simile, O what Mrs. Malaprop calls an odorous comparison, and how gracefully he conducts it to 'its ultimate purport'. Gentleman writing a poor little book is a scavenger asking for a Christmas box!
But when this profound scholar compares me to a scavenger who leaves a copy of verses at his door and begs Christmas-box, I must again cry out, and say, 'My air, it is true your simile is offensive, but can you make it? Are you not hasty in your figures and allusions?'
... How can I be like a dustman that rings for a Christmas box at your hall-door? I never was there in my life. I never left at your door a copy of verses provocative of an annual gratuity, as your noble honour styles it. Who are you? If you are the man I take you to be, it must have been you who asked the publisher for my book, and not I who sent it in, and begged a gratuity of your worship. You abused me out of The Times' window; but if ever your noble honour sent me a gratuity out of your own door, may I never drive another dust-cart. 'Provocative of a gratuity!' O splendid swell! How much was it your worship sent out to me by the footman? Every farthing you have paid I will restore to your lordship, and I swear I shall not be a halfpenny the poorer.
As before, and on similar seasons and occasions, I have compared myself to a person following a not dissimilar calling, let me suppose now, for a minute, that I am a writer of a Christmas farce, who sits in the pit, and sees the performance of his own piece. There comes applause, hissing, yawning, laughter, as may be; but the loudest critic of all is our friend the cheap buck, who sits yonder and makes his remarks, so that all the audience may hear. 'This a farce!' says Beau Tibbs; 'demmy! it's the work of a poor devil who writes for money, confound his vulgarity! This a farce! Why isn't it a tragedy, or a comedy, or an epic poem, stap my vitals? This is a farce, indeed! It's a feller as sends round his 'at, and appeals to charity.
Let's 'ave our money back again, I say.' And he swaggers off; – and you find the fellow came with an author's order.
But if, in spite of Tibbs, our 'kyind friends,' &c-&&c-&&c., – if the little farce, which was meant to amuse Christmas (or what my classical friend calls Exodus), is asked for, even up to Twelfth Night, – shall the publishers stop because Tibbs is dissatisfied? Whenever that capitalist calls to get his money back, he may see the letter from the respected publisher, informing the author that all the copies are sold, and that there are demands for a new edition. Up with the curtain, then! Vivat Regina! and no money returned except The Times' 'gratuity'.
January 5 1851
During the Roman occupation of Britain many customs from the old Roman Empire were adopted and changed to suit the lifestyles of the early Christians. One such custom evolved from the giving of Branches of Peace and Good Fortune in honour of the Roman deity, Strenia. The Calennig, which is a New Year gift, is an apple with nuts and raisins pressed into it, a sprig of greenery placed in the top and three twig legs which form a stand. The children would go around the houses giving these gifts to their family and friends and neigbours. The apples were usually kept on the windowsill for good luck throughout the year. The custom more or less died out in the 1950s and 1960s. A translation of a Welsh carol sung by the children who delivered this gift is reproduced here.
Calennig for me, Calennig for the stick
Calennig to eat this evening
Calennig for my dad for mending my shoe
Calennig for my mam for sewing my sock.
Well, this is the Calend, remember the day
And give free a Calennig from your heart,
If you give free on the first day of the year
Without fail every day will be blessed.
Calennig for the Master, Calennig for the boy
Calennig for the girl who lives in the big house
Calennig for the man and Calennig for his wife
Calennig of money to all scholars!
King Arthur's Christmas
Sir Thomas Malory
There is a legend, preserved in Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, published by Caxton in 1485, that Arthur pulled the sword from the stone on Christmas Day. The date is dubious, but it was during the sixth century. Below is an extract from Malory, which has been anglicised to make it more accessible to the modern reader.
... Then Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and counselled him for to send for all the lords of the Realm, and all the gentlemen of arms, that they should come to London by Christmas, upon pain of cursing and for this cause, that Jesus that was born on that night, would of his great mercy shew some miracle, as he was come to be king of mankind, to shew who would be rightful king of this realm. So the Archbishop, by the advice of Merlin, sent for all the Lords that they should come by Christmas unto London. And make of them clean of their life [shriven by a priest in the sacrament of Confession], that their prayer might be more acceptable to God ... And when matins and the First Mass [of Christmas] was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the High Altar, a great stone four square ... and therein stuck a fair sword ... and letters there were written in gold about the stone that said thus: Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England ... But none might stir the sword nor use it ...
So upon New Year's Day, when the service was done, the barons rode unto the field, some to joust, some to tourney, and so it happened that Sir Ector ... rode unto the joust, and with him rode Sir Kay his son, and young Arthur that was his nourished brother. ... Sir Kay lost his sword for he had left it at his father's lodging, and so he prayed young Arthur to ride for his sword. ... Then Arthur said to himself, I will take the sword that sticketh in the stone ... so he handled the sword by the handles, and lightly and fiercely pulled it out from the stone ... and rode his way until he came to Sir Kay and delivered him the sword. Sir Kay saw the sword and knew it well as the sword in the stone ... therewithal they went unto the archbishop, and told him how the sword was achieved, and by whom; and on Twelfth-Day all the barons came thither, and to try to take the sword, who that would try. But there afore them all there might none take it out but Arthur.
Based on an old Sussex legend, Kipling's poem 'Eddi's Service' retells this story of the Spirit of Christmas. It was originally written as 'The Conversion of St Wilfred' from Rewards and Fairies in 1910.
Eddi, priest of St Wilfred,
In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.
But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
And the night was stormy as well,
Nobody came to service,
Though Eddi rang the bell.
'Wicked weather for walking'
Said Eddi of Manhood End,
'But I must go on with the service
For such as care to attend.'
The altar lamps were lighted –
An old marsh donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
And stared at the guttering flame.
The storm beat on at the windows,
The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary Bullock
Pushed in through the open door.
'How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is my Father's business,'
Said Eddi, Wilfred's priest.
'But – three are gathered together –
Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!'
Said Eddi, of Manhood End.
And he told the Ox of a Manger
And a stall in Bethlehem.
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider
That rode to Jerusalem.
They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them the Word.
Till the gale blew off on the marshes,
And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
Wheeled and clattered away.
And when the Saxons mocked him,
Said Eddi of Manhood End
'I dare not shut His chapel
For such as care to attend.'
Excerpted from The Great British Christmas by Maria Hubert. Copyright © 2011 The Estate of Maria Hubert. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Great British Christmas – An Introduction Maria Hubert,
Christmas Books William Makepeace Thackeray,
King Arthur's Christmas Sir Thomas Malory,
'Eddi's Service' Rudyard Kipling,
'The First Wassail' R. Acton,
A Horn of Mead Anon – A recipe for honeyed wine,
An Anglo-Norman Carol,
The Second Shepherd's Play,
A Hue and Cry After Christmas From a seventeenth-century broadsheet by Simon Minc'd Pye,
'Old Christmas Still Comes!',
Christmas with the Diarists Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and others,
Deck the Church with Evergreens From the Spectator, 1712,
Love and Hot Cockles! From the Spectator, 1711,
'Hallo Hogmanay!' D.B. Wyndham Lewis,
The Christmas Tree Charles Dickens,
Tales of the Christmas Cracker Maria Hubert and Michael Harrison,
The Twelfth Cake From The Memoirs of a London Doll Richard Henry Horne,
The Royal Christmases of Queen Victoria,
The Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle From the Illustrated London News, 1848,
Mrs Beeton's Christmas Cake From Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1853,
"'Owed" to the Christmas Tree' 'A Sharp Old File', 1853,
Christmas Eve at an Old Hertfordshire Farmhouse Edmund Hollier,
Windsor Castle Mincemeat The Court Chef, Alexis Soyer, 1861,
'Winter Sports' Anon,
The Mummers From Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native,
Cornish Cakes and Other Customs From Christmas in Cornwall Sixty Years Ago Mrs John Bonham,
'The Ballade of Christmas Ghosts' Andrew Lang,
Reminiscences of Christmas From Sketches by 'Boz', Charles Dickens,
Candied Walnuts, English Caramels and Preserved Violets Recipes for sweets from Home Notes, 1898,
'A Fenland Carol' Rudyard Kipling,
'Christmas Eve' Ruth and Celia Duffin,
'The Wondrous Tree of Christmas' Glyn Griffiths,
Village Christmas Cyril Palmer,
Nativity Play Iris Cannon,
All Aboard for Santa's Grotto Maria Hubert,
A Christmas Epilogue William Makepeace Thackeray,
Sources and Bibliography,