…Of Guising, Feasting and the Old Grey Mare
In 1824 the Literary Gazette published a review titled ‘On the Holiday Times of Old’ lamenting the decline and passing of Christmas traditions. The writer, let’s call him ‘Gentleman’, wrote how ‘in vain do we look for “The jolly Wassel-Bowl” and the “Bore’s Head” with garlands gay and rosemary’ in a sad reflection on the neglect of the old customs. Our Gentleman reasons that this is due to the ‘sad effects of an over-civilized population’ .
Two hundred years later many folk still reminisce about Christmases past, a tradition in itself, but while times change there is also the development of new customs and a renewal of old ones.
Our writer wrote that while many Christmas revels can be traced back to the ‘heathens’ many were subsequently adopted by catholics before ‘the age of Puritanism gave them a fresh shock’. Despite the following repression of festivities he cheerfully notes that many Christmas customs did continue particularly in the north and west of Britain ‘with much spirit’.
It is of note that our Gentleman was writing before the later reinvention of Christmas by the Victorians and referring to customs from a distant time when the Twelve Days of Christmas were a major feature and celebrated with far more enthusiasm than they are today.
Twelve Days of Christmas
There is much fuss made on the days leading up to Christmas but in the Middle Ages this period was a far more solemn affair. A strict diet was observed during advent and a fast was held on Christmas Eve. No wonder Christmas day was a time of release and excess!
Christmas day was first recorded as Cristes Maasen in 1038. This time of year had a tradition of festivals and celebrations : the winter solstice, Saturnalia and in third and fourth century Imperial Rome had celebrated the birthday of the sun prior to Christian conversion.
Following the strict observances of advent this period of intense celebration became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was the longest period of holiday for the peasantry culminating on 6 January, the day of Christ’s baptism by St John, also known as Epiphany. There was feasting and carolling (originally a form of dance and later song), minstrelling, mummering, jesting and all kinds of merriment. It was a time when most might forget the dirge of winter. The fourteenth- century tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gives a flavor of the intensity and passions of this time.
Pis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Kyrstmasse With mon luflych lorde, ledez of pe best, Reenly of pe Rounde Table alle po rich brpher, With rych reuel oryzt and rechles merpes. "It was Christmas at Camelot - Arthur's court, where the great and the good of the land had gathered, the right noble lords of the ranks of the Round Table all roundly carousing and revelling in pleasure. Tran: Simon Armitage
Of course many could not afford such indulgences. Fortunately hospitality and generosity towards the poor was expected and some landowners and rich citizens would keep open house or make provisions for those who had less. This charity and acts of thoughtfulness continue to be encouraged today during Christmas time.
'Good bread and good drinke, a good fier in the hall brawne, pudding, and souse, and good mustarde withal. Biefe, mutton, and Porke, and good Pies of the best, pig, veale, goose, and capon, and turkey wel drest, Chese, apples, and nuttes, and good Caroles to heare, as then, in the country is counted good cheer Mr Thomas Tusser, Christmas Husbandly Fare, 1571
Here are examples of three popular traditions of the Middle Ages.
Our Gentleman enthusiastically referred to mummers or ‘guise-dancers’, also known as ‘geese-dancers’, decorated with ribbons and performing the old tale of St George and the Dragon. Old Father Christmas and the Doctor play their part as they do today in local mummers’ plays but he writes of being ‘mortified’ by the additional presence of ‘Buonoparte and the Duke of Wellington’ ! It is somewhat reassuring that certain political figures continue to be lampooned in a similar manner by today’s mummers.
Guisers would wander from house to farm to house, singing and dancing in hope for some food or money. They would use various disguises including straw heads and blackened or reddened faces. By the later nineteenth century there were reports of intimidation and riotous behaviour by some revellers but on the whole this was a way of making a bit of extra money at a time of year when there was little work in rural areas.
Echoes of these earlier customs are preserved today as folkloric revivals of eighteenth and nineteenth accounts of midwinter animal head traditions such as The Broad of Gloucestershire and The Old Horse of Derbyshire and Yorkshire. A tradition close to my own heart and one subject to a recent revival, and reinvention, is that of the Mari Lwyd.
The Mari Lwyd is a Welsh tradition involving a horse’s skull on a pole, carried by a man under a white sheet. Sometimes the horse was decorated with ribbons and false eyes. Her jaw would clash and snap as she was carried from house to house where her group would ‘sing’ for admittance and the household would ‘sing’ their refusal. Eventually the mari would be admitted and food and drink be shared with all.
Today this increasingly popular traditional is often combined with a ‘wassail’ (from the Old English for ‘good health’ and called as a toast to the answer ‘drinkhail’) to celebrate and bless the apple orchards. Many maris are beautifully fashioned and many are works of art.
Feast of Fools & Boy Bishops
Disguise and role reversals were popular in the Middle Ages possibly derived and akin, according to certain historians, to the spirit of ancient Saturnalia and such like. This was a time for misrule.
Midwinter the nights are long and dark, resources are scarce and the land holds its breath before spring returns. Many traditions give testimony to the liminal period of Christmas, a time for story telling, the uncanny and a number of unusual customs, for example, a Feast of Fools, a Boy Bishop and a Lord of Misrule. All of these celebrations involved a reversal of authority and could become quite riotous and extravagant. Not everyone approved and by the time of the Civil Wars of the seventeenth-century they either disappeared or developed into many of the harmless larks of later ages.
The Feast of the Boy Bishop was especially popular in England although it dates from tenth century Germany. It involved the choosing of a choirboy to impersonate the bishop and lead certain services, a tradition so popular that it should come as no surprise that it was banned by Henry VIII in 1541. It has limped on however and there have been revivals. Hereford cathedral as continued this tradition in recent years.
Back to our early nineteenth century writer and his fond recollections of carols sung in the London streets, of Christmas stories and mummers plays and wandering minstrels. Two hundred years later many of these traditions can still be found if one knows where to look and avoids the brash lights of shopping centre and television.Our Gentleman was reassured that the old custom of Twelfth-day was still marked by ‘plays and gambols’. He describes the old custom of baking a cake on twelfth-day: ‘put a bean in a cake made of flour, honey, ginger and pepper’. Whoever found the bean was king for the day (as with the medieval king or Lord of Misrule) and sometimes a pea was added for a ‘queen’ to find. But he was disappointed that the traditional roles of ministers had been usurped by ‘burlesque cards for Billy Button, Polly Wryneck and such silly incongruous personages’ demonstrating how there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to ‘the good old days’ and especially when it comes to remembering Christmases past!
Happy New Year everyone and thank you for all your support and encouragement this year!