Christmas Past: The Festive Grotesque

I’ve taken another dip into William Wallace Pyle’s Christmas: Its Customers and Carols from 1860 (the book that previously introduced me to General Kettle and Sir Loin) and one section in particular caught my attention. Mr. Pyle starts out with an observation about the grotesque aspect of Christmas – by which he means both the humorous and the supernatural elements of the season – and from there launches into a discussion of Gothic architecture, Roman celebrations and the folklore of ghosts and fairies. I’ll quote the section in full:

As a season of festive joy and gladness, Christmas must be the happiest in the year, guarded as it is by the higher religious feelings and finer social emotions from rioting and excess. Yet in all out Christmas associations, there mingles one broad element, the grotesque, which it is not easy to explain. In the case of Christmas Carols, for instance, their successive eras—whether the purely ecclesiastical, the secular or the festive—a resemblance has been traced to the distinctive periods of Gothic architecture, ascending from the quaint simplicity of the early models, to the contorted exaggerations of form, the grinning visages, and ludicrous corbels that stuff the mediaeval structures, beautiful in their elaborations or majestic in their solemn and stupendous grandeur.

All this is human’ and man the only laughing animal—since the so-called laugh of the hyaena, is no laugh at all, but a counterfeit scream of rage. Tradition proves that men throughout all of the Christian era, have ever let loose their mirth and drollery at Christmas tide. And so amidst the gorgeous tracery of the sculptured fanes of the 11th and 12th centuries, the Church architects did not hesitate to perpetuate their jives in stone, although asceticism may ascribe this to a different purpose, viz., in order to enhance the seriousness of devotion, by putting the risible faculties to the severest test. Was there in either case, then, irreverence? We are no theologians; yet this perplexed circumstance would simply appear to say that heaven descends on earth—repressing not the natural mirth of man.

By secular reasoners it will doubtless be argued that the religious incompatibility here alluded to, may be accounted for by referring the origin of Christmas festivities to the Saturnalia of December in the ancient world—the feasts of Saturn—the most celebrated of the whole year—when all orders were devoted to mirth and feasting, friends sent presents to one another, and masters treated their slaves upon a footing of equality; at first for one day, afterwards for three, and by the oder of Caligula and Claudius for five, to which another two days called Sigillani were added, during which small images were sent by parents as presents to their children. All this proves only that society having once indulged in such seasonable gladness, would naturally be loth to relinquish it; and surely there was nothing in the message of peace on earth, goodwill towards men, to occasion any alteration in this respect?

The festive character of Christmas being understandable, an inevitable result of its indulgence would seem to be the introduction of games and tales to beguile the time. Hence the innumerable games of chance, in-door sports and pastimes of the season, with all the gay and sparkling tribe of Christmas crackers, riddles, puzzles, plays, charades, conundrums, to which we may probably allude more amply in the sequel. But here we are met by another incongruity. Whence the tales of “goblin, ghost, and fairy,” so expressly appropriate to the occasion? Shakespeare seems to offer one solution, speaking of some special exemption the blessed period of Christmas is held to enjoy from the spells of witchcraft, sorcery, and evil:—

Some say, that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

That is to say, the believers in sprites, ghosts and fairies, naturally apprehensive of speaking them at ordinary times, embrace with avidity the opportunity of this Christmas truce. It is in vain that such as Bishop Corbet, in his well-known song, tells us there are no longer any such things:—


Farewell, rewards and fairies,
Good housewives now may say,
For now foul sluts in dairies
Do fare as well as they.
And though they sweep their hearths no less
Than maids were wont to do,
Yet who of late for cleanness
Finds sixpence in her shoe?

Lament, lament, old Abbeys,
The Fairies’ lost command!
They did but change Priests’ babies,
But some have changed your land.
And all your children, sprung from thence,
Are now grown Puritans,
Who live as Changelings ever since
For love of your demains.

At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.

By which we note the Fairies
Were of the old Profession.
Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,
Their dances were Procession.
But now, alas, they all are dead;
Or gone beyond the seas;
Or farther for Religion fled;
Or else they take their ease.

A tell-tale in their company
They never could endure!
And whoso kept not secretly
Their mirth, was punished, sure;
It was a just and Christian deed
To pinch such black and blue.
Oh how the commonwealth doth want
Such Justices as you!

Note: I’ve taken the liberty of reinstating the final verse of the above, which Pyle removed.

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