Christmas Past: Traditions Remembered

My latest Christmas clipping is from an 1851 edition of Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal. After quoting a song by George Wither celebrating hospitality and a description from 1770 of a Christmas pie (that included four geese, two turkeys, four partridges, seven blackbirds and more), the article comments on the changing face of Christmastime. I was particularly intrigued by the (uncited) account of folklore relating to animals kneeling on Christmas Eve reaching the indigenous population of Canada.

But times have changed. There is but little noisy jollity in Christmas as at present celebrated: people go no longer to see the Glastonbury thorn blow on the 25th December, either Old or New Style; not visit cattle-lairs at midnight of Christmas-Eve, to see the oxen fall on their knees, as they are said to have done at the time of the Nativity in the stable at Bethlehem—a superstition which one would hardly expect to find reproduced in Canada, where an Indian was detected stealing out ‘to see the deer kneel;’ for, as he replied to his questioner, ‘it was Christmas night, when all the deer fall upon their knees to the Great Spirit, and look up.’

Neither do their consider that the multiplied ingredients of mince-pies are symbolical of the various offerings brought be the Wise men; or that it is necessary to make them of a long and narrow shape to present a manger; or that eating them is a proof of orthodoxy; or that for each variety of pie so eaten so many happy days are in store for the eater.. Neither do they believe that the weather of the twelve days of Christmas is prognosticative of that of the twelve months in the following year; not drink spiced ale, or eat roasted apples before breakfast; not wassail the trees, that they may bear
‘Full many a plum, and many a pear,’
as Herrick says; neither is the singing of carols so well honoured in the observance as formerly.

For our parts, we should be glad to see a revival of carol-singing—that is, in a properly decorous spirit. There is something solemn and touching even now in listening to the chant of the street-minstrels—the waits—as it rises through the silence of the night, making one feel that peace and goodwill may become something more than sound. And so, with a passage from Shakespeare which embodies a few bygone superstitions, we conclude out illustration of Christmas in the Olden Time:

Some say that ever gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This 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.

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