Christmas Past: Richard Polwhele and a Necromantic Trump

PolwheleMy final festive clipping of the year coems from a 1798 edition of the European Magazine and London Review. This runs a poem by Richard Polwhele, which describes a Christmas celebtation held at Andarton Hall…


In the gay circle of convivial cheer,
Blithe Christmas came which chaplets never fear,
How beam’d delight, in every eye, unblam’d,
When at the hallow’d eve for carols fam’d,
The greenwood towering o’er the heapy turves,
Frist fum’d and stacked in elastic curves,
When brightly blaz’d the sap-besprinkled ash,
And listening holly danc’d with many a flash,
And, every bularfire design’d to mock,
Repos’d in sombroud state the Christmas-stock.
Alas! uprooted in the tempest’s roar,
And hewn in sunder to its hallow core;
Andearton’s oldest oak the flame attacks–
For ages yet it ‘scap’d the firest-axe!
Rais’d high amid the turf, the kindled sprays,
It bids awhile defiance to the blaze;
And, though it redden deep, preserves is claim
Twelve days and twelve long nights to feed the flame

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Christmas Past: The Mummers’ Decline

Today’s festive clipping comes from an 1859 volume entitled The Christmas Book: Christmas in the Olden Time, its Customs and their Origin. Here, the book outlines the once-traditional mumming play, in which Father Christmas presides over a battle between St. George and the Turkish Knight. There are many other descriptions of this stock play available, of course, but this one is notable in that it includes first-hand accounts of specific performances and documents an apparent decline in mummery over the first half of the nineteenth century.


In Hampshire, the following was called a Christmas play, within our recollection, and in boyhood’s hour of wonder it afforded us pleasure, which will never be forgotten. There was a party of eight, dressed most fantastically, in all colors and fashions, but first came venerable old Father Christmas, who cried aloud–

“Room, room, all you leave brave gallants give room,
I’ve come with my sports to drive away gloom,
To help pass away this cold winter day;
And such sports as never before were seen
Unto all you gallants shall now be shewn.”

This was the prologue, and when delivered the speaker retired, but only for an instant, for he soon returned to say,

“Here comes I, old father Christmas, welcome or welcome not,
I hope old father Christmas will never be forgot,
All in this room there shall now be shewn
The hardest battle that ever was known,
o come in Sir Knight, with thy great heart,
And in the battle quick do thou thy part.


The book goes on to describe the entry of the Turkish Knight along with the other stock characters and summarising the remainder of the play, before concluding:


In many parts of England a play of this kind is still exhibited by the boys who go about to the public-houses and farms, knocking at doors, asking, Are the mummers wanted? where, however, they do not meet the welcome of old. The last party we saw was in the North of England, about ten years back. The Turkish Knight had a pot-lid for his shield, and Sr. George was armed with the rustiest old iron sword eyes ever beheld. It was some ruined actor’s ruined property. It was a clear case of spirit-walking, for only the ghost of an ancient custom could have looked so terrible woe-begone and miserable as did that company of Christmas players.

Christmas Past: More Yuletide Demonology

Earlier this week I posted an excerpt from Moncure Daniel Conway’s 1881 book Demonlology and Devil Lore Volume 1 in which the author posited a connection between St. Nicholas and a nickname for the devil, Old Nick. That wasn’t the only instance in which Conway discusses the devilish side of Christmas. Here, he theorises about the possibility of modern Christmas celebrating inheriting pre-Christian narratives of sun-gods triumphing over winter-demons…


To our sun-worshipping ancestor the new year meant the final faint advantage of the warmer time over winter, as nearly as he could fix it. The hovering of day between superiority of light and darkness is now named after doubting Thomas. At Yuletide the dawning victory of the sun is seen as a holy infant in a manger amid beasts of the stall. The old nature-worship has bequeathed to christian belief a close-fitting mantle. But the old idea of a war between the wintry and the warm powers still haunts the period of the New Year; and the twelve days and nights, once believed to be the period of a fiercely-contested battle between good and evil demons, are still regarded by many as a period for especial watchfulness and prayer.

New Year’s Eve, in the north of England still ‘Hogmanay,’–probably O. N. [Old Norse] höku-nött, midwinter-night, when the sacrifices of Thor were prepared,–formerly had many observances which reflected the belief that good and evil ghosts were contending for every man and woman: the air was believed tbe swarming with them, and watch must be kept to see that the protecting fire did not o out in an household; that no strange man, woman, or animal approached,–possibly a demon in disguise. Sacred plants were set in doors and windows to prevent the entrance of any malevolent being from the multitudes filling the air. John Wesley, whose noble heart was allied with a mind strangely open to stories of hobgoblins, led the way of churches and sets back into this ancient atmosphere.

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Christmas Past: The Old Nick/Saint Nick Connection

Today’s festive clipping comes from — of all places — Demonology and Devil Lore Volume 1, an 1881 book by Moncure Daniel Conway that includes a section discussing the origins of a nickname for the Devil: Old Nick.

The author mentions the theory that the name derives from the Nixie or Nikke (a water-spirit of Germanic folklore) before providing a theory of his own: that the name of Old Nick is at least partly connected to that of St. Nicholas. Connecting the two quite different figures, Conway points to St. Nicholas’ association with fisherman (giving him an aquatic aspect like the Nixie/Nikke) and to the devilish purveyors of punishment said to accompany the kindly saint. Krampus, the most famous such figure today, is unmentioned; instead, the author brings up Bartel and Knecht Klaubauf (see also Knecht Ruprecht).

Take them or leave them, here are Mr. Conway’s theories…


I believe, however, that this phrase [Old Nick] owes its popularity to St. Nicholas rather than the Norse water-god whose place he was assigned after the christian accession. This saintly Poseidon, who, from being the patron of fisherman, gradually became associated with that demon whom, Sir Walter Scott said, ‘the British sailor feared when he feared nothing else,’ was also of old the patron of pirates; and robbers were called ‘St. Nicholas’ clerks.’ in Norway and the Netherlands the ancient belief in the demon Nikke was strong; he was a kind of Wild Huntsman of the Sea, and has left many legends, of which ‘The Flying Dutchman’ is one.

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Christmas Past: Hang up your Stockings; Get your Coattails Nailed to a Window

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I’ve been taking more dips into Google Books to find documents of long-gone Christmas celebrations, and my latest finding is an article in an 1843 edition of the American children’s magazine Merry’s Museum. The author presents Christmas as an exotic, old-world custom with comparatively little presence in the US beyond New York (and also blows the secret that Santa Claus is actually the kids’ parents, something that later publications for children would make some effort to obscure):


Those who belong to the Romish or English church, pay great attention to Christmas: on that day they hold religious meetings, and have their most interesting services. On the occasion, the churches are decorated with evergreens, and have a handsome appearance.

In this country the people, generally, do not pay great attention to Christmas; but in all European countries it is noticed by a variety of customs, some of which are pleasing and interesting. In England, though the Christmas customs have many of them ceased, there are others which are kept up and observed with much interest. It is there a time for making presents, particularly to friends, and it seldom happens that any boy or girl does not receive some gratifying mark of regard in this way.

Christmas is a time when hospitality and kind feelings are cherished and displayed. The rich then remember the poor, and there are few indeed, on that day, that have not the means of making a feast, though in many cases it may be a humble one.

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Christmas Past: When Did Santa First Go Ho Ho Ho?

Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle – call him what you will, the development of this composite folkloric figure has been pretty thoroughly mapped. Much has been written about how writers like Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and Robert Lewis May, along with artists like Thomas Nast and Haddon Sundblom helped to develop the popular image of Santa: name an aspect of Santa’s persona, and the origin typically won’t be hard to trace.

There’s a notable exception to this, however. When, exactly, did Santa first say “ho ho ho”? A search on Google will reveal discussions about why he goes “ho ho ho” rather than, say, “ha ha ha” (consensus is that “ho ho ho” indicates general joviality, while “ha ha ha” could be construed as laughing in mockery) but little or nothing about when “ho ho ho” became the officially-sanctioned Santa laugh.

So, I decided to finish my trip through festive history by researching the question myself.

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Christmas Past: Victorian Drinking Song

Our Victorian ancestors not only drank alcohol on Christmas; they also sang songs about snogging it. At least, that’s the impression given by the Angel Illustrated Pocket Keepsake and Book of Christmas Amusements, for 1877 (the same publication that gave us an amusing set of conundrums).


NEW SONG
Brighten the Flame.
Published by Hopwood & Crew,
42, New Bond Street;
Poetry by Daise J. Curry; Composed by W. Bush

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Christmas Past: Victorian Conundrums

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Today’s festive clipping is from the Angel Illustrated Pocket Keepsake and Book of Christmas Amusements for 1877. The book contains a chapter devoted to conundrums, which even today will no doubt bemuse and bewilder your friends and family.


What possesses the more cheerful disposition, gas or candles?
Why, we often hear of laughing-gas, but the best candles are always waxy

Why is wine spoilt by being converted into negus?
Because you make a mull of it.

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Christmas Past: Whitby Customs

My last Christmas clipping of the week comes from F. K. Robinson’s Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Whitby (1876), the preface of which has a section on festive customs…


The mode of announcing the season in our country places is similar to what has been told of the town; though the rustic, when he calls at the farmstead, lacks not his peculiar address on the occasion:—

‘I wish ye a merry Kessenmas an’ a happy New Year,
A pooakful o’ money an’ a cellar full o’ beer;
A good fat pig an’ a new cawven coo,
Good maisther an# misthress, hoo do yo do;’

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Christmas Past: Guising and Hogmany

In today’s Christmas clipping, I. E. Aylmer rounds off an article in the 1871-2 volume of St. James Magazine and United Empire Review by pondering the decline of folk traditions. Both Christmas and New Year celebrations turn up in the author’s musings…


Folk lore, once so rife in the border country, is fast dying out; though lonely spots, where some crime his been committed are still avoided and pointed to a haunted. A few ruined Peel towers bear an evil reputation; cross-roads are regarded with suspicion; and now and then a “bogie” or “dummie” is heard of; but the days of supernatural faith have passed away, and the rising generation laugh at ghosts and goblins.

So too is passing away each relic of old-world customs. And though aster still brings its “Paste Eggs,” and Christmas its “Guisers,” the village lads are growing ashamed of even this, only the small ones come to castle or hall for their “Hogmany” (a small cake given upon New Year’s morning) and only very young voices greet you with the quaint old-world rhyme—

Get up gude wife and shake your feathers,
Dinna think that we are beggars,
We are only children come to play,
So rise and gies our hogmany.

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