Christmas Pastimes

21st December 1833
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Even in 1833, the narrative around Christmas was to look back with nostalgia upon how previous generations understood and better celebrated this (recently commercialised with modern playthings) holiday. As published in the Dublin Observer on Saturday 21 December 1833...

CHRISTMAS PASTIMES: THE WAITS — CHRISTMAS CAROLS – THE MISTLETOE AND FEASTING. 

"Christmas comes but once a year" &c. 

Rapid indeed are the advances of time! A few short days and behold another year dawns upon us; a happy and merry one may it prove to all our readers! The silent moments glide away imperceptibly, and ere we cast one long and lingering look behind, another Christmas comes! that happy season when all is mirthful, when our fondest associations are awakened by the pleasing recollections of our youthful days, and when all our dispositions are attuned, or ought to be, to the desire of gratifying and being gratified.

In the days of our ancestors, Christmas was a period of sacred to mirth and hospitality. Though not wholly neglected now, it cannot boast the honours it once had: the veneration for religious seasons fled with Popery, and Old English hospitality has long since been on the decline. Our modern "play-things of fortune" (and there are many of them) who make the whole year one continued round of dissipation and joyless festivity, never can fully appreciate the delights which formerly attended this festive season. The ancient Christmas gambols were far superior to our modern spectacles and amusements. We may now paint our pastimes in more lively colours to the eye, but the amusements of bygone days spoke truly the heart. Among the few ancient customs with which the present generations are familiar (at least by name) will be found the following: 

THE WAITS 

"Let’s have the waits from Southwark; They’re as rare fellows as any in England.” Beaumont and Fletcher. 

Ay, and the first harbingers of the "festival of the Nativity” for they sound the note of preparation in due time, breaking the sweet silence of the night with their merry mirthful strains.

  • Waits were originally attendant musicians on great personages —majors, and bodies corporate —generally furnished with superb dresses, splendid cloaks.
  • By an old work in the British Museum, we find that these marauding minstrels, these midnight banditti, called "waits in ancient times, meant watchmen; they were minstrels at first attached to the King’s Court, who sounded the watch every night, and paraded the streets during the winter to prevent depredations.”
  • It also Informs us that the waits are remains of the musicians attached to the corporation of the city under that denomination. They cheer the hours of the dreary long nights before Christmas with instrumental music. To denote that they were the Lord Mayor’s music,” they anciently wore a cognizance or badge on the arm.

Carol is, according to Bourne, a derivation from the words cautare, to sing, and rola an interjection of joy. It is tightly observed by Jeremy Taylor, that “Glory to God in the highest, earth peace, and goodwill towards, men,” the song of the angels on the birth of the Saviour, is the first Christmas carol. Anciently, bishops carolled among the clergy. These ditties, which now almost exclusively enliven the industrious servant-maids and the humble labourer, gladdened the festivities of Royalty in ancient times. Next comes—

THE MISTLETOE 

"With holly and ivy, So green and so gay. We deck up our houses, As fresh as the day.

With bays and rosemary, And laurel complete, And every one now Is a king in conceit.” —Old Song. 

The good old custom of decking our churches and habitations with evergreens at this festive season of the year has existed from the very establishment of Christianity and was unquestionably derived from the similar practice of our Pagan ancestors. The Druids were particularly famed for the distinguished regard which they paid to the mistletoe of the oak; they attributed to it numerous virtues, and are stated to have wrought wonderful cures by its means.

At certain seasons of the year, especially at Yule-tide of Christmas, they were accustomed to gather it with great solemnity, and the sacrifice of two milk-white bullocks that had never been yoked, nor, till then, had their horns bound up. It was cut from the tree with a golden bill, or pruning knife, a priest habited in a white vestment and was received into white woollen cloth; many orations were then made over it, and the ceremony being deemed complete, the "sacred” plant was preserved for use with religious care. In the solemn procession which the Druids made when about to gather the mistletoe bough, they were accustomed to invite as Borlace terms it, "all the world” to assist at the ceremony, with words importing "the new year is at hand, gather the mistletoe.”

A remnant of this practice was a few years since to be met with in several places on the Continent, particularly in France, where, at New Year’s tide, the youth of the villages went round to the different inhabitants and at their doors wished them good fortune, with the cry “Au gay l'an neuf" As the ivy is dedicated to Bacchus, so should the mistletoe be to Love; not, however to the chaste Eros, but to the sportive, lively, and ingenious Cupid. The sacred regard given to this plant in Pagan and Druidical rites has long since terminated but is still beheld with emotions of pleasurable interest, when hung up our servants’ hall or kitchen at Christmas. It gives licence to seize "the soft and balmy kiss" from the ruby lips of whatever fair can be enticed or caught beneath its branches. So custom authorises, and it enjoins also that one of the misletoe be plucked after every chaste salute. Though coy in appearance, the fairest and chariest maid whether of high or low degree, at this season of mirth, happiness, and festivity, is seldom loth to submit to the established usage, especially when the swain who tempts her one whom she approves. 

"Then hey for Christmas revelling, For all its pastimes pleasures bring.” 

FEASTING

The great Barons and fine old English gentlemen formerly kept open house during this season, when their vassals were entertained with the best of good cheer, and a silver groat at parting. “Now,” says Stevenson "capons and hens, besides turkeys, geese, and ducks, with beeves and sheep, must all die; for the multitude will not now be fed with a little. Now or never must be the time to be in tune, for the youth must dance, and sing and get in a heat, while the aged sit by the fire. The country-maid leaves half of her market, if she forgets a pack of cards on Christmas eve – great is the contention for holly and ivy."

Christmas Day is a holiday all over the United Kingdom observed by the total suppression of all business, public and private, and the general congregating of friends and relations for 2comfort and joy". Great is the pleasure we now experience in beholding at this festive season the merry, happy groups of girls and boys, just arrived from school to celebrate the Christmas with joyous merry-making: it reminds us of that period when we sought to higher amusement ourselves, and sighed only for a repetition at those hours, which we could bring us such delights again. As we advance in life, we look for higher and more intellectual enjoyments. Our faculties expand, we foerget the boy, and find ourselves busied with life, its cares and its vexations—Court Journal.

READ MORE 

Christmas Traditions from Pagan Times

Christmas Eve in Dublin 1766

Christmas Day in Medieval Ireland

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