More Snippets from Washington Irving’s “Old Christmas” Essays
Almost every year I share information on Washington Irving and the wonderful chapters about Christmas including in his famous 1819 The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The most recent blog on the topic is from the Christmas season in 2019 and can be read via the link below. Enjoy the excerpt from my novella, A Darcy Christmas included in that blog.
I shared a few of my favorite poems and passages from the first three essays yesterday. For today I am sharing from the last two essays Irving wrote on Old Christmas:
The Christmas Dinner
I strongly encourage everyone to read the five essays which comprise “Old Christmas” from The Sketch Book in full. This can be done HERE on Gutenberg.org with gorgeous original illustrations.
“I rose softly, slipt on my clothes, opened the door suddenly, and beheld one of the most beautiful little fairy groups that a painter could imagine. It consisted of a boy and two girls, the eldest not more than six, and lovely as seraphs. They were going the rounds of the house and singing at every chamber door…”
Rejoice, our Saviour he was born
On Christmas Day in the morning.
At Christmas be merry, and thankful withal,
And feast thy poor neighbors, the great with the small.
“The parson gave us a most erudite sermon on the rites and ceremonies of Christmas, and the propriety of observing it not merely as a day of thanksgiving but of rejoicing, supporting the correctness of his opinions by the earliest usages of the Church … and concluded by urging his hearers, in the most solemn and affecting manner, to stand to the traditional customs of their fathers and feast and make merry on this joyful anniversary of the Church. I have seldom known a sermon attended apparently with more immediate effects, for on leaving the church the congregation seemed one and all possessed with the gayety of spirit so earnestly enjoined by their pastor. The elder folks gathered in knots in the churchyard, greeting and shaking hands, and the children ran about crying Ule! Ule!”
“We had not been long home when the sound of music was heard from a distance. A band of country lads, without coats, their shirt-sleeves fancifully tied with ribbons, their hats decorated with greens, and clubs in their hands, was seen advancing up the avenue, followed by a large number of villagers and peasantry. They stopped before the hall door, where the music struck up a peculiar air, and the lads performed a curious and intricate dance, advancing, retreating, and striking their clubs together, keeping exact time to the music; while one, whimsically crowned with a fox’s skin, the tail of which flaunted down his back, kept capering round the skirts of the dance and rattling a Christmas box with many antic gesticulations.”
“The whole house indeed seemed abandoned to merriment: as I passed to my room to dress for dinner, I heard the sound of music in a small court, and, looking through a window that commanded it, I perceived a band of wandering musicians with pandean pipes and tambourine; a pretty coquettish housemaid was dancing a jig with a smart country lad, while several of the other servants were looking on.”
Lo, now is come our joyful’st feast!
Let every man be jolly.
Eache roome with yvie leaves is drest,
And every post with holly.
Now all our neighbours’ chimneys smoke,
And Christmas blocks are burning;
Their ovens they with bak’t meats choke
And all their spits are turning.
Without the door let sorrow lie,
And if, for cold, it hap to die,
Wee’l bury ‘t in a Christmas pye,
And evermore be merry.
“The dinner was served up in the great hall, where the squire always held his Christmas banquet. A blazing crackling fire of logs had been heaped on to warm the spacious apartment, and the flame went sparkling and wreathing up the wide-mouthed chimney. The great picture of the crusader and his white horse had been profusely decorated with greens for the occasion, and holly and ivy had like-wise been wreathed round the helmet and weapons on the opposite wall…”
“A sideboard was set out just under this chivalric trophy, on which was a display of plate that might have vied (at least in variety) with Belshazzar’s parade of the vessels of the temple: “flagons, cans, cups, beakers, goblets, basins, and ewers,” the gorgeous utensils of good companionship that had gradually accumulated through many generations of jovial housekeepers. Before these stood the two Yule candles, beaming like two stars of the first magnitude; other lights were distributed in branches, and the whole array glittered like a firmament of silver.”
“There was now a pause, as if something was expected, when suddenly the butler entered the hall with some degree of bustle: he was attended by a servant on each side with a large wax-light, and bore a silver dish on which was an enormous pig’s head decorated with rosemary, with a lemon in its mouth, which was placed with great formality at the head of the table. The moment this pageant made its appearance the harper struck up a flourish; at the conclusion of which the young Oxonian, on receiving a hint from the squire, gave, with an air of the most comic gravity, an old carol, the first verse of which was as follows….
“The table was literally loaded with good cheer, and presented an epitome of country abundance in this season of overflowing larders. A distinguished post was allotted to “ancient sirloin,” as mine host termed it, … I could not, however, but notice a pie magnificently decorated with peacock’s feathers, in imitation of the tail of that bird, which overshadowed a considerable tract of the table. This, the squire confessed with some little hesitation, was a pheasant pie, though a peacock pie was certainly the most authentical; but there had been such a mortality among the peacocks this season that he could not prevail upon himself to have one killed.”
Men may talk of Country Christmasses,
Their thirty pound butter’d eggs, their pies of carps’ tongues;
Their pheasants drench’d with ambergris: the carcases of three
fat wethers bruised for gravy to make sauce for a single peacock!
“When the cloth was removed the butler brought in a huge silver vessel of rare and curious workmanship, which he placed before the squire. Its appearance was hailed with acclamation, being the Wassail Bowl, so renowned in Christmas festivity. The contents had been prepared by the squire himself; for it was a beverage in the skilful mixture of which he particularly prided himself, alleging that it was too abstruse and complex for the comprehension of an ordinary servant. It was a potation, indeed, that might well make the heart of a toper leap within him, being composed of the richest and raciest wines, highly spiced and sweetened, with roasted apples bobbing about the surface.”
The Wassail Bowl was sometimes composed of ale instead of wine,
with nutmeg, sugar, toast, ginger, and roasted crabs;
in this way the nut-brown beverage is still prepared in some old families
and round the hearths of substantial farmers at Christmas.
It is also called Lamb’s Wool, and is celebrated by Herrick in his “Twelfth Night”
“The dinner-time passed away in this flow of innocent hilarity, and, though the old hall may have resounded in its time with many a scene of broader rout and revel, yet I doubt whether it ever witnessed more honest and genuine enjoyment. How easy it is for one benevolent being to diffuse pleasure around him! and how truly is a kind heart a fountain of gladness, making everything in its vicinity to freshen into smiles!”
“Just at this juncture we were summoned to the drawing-room… the hall was given up to the younger members of the family, who, prompted to all kind of noisy mirth … made its old walls ring with their merriment, as they played at romping games. …our ears were suddenly assailed by a burst of heterogeneous sounds from the hall, in which was mingled something like the clang of rude minstrelsy, with the uproar of many small voices and girlish laughter. The door suddenly flew open, and a train came trooping into the room, that might almost have been mistaken for the breaking up of the court of Fairy. That indefatigable spirit, Master Simon, in the faithful discharge of his duties as lord of misrule, had conceived the idea of a Christmas mummery, or masquing… Master Simon led the van, as “Ancient Christmas,” quaintly apparelled in a ruff, a short cloak, which had very much the aspect of one of the old housekeeper’s petticoats, and a hat that might have served for a village steeple…”
“Methinks I hear the questions asked by my graver readers, “To what purpose is all this?—how is the world to be made wiser by this talk?” Alas! is there not wisdom enough extant for the instruction of the world? And if not, are there not thousands of abler pens labouring for its improvement? … But in writing to amuse, if I fail, the only evil is my own disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in goof humour with his fellow-beings and himself, surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.”