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Christmas Gifts Forbidden In The City Of London






The presentation of gifts on Christmas day was an English custom of
very great antiquity; so great that, in 1419, the practice had become
much corrupted, and the abuse had to be sternly repressed. Hence we
find the following[81] Regulation made that the Serjeants and other
officers of the Mayor, Sheriffs, or City, shall not beg for Christmas
gifts.

Forasmuch as it is not becoming or agreeable to propriety that those
who are in the service of reverend men, and from them, or through
them, have the advantage of befitting food and raiment, as also of
reward, or remuneration, in a competent degree, should, after a
perverse custom, be begging aught of people, like paupers; and seeing
that in times past, every year at the feast of our Lord's Nativity
(25th December), according to a certain custom, which has grown to be
an abuse, the vadlets of the Mayor, the Sheriffs and the Chamber of
the said city--persons who have food, raiment, and appropriate
advantages, resulting from their office,--under colour of asking for
an oblation, have begged many sums of money of brewers, bakers, cooks,
and other victuallers; and, in some instances, have, more than once,
threatened wrongfully to do them an injury if they should refuse to
give them something; and have frequently made promises to others that,
in return for a present, they would pass over their unlawful doings
in mute silence; to the great dishonour of their masters, and to the
common loss of all the city: therefore, on Wednesday, the last day of
April, in the 7th year of King Henry the Fifth, by William Sevenok,
the Mayor, and the Aldermen of London, it was ordered and established
that no vadlet, or other sergeant of the Mayor, Sheriffs, or City,
should in future beg or require of any person, of any rank, degree, or
condition whatsoever, any moneys, under colour of an oblation, or in
any other way, on pain of losing his office.

Royalty was not above receiving presents on this day, and as, of
course, such presents could not be of small value, it must have been
no small tax on the nobility. Pepys (23rd February 1663) remarks:
This day I was told that my Lady Castlemaine hath all the King's
Christmas presents, made him by the Peers, given to her, which is a
most abominable thing. He records his own Christmas gifts (25th
December 1667): Being a fine, light, moonshine morning, home round
the city, and stopped and dropped money at five or six places, which I
was the willinger to do, it being Christmas day.

But the prettiest method of distributing Christmas gifts was reserved
for comparatively modern times, in the Christmas tree. Anent this
wonderful tree there are many speculations, one or two so curious that
they deserve mention. It is said of a certain living Professor that he
deduces everything from an Indian or Aryan descent; and there is a
long and very learned article by Sir George Birdwood, C.S.I., in the
Asiatic Quarterly Review (vol. i. pp. 19, 20), who endeavours to
trace it to an eastern origin. He says: Only during the past thirty
or forty years has the custom become prevalent in England of employing
the Christmas tree as an appropriate decoration, and a most delightful
vehicle for showering down gifts upon the young, in connection with
domestic and public popular celebrations of the joyous ecclesiastical
Festival of the Nativity. It is said to have been introduced among us
from Germany, where it is regarded as indigenous, and it is, probably,
a survival of some observance connected with the pagan Saturnalia of
the winter solstice, to supersede which, the Church, about the fifth
century of our era, instituted Christmas day.

It has, indeed, been explained as being derived from the ancient
Egyptian practice of decking houses at the time of the winter solstice
with branches of the date palm, the symbol of life triumphant over
death, and therefore of perennial life in the renewal of each
bounteous year; and the supporters of this suggestion point to the
fact that pyramids of green paper, covered all over with wreaths and
festoons of flowers, and strings of sweetmeats, and other presents for
children, are often substituted in Germany for the Christmas Tree.

But similar pyramids, together with similar trees, the latter,
usually, altogether artificial, and often constructed of the costliest
materials, even of gems and gold, are carried about at marriage
ceremonies in India, and at many festivals, such as the Hoolee, or
annual festival of the vernal equinox. These pyramids represent Mount
Meru and the earth; and the trees, the Kalpadruma, or 'Tree of Ages,'
and the fragrant Parajita, the tree of every perfect gift, which grew
on the slopes of Mount Meru; and, in their enlarged sense, they
symbolise the splendour of the outstretched heavens, as of a tree,
laden with golden fruit, deep-rooted in the earth. Both pyramids and
trees are also phallic emblems of life, individual, terrestrial, and
celestial. Therefore, if a relationship exists between the Egyptian
practice of decking houses at the winter solstice with branches of the
date palm, and the German and English custom of using gift-bearing and
brilliantly illuminated evergreen trees, which are, nearly always,
firs, as a Christmas decoration, it is most probably due to collateral
rather than to direct descent; and this is indicated by the Egyptians
having regarded the date palm, not only as an emblem of immortality,
but, also, of the starlit firmament.

Others attempt to trace the Christmas tree to the Scandinavian legend
of the mystic tree Yggdrasil, which sprang from the centre of
Mid-gard, and the summit of As-gard, with branches spreading out over
the whole earth, and reaching above the highest heavens, whilst its
three great roots go down into the lowest hell.

A writer in the Cornhill Magazine, December 1886, thus accounts for
the candles on the tree--

But how came the lights on the Christmas tree?

In the ninth month of the Jewish year, corresponding nearly to our
December, and on the twenty-fifth day, the Jews celebrated the Feast
of the Dedication of their Temple. It had been desecrated on that day
by Antiochus; it was rededicated by Judas Maccabeus; and then,
according to the Jewish legend, sufficient oil was found in the Temple
to last for the seven-branched candlestick for seven days, and it
would have taken seven days to prepare new oil. Accordingly, the Jews
were wont, on the twenty-fifth of Kislen, in every house, to light a
candle, on the next day, two, and so on, till on the seventh and last
day of the feast, seven candles twinkled in every house. It is not
easy to fix the exact date of the Nativity, but it fell, most
probably, on the last day of Kislen, when every Jewish house in
Bethlehem and Jerusalem was twinkling with lights. It is worthy of
notice that the German name for Christmas is Weihnacht, the Night of
Dedication, as though it were associated with this feast. The Greeks
also call Christmas the Feast of Lights; and, indeed, this also was a
name given to the Dedication Festival, Chanuka, by the Jews.

That this pretty Christ-tide custom came to us from Germany there can
be no doubt, and all the early notices of it show that it was so. Thus
the first mention of it that I can find is in Court and Private Life
in the Time of Queen Charlotte, being the Journals of Mrs. Papendiek,
vol. ii. 158. Speaking of Christ-tide 1789, she says: This Christmas
Mr. Papendiek proposed an illuminated tree, according to the German
fashion, but the Blagroves being at home for their fortnight, and the
party at Mrs. Roach's for the holidays, I objected to it. Our eldest
girl, Charlotte, being only six the 30th of this November, I thought
our children too young to be amused at so much expense and trouble.

A.J. Kempe, Esq., in a footnote to p. 75 of the Losely MSS., edited by
him in 1836, says: We remember a German of the household of the late
Queen Caroline making what he termed a Christmas tree for a juvenile
party at that festive season. The tree was a branch of some evergreen
fastened to a board. Its boughs bent under the weight of gilt oranges,
almonds, &c., and under it was a neat model of a farm house,
surrounded by figures of animals, &c., and all due accompaniments.

Charles Greville, in his Memoirs, writes thus of Christ-tide 1829
as celebrated at Panshanger. The Princess Lieven got up a little
fete such as is customary all over Germany. Three trees in great
pots were put upon a long table covered with pink linen; each tree was
illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles--blue,
green, red, and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of
toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, work boxes, books, and various
articles--presents made to the owner of the tree. It was very pretty.
Here it was only for the children; in Germany the custom extends to
persons of all ages.

One more extract, to show about what time it became popular, and I
have done. It is from Mary Howitt, an Autobiography (vol. i. 298).
Our practical knowledge of the Christmas tree was gained in this
first winter at Heidelberg. Universal as the custom now is, I believe
the earliest knowledge which the English public had of it was through
Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria. It had, at the time I am
writing of--1840--been introduced into Manchester by some of the
German merchants established there. Our Queen and Prince Albert
likewise celebrated the festival with its beautiful old German
customs. Thus the fashion spread, until now even our asylums, schools,
and workhouses have, through friends and benefactors, each its
Christmas tree.

Another pretty Christ-tide custom has also come to us from Germany,
that of putting presents into stockings left out for the purpose
whilst the children sleep on Christmas eve. St. Nicholas (or Santa
Claus, as he is now called), the patron of children, ought to get the
credit of it. In America the presents are supposed to be brought by a
fabulous personage called Krishkinkle, who is believed to come down
the chimney laden with good things for those children whose conduct
had been exemplary during the past year; for peccant babies the
stocking held a birch rod. Krishkinkle is a corruption of
Christ-kindlein or Child Christ.

There are some very curious tenures of lands and manors connected with
Christmas which must not be passed over. I have taken them from
Blount's book on the subject, as being the best authority.

BONDBY, Lincolnshire.--Sir Edward Botiler, knight, and Ann, his wife,
sister and heir of Hugh le Despencer, hold the manor of Bondby, in
the county of Lincoln, by the service of bearing a white rod before
our Lord the King on the Feast of Christmas, if the King should be in
that county at the said feast.

BRIDSHALL, Staffordshire.--Sir Philip de Somerville, knight, holdeth
of his lord, the Earl of Lancaster, the manor of Briddeshalle by these
services, that at such time as his lord holdeth his Christmas at
Tutbury, the said Sir Philip shall come to Tutbury upon Christmas
Even, and shall be lodged in the town of Tutbury, by the marshal of
the Earl's house, and upon Christmas Day he himself, or some other
knight, his deputy, shall go to the dresser, and shall sew[82] his
lord's mess, and then shall he carve the same meat to his said lord,
and this service shall he do as well at supper as at dinner, and, when
his lord hath eaten, the said Sir Philip shall sit down in the same
place where his lord sat, and shall be served at his table by the
steward of the Earl's house. And upon St. Stephen's day, when he hath
dined, he shall take his leave of his lord and shall kiss him; and all
these services to-fore rehearsed, the said Philip hath done by the
space of xlviii years, and his ancestors before him, to his lords,
Earls of Lancaster.

BRIMINGTON, Derbyshire.--Geoffery, son of William de Brimington, gave,
granted, and confirmed to Peter, son of Hugh de Brimington, one toft
with the buildings, and three acres of land in the fields there, with
twenty pence yearly rent, which he used to receive of Thomas, son of
Gilbert de Bosco, with the homages, etc., rendering yearly to him and
his heirs a pair of white gloves, of the price of a halfpenny, at
Christmas yearly, for all services.

BROOK HOUSE, Yorkshire.--A farm at Langsett, in the parish of Peniston
and county of York, pays yearly to Godfrey Bosville, Esqre., a
snowball at Midsummer, and a red rose at Christmas.

BURGE, Derbyshire.--Hugh, son and heir of Philip de Stredley, made
fine with the King by two marks for his relief for the Mill of Burge,
in the county of Derby, which the said Philip held of the King in
capite, by the service of finding one man bearing a heron falcon,
every year in season, before the King, when he should be summoned,
and to take for performing the said service, at the cost of the King,
two robes at Whitsuntide and Christmas.

GREENS-NORTON, Northamptonshire.--This, so named of the Greens
(persons famed in the sixteenth century for their wealth), called
before Norton-Dauncy, was held of the King in capite by the service
of lifting up their right hands towards the King yearly, on Christmas
day, wheresoever the King should then be in England.

HAWARDEN AND BOSELE, Cheshire.--The manors of Hawarden and Bosele,
with the appurtenances in the county of Cheshire, are held of the King
in capite by Robert de Monhault, Earl of Arundel, by being steward
of the county of Cheshire, viz. by the service of setting down the
first dish before the Earl of Chester at Chester on Christmas day.

HEDSOR, Bucks.--An estate in this parish, called Lambert Farm, was
formerly held under the manor by the service of bringing in the first
dish at the lord's table on St. Stephen's day, and presenting him with
two hens, a cock, a gallon of ale, and two manchets of white bread;
after dinner the lord delivered to the tenant a sparrow hawk and a
couple of spaniels, to be kept at his costs and charges for the lord's
use.

HEMINGSTON, Suffolk.--Rowland le Sarcere held one hundred and ten
acres of land in Hemingston by serjeanty; for which, on Christmas day
every year, before our sovereign lord the King of England, he should
perform altogether, and at once, a leap, puff up his cheeks, therewith
making a sound, and let a crack.

LEVINGTON, Yorkshire.--Adam de Bras, lord of Skelton, gave in marriage
with his daughter Isabel, to Henry de Percy, eldest son and heir of
Joceline de Lovain (ancestor to the present Duke of Northumberland),
the manor of Levington, for which he and his heirs were to repair to
Skelton Castle every Christmas day, and lead the lady of that castle
from her chamber to the chapel to mass, and thence to her chamber
again, and after dining with her, to depart.

REDWORTH, Co. Durham.--In the fourth year of Bishop Skirlawe, 1391,
John de Redworth died, seised in his demesne, &c. of two messuages and
twenty-six acres of land and meadow, with the appurtenances, in
Redworth, held of the said Lord Bishop in capite by homage and
fealty, and the service of four shillings and ten pence a year, to be
paid at the Exchequer at Durham, and the rent of one hen and two parts
of a hen to be paid at the same Exchequer yearly at Christmas.

STAMFORD, Lincolnshire.--William, Earl Warren, lord of this town in
the time of King John, standing upon the castle walls, saw two bulls
fighting for a cow in the Castle Meadow, till all the butchers' dogs
pursued one of the bulls (maddened with noise and multitude) clean
through the town. This sight so pleased the Earl that he gave the
Castle Meadow, where the bulls' duel had begun, for a common to the
butchers of the town, after the first grass was mown, on condition
that they should find a mad bull the day six weeks before Christmas
day, for the continuance of the sport for ever.

THURGARTON AND HORSEPOLL, Notts.--The tenants of these manors held
their lands by these customs and services. Every native and villein
(which were such as we call husbandmen) paid each a cock and a hen,
besides a small rent in money, for a toft and one bovate of land, held
of the Priory of Thurgarton. These cocks and hens were paid the second
day in Christmas, and that day every one, both cottagers and natives,
dined in the hall; and those who did not had a white loaf and a flagon
of ale, with one mess from the kitchen. And all the reapers in
harvest, which were called hallewimen, were to eat in the hall one day
in Christmas, or afterwards, at the discretion of the cellarer.

There is a curious custom still carried out at Queen's College,
Oxford. On the feast of the Circumcision the bursar gives to every
member a needle and thread, adding the injunction, Take this and be
thrifty. It is said, I know not with what truth, that it is to
commemorate the name of the founder, Robert Egglesfield--by the
visible pun, aiguille (needle) and fil (thread).





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Previous: The First Carol



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