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Honey Fairs Card-playing At Christmas






Time's Telescope (1824, p. 297) notes that in Cumberland, and in all
the great towns in the north of England, about a week before
Christmas, what are called Honey fairs were held, in which dancing
forms the leading amusement.

Card-playing, too, was justifiable at Christ-tide. An ordinance for
governing the household of the Duke of Clarence in the reign of Edward
IV. forbade all games at dice, cards, or other hazard for money
except during the twelve days at Christmas. And, again, in the
reign of Henry VII. an Act was passed against unlawful games, which
expressly forbids artificers, labourers, servants, or apprentices to
play at any such, except at Christmas, and at some of the colleges
cards are introduced in the Combination Rooms during the twelve days
of Christmas, but never appear there during the remainder of the year.

Cards are not much patronised by the present generation, yet dignity
is occasionally sunk in a romping round game at Christ-tide. But it is
a question as to who knows such games as My Lady Coventry, All Fours,
Snip Snap Snorum, Old Maid, Commerce, Put, Pope Joan, Brag, Blind
Hookey, Loo, etc., etc., without reference to a manual on the subject.

Timbs[74] gives a very curious custom or game which, he says, is still
observed on Old Christmas day in the village of Haxey, in
Lincolnshire. It is traditionally said to have originated from a lady
of the De Mowbrays, who, a few years after the Conquest, was riding
through Craize Lound, an adjoining hamlet, when the wind blew her
riding hood from her head, and so amused her, that she left twelve
acres of land to twelve men who ran after the hood, and gave them the
strange name of Boggoners; to them, however, the land, with the
exception of about a quarter of an acre, has for centuries been lost.
The Throwing of the Hood now consists of the villagers of West
Woodside and Haxey trying who can get to the nearest public-house in
each place, the Hood, which is made of straw covered with leather,
about two feet long and nine inches round. The twelve Boggoners are
pitched against the multitude, which has been known to exceed two
thousand persons from all parts of the neighbourhood; and as soon as a
Boggoner touches the hood or catches it the game is won.

There was another amusement at Christmas, before Mumming and the
comparatively modern play of St. George--the Religious plays, the
first of which is mentioned by Matthew Paris, who says that Geoffrey,
a learned Norman, and Master of the school of the Abbey of Dunstable,
composed the play of St. Catharine, which was acted by his scholars in
1110. Fitzstephen, writing later in the same century, remarks that
London, for its theatrical exhibitions has religious plays, either
the representations of miracles wrought by holy confessors or the
sufferings of martyrs. Then came the Interlude, which was generally
founded on a single event, and was of moderate length, but not always,
for in the reign of Henry IV. one was exhibited in Smithfield which
lasted eight days; but then this began with the creation of the world,
and contained the greater part of the Old and New Testament.

Being originally devised by the clergy to withdraw the minds of the
people from the profane and immoral buffooneries to which they were
accustomed, ecclesiastics did not hesitate to join in the performance,
and even to permit the representation to take place in churches and
chapels. Afterwards the ordering and arrangement of them fell into the
hands of the gilds, or different trading companies.

In process of time the rigid religious simplicity of these
performances was broken in upon, and the devil and a circle of
infernal associates were introduced to relieve the performance, and to
excite laughter by all sorts of strange noises and antics. By and by,
abstract personifications, such as Truth, Justice, Mercy, etc., found
their way into these plays, and they then became moral plays, or
Moralities. These were in their highest vogue in the reigns of
Henries VII. and VIII., and Holinshed tells a story of one played at
Christ-tide 1526-27.

This Christmasse was a goodlie disguising plaied at Graies In, which
was compiled for the most part by maister John Roo, sergeant at the
law manie yeares past, and long before the cardinall had any
authoritie. The effect of the plaie was that lord gouernance was ruled
by dissipation and negligence, by whose misgouernance and evill order
ladie publike weale was put from gouernance; which caused rumor
populi, inwarde grudge and disdaine of wanton souereignetie to rise,
with a great multitude, to expell negligence and dissipation, and to
restore publike weale againe to hir estate, which was so doone.

This plaie was so set foorth with riche and costlie apparell, with
strange devises of Maskes and morrishes, that it was highlie praised
of all men, sauing of the cardinall, which imagined that the play had
been devised of him, and in a great furie sent for the said maister
Roo, and took from him his coife, and sent him to the Fleet; and
after, he sent for the yoong gentlemen that plaied in the plaie, and
them highlie rebuked and threatned, and sent one of them, called
Thomas Moile, of Kent, to the Fleet; but by means of friends, maister
Roo and he were deliuered at last. This plaie sore displeased the
cardinall, and yet it was neuer meant to him, as you haue heard.
Wherfore manie wise men grudged to see him take it so hartilie, and
euer the cardinall said that the king was highlie displeased with it,
and spake nothing of himselfe.

J.P. Collier, in his Annals of the Stage (ed. 1879, pp. 68, 69),
gives an account of two Interludes played before royalty at Richmond,
Christ-tide 1514-15, which he found in a paper folded up in a roll in
the Chapter House. The Interlud was callyd the tryumpe of Love and
Bewte, and yt was wryten and presented by Mayster Cornyshe and
oothers of the Chappell of our soverayne lorde the Kynge, and the
chyldern of the sayd Chapell. In the same, Venus and Bewte dyd tryumpe
over al ther enemys, and tamyd a salvadge man and a lyon, that was
made very rare and naturall, so as the Kynge was gretly plesyd
therwyth, and gracyously gaf Mayster Cornysshe a ryche rewarde owt of
his owne hand, to be dyvyded with the rest of his felows. Venus did
synge a songe with Beawte, which was lykyd of al that harde yt, every
staffe endyng after this sorte--

Bowe you downe, and doo your dutye
To Venus and the goddes Bewty:
We tryumpe hye over all,
Kyngs attend when we doo call.

Inglyshe, and the oothers of the Kynges pleyers, after pleyed an
Interluyt, whiche was wryten by Mayster Midwell, but yt was so long,
yt was not lykyd: yt was of the fyndyng of Troth, who was caryed away
by ygnoraunce and ypocresy. The foolys part was the best, but the kyng
departyd befor the end to hys chambre.

Of Christ-tide Masques I have already written, and after they fell
into desuetude there was nothing theatrical absolutely peculiar to
Christmas until Rich, in 1717, introduced the comic pantomime at his
theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where, on 26th December of that year,
he produced Harlequin Executed. Davies says: To retrieve the credit
of his theatre, Rich created a species of dramatic composition,
unknown to this, and I believe to any other country, which he called a
pantomime; it consisted of two parts--one serious, and the other
comic. By the help of gay scenes, fine habits, grand dances,
appropriate music, and other decorations, he exhibited a story from
Ovid's Metamorphoses, or some other fabulous writer. Between the
pauses, or acts, of this serious, representation he interwove a comic
fable; consisting chiefly of the courtship of Harlequin and Columbine,
with a variety of surprizing adventures and tricks, which were
produced by the magic wand of Harlequin; such as the sudden
transformation of palaces and temples to huts and cottages, of men and
women into wheelbarrows and joint stools, of trees turned into
houses, colonades to beds of tulips, and mechanics' shops into
serpents and ostriches. From 1717 until 1761, the date of his death,
he brought out a succession of pantomimes, all of which were eminently
successful, and ran at least forty or fifty nights each. That the
pantomime, very slightly altered from Rich's first conception, still
is attractive, speaks for itself.

No other style of entertainment for Christ-tide was ever so popular.
Garrick tried spectacular drama, and failed. Walpole, writing to Lady
Ossory, 30th December 1772, says: Garrick has brought out what he
calls a Christmas tale, adorned with the most beautiful scenes, next
to those in the Opera at Paradise, designed by Loutherbourg. They have
much ado to save the piece from being sent to the Devil. It is
believed to be Garrick's own, and a new proof that it is possible to
be the best actor and the worst author in the world, as Shakspeare was
just the contrary. Some of us are old enough to remember with delight
Planche's extravaganzas, The King of the Peacocks, etc., which were
so beautifully put on the stage of the Lyceum Theatre by Madame
Vestris, but I do not think they were a financial success, and they
have never been repeated by other managers.

Up to a very recent date a stock piece at the minor theatres on Boxing
Night was the tragedy of The London Merchant; or, The History of
George Barnwell, acted at Drury Lane in 1731, which was so successful
that the Queen sent for the MS. to read it, and Hone (Every-Day
Book, ii. 1651) remarks as a notable circumstance that the
representation of this tragedy was omitted in the Christmas holidays
of 1819 at both the theatres for the first time.

It was considered a highly moral play, and was acted for the
particular benefit of apprentices, to deter them from the crime of
theft, and from keeping company with bad women. David Ross, the actor,
wrote in 1787 the following letter to a friend:--

In the year 1752, during the Christmas holidays, I played George
Barnwell, and the late Mrs. Pritchard played Millwood. Doctor
Barrowby, physician to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, told me he was sent
for by a young gentleman in Great St. Helen's, apprentice to a very
capital merchant. He found him very ill with a slow fever, a heavy
hammer pulse, that no medicine could touch. The nurse told him he
sighed at times so very heavily that she was sure something lay heavy
on his mind. The Doctor sent every one out of the room, and told his
patient he was sure there was something that oppressed his mind, and
lay so heavy on his spirits, that it would be in vain to order him
medicine, unless he would open his mind freely. After much
solicitation on the part of the Doctor, the youth confessed there was
something lay heavy at his heart; but that he would sooner die than
divulge it, as it must be his ruin if it was known. The Doctor assured
him, if he would make him his confidant, he would, by every means in
his power, serve him, and that his secret, if he desired it, should
remain so to all the world, but to those who might be necessary to
relieve him.

After much conversation he told the Doctor he was the second son of a
gentleman of good fortune in Hertfordshire; that he had made an
improper acquaintance with a kept mistress of a captain of an Indiaman
then abroad; that he was within a year of being out of his time, and
had been intrusted with cash, drafts, and notes, which he had made
free with, to the amount of two hundred pounds. That, going two or
three nights before to Drury Lane to see Ross and Mrs. Pritchard in
their characters of George Barnwell and Milwood, he was so forcibly
struck, he had not enjoyed a moment's peace since, and wished to die,
to avoid the shame he saw hanging over him. The Doctor asked where his
father was? He replied he expected him there every minute, as he was
sent for by his master upon his being taken so very ill. The Doctor
desired the young man to make himself perfectly easy, as he would
undertake his father should make all right; and, to get his patient in
a promising way, assured him, if his father made the least hesitation,
he should have the money of him.


The father soon arrived. The Doctor took him into another room, and
after explaining the whole cause of his son's illness, begged him to
save the honour of his family and the life of his son. The father,
with tears in his eyes, gave him a thousand thanks, said he would step
to his banker and bring the money. While the father was gone Dr.
Barrowby went to his patient, and told him everything would be settled
in a few minutes to his ease and satisfaction; that his father was
gone to his banker for the money, and would soon return with peace and
forgiveness, and never mention or even think of it more. What is very
extraordinary, the Doctor told me that, in a few minutes after he
communicated this news to his patient, upon feeling of his pulse,
without the help of any medicine, he was quite another creature. The
father returned with notes to the amount of L200, which he put into
his son's hands. They wept, kissed, embraced. The son soon recovered,
and lived to be a very eminent merchant.

Dr. Barrowby never told me the name; but the story he mentioned often
in the green-room of Drury Lane Theatre; and after telling it one
night when I was standing by, he said to me, 'You have done some good
in your profession--more, perhaps, than many a clergyman who preached
last Sunday,' for the patient told the Doctor the play raised such
horror and contrition in his soul that he would, if it would please
God to raise a friend to extricate him out of that distress, dedicate,
the rest of his life to religion and virtue. Though I never knew his
name or saw him, to my knowledge, I had, for nine or ten years, at my
benefit a note sealed up, with ten guineas, and these words--'A
tribute of gratitude from one who was highly obliged, and saved from
ruin, by seeing Mr. Ross's performance of Barnwell.'





Next: Profusion Of Food At Christ-tide

Previous: A Riotous Lord Of Misrule At The Temple



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