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 ot
er 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.'