Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas Merriment in 1734

Who knew that ECCO could contain such a wealth of 18th century musings on Christmas?

 "Round about the Cole Fire, or, Christmas Entertainments"
By Dick Merryman, 1734
Old customs might fade during periods of social and economic change, but one can usually still find traces of them rigidly adhered to in songs, children's games, and holiday traditions.  So I wasn't completely surprised to find that 18th century commentators, many of whom lived in such a rapidly transforming environment, liked to wax nostalgic about Christmas and the demise of old Holy Day customs.  You must understand, good People, one 1734 commentator tells us, that the manner of celebrating this great Course of Holydays is vastly different now to what it was in former Days.

How so?

Well, he tell us, an English Gentleman at the opening of this great Day, had all his Tenants and Neighbors enter'd his Hall by Day-break, the Strong-Beer was broach'd, and the Black-Jacks went plentifully about with Toast, Sugar, Nutmeg, and good Cheshire Cheese.

Toast? Sugar? Nutmeg?  Not too different from the challah French toast enjoyed nowadays.  There was no Christmas tree (that was a 19th century German import) but the decor was distinctly festive nonetheless:

The Rooms were embower'd with Holly, Ivy, Cypress, Bays, Laurel, and Mistleto, and a bouncing Christmas Log in the Chimney glowing like the Cheeks of a Country Milk-maid.

This surely put everyone in a celebratory mood, and our commentator assures us that the Lasses were as blithe and buxom as the Maids in good Queen Bess's Days, when they eat Sir-Loins of Roast Beef for Breakfast.   People are busy in the welcoming of guests, the man-servants were scuttling about preparing for the feast: drinking, carousing, womanizing.  Yes, all is happy in the household.

Minc'd Pye: Always a Favorite
After the toast and nutmeg, what else was consumed?  Dick Merryman, our Christmas expert, informs us that: every one in the Country where a Gentleman resided, possessed at least a Day of Pleasure in the Christmas Holydays; the Tables were all spread from the first to the last, the Sir-Loyns of beef, the Minc'd Pies, the Plumb Porridge, the Capons, Turkeys, Geese, and Plumb-Puddings, were all brought upon the board; and all those who had sharp Stomaches and sharp Knives eat heartily and were welcome...

Indeed, he makes quite a fuss about this Holy Day being an occasion for the landed gentry to revel in the spirit of generosity, and it is quite possible that this –– the slow but ceaseless erosion of old class hierarchies –– is what he is really complaining about when he longingly speaks of the old traditions.