Deller Consort – Quid petis o fili
At basically any point in English history from the Middle Ages on, people were complaining that Christmas wasn’t celebrated “like it used to be.” There always seemed to be a movement telling the gentry to be more giving and hospitable with their Christmas celebrations, opening their halls in the true spirit of Christian generosity. Both James I and Elizabeth I compelled gentry to maintain the traditional Christmas open house policy, but their motivations were purely political. There had been bad harvests at this time and the monarchs expected the populace to experience unrest: they thought they could head off the worst of it if the peasants had a bountiful Christmas provided by their lords. The mid-16th century farmer Thomas Tusser wrote,
“At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor
Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door.”
James was all for making his own Christmas traditions; in 1608, he wanted to have plays performed on Christmas Day, not done up until that point. “What do you tell me of the fashion? I will make it a fashion.” By this period, the entertainments in the Christmas courts held by the lords were more elaborate. By the beginning of the 15th century, it was becoming common for landowners of most incomes to be visited regularly at Christmas by entertainers.
There was, as yet, no Santa Claus, however. Similar to the French tradition, there was Black Peter, a demon enslaved by St Nicholas. He had horns, was covered in shaggy black hair, and carried a birch rod to punish naughty children and badly-behaved women (!). He was sometimes called Krampus (from the Old German word krampen, meaning “claw”), or Pelz Nickel, Klaubauf, or Knecht Reprechte.
I’m unsure whether Nicholas Breton was being sarcastic in 1626 when he wrote in The Fantasticks, “Not a cup of drink must pass without a carol.” Some believe “Nowell” comes from the French “Noël,” from the Latin natalis, meaning “birth,” and some people think Noël is the French version of the English Nowell, from the Anglo-Saxon “nowall is well.” That in turn may originate from two Gaulish words, noio or neu and helle, meaning “light.” “The First Nowell” is thought to have been written in or around the 16th or 17th century, but could date as far back as the 13th century. It didn’t appear in print, however, until the 1800s. The familiar form appeared in Cornwall in Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1823). The melody is believed to be a corruption of an earlier tune sung in a church gallery during services. Here is a “Nowell” carol from around 1500, “Sir Christèmas”:
‘Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell.’
‘Who is there that singeth so, nowell, nowell, nowell?’
‘I am here, Sir Christèmas.’
‘Welcome, my lord Sir Christèmas!
Welcome to all, both more and less,
Come near, nowell.’
‘Dieu vous garde, beaux sieurs, tidings I you bring:
A maid hath borne a child full young,
Which causeth you to sing, nowell.’
‘Christ is now born of a pure maid, born of a pure maid;
In an ox stall he is laid,
Wherefore sing we at a brayed, nowell.’
‘Buvez, bien, buvez bien par toute la compagnie.
Make good cheer and be right merry,
And sing with us now joyfully nowell!’
Oxford Camerata: Nowell Sing We
The boar’s head, whose origins began, we saw, in Yule, became more officially a Christian symbol. The Boar’s Head feast from Queen’s College, Oxford, comes from an event in 1341. A student of that college was walking in Shotover Forest, reading a book of Aristotle’s works, when he was attacked by a wild boar. As the boar charged, he rammed the book down its throat, crying, “Graecum est!” The feast subsequently commemorated his quick-thinking. The Hurstpierpoint College in West Sussex has a similar celebration that dates almost to the college’s foundation in 1849. The Queen’s College boar may be celebrated in this carol from Wynkynde Word’s Christmasse Carolles of 1521:
The boar’s head in hand I bring
With garland gay and birds singing.
I pray you all, help me to sing
Qui estis in convivio! (All who are at this banquet)
The boar’s head I understand
Is chief service in this land
Wheresoever it is found,
Secuitur cum sinapio! (It is served with mustard)
The boar’s head I dare well say
Anon after the twelfth day,
He takes his leave and goes away,
Exiuit tunc de patria! (He went out from his native country)
Regina coeli laetare
There is a widely perpetuated myth that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was one of the so-called catechism songs, from the period 1558-1829 when it was illegal to be a practicing Catholic in England. Catechism songs were written to teach young Catholics the basic tenets of their faith, so in “Twelve Days” each of the gifts is supposed to be a coded message. The partridge in the pear tree is Jesus on the cross; two turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments; three French hens are the three gifts of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians (faith, love, and hope); four calling birds are the evangelists; the five gold rings are the Jewish Torah (the first five books of the Bible); six geese are the six days of Creation; seven swans are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord God); eight maids are the eight beatitudes mentioned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount; nine ladies are the nine fruits of the Spirit listed in the book of Galatians (love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control); ten lords are the 10 Commandments; eleven pipers are the eleven faithful apostles; and twelve drummers are the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed. As interesting a story as this makes, there is no sustentative evidence either way, and in what way do the items in this list differ from the Church of England teachings? In any case, the song was shown to be part of the Christmas traditions in Europe and Scandinavia from at least the 16th century. The words were collected around 1780 in a children’s rhyme collection, Mirth without Mischief. There is, as ever, a lack of cohesion surrounding the lyrics. The calling birds may originally be mockingbirds or colly birds (Old English for blackbirds). (Personally, I like the sound of “colly birds” so that’s what I sing.) Also, the pear tree may have been made up along the way as the lyric may originally have been, “a partridge, une perdrix,” which is the French word for partridge.
A Renaissance Feast
By this time, the gigantic Christmas pies had shrunk somewhat and were now oval to look like Christ’s cradle and called “crib pies.” Some even came adorned with a little pastry Jesus. They were full of minced or chopped meat, dried fruit, spices, and sugar. Like plum pudding, everyone in the household was required to stir the mince meat during preparation for good luck. Also, you were supposed to eat one mince pie each day of the Twelve Days of Christmas (sounds good to me). Christmas fruit cake consumption was well-regulated as such cakes were considered decadent. It was considered good luck to save a portion of the fruit cake (until the next year?). When Shakespeare writes of “roasted crabs hissing in the bowl” in “The Winter Song,” he means crab apples, which were added to the Wassail bowl. The dish of choice might be a Westmoreland char (a fish from the lakes of northwest Britain) between Michelmas and Christmas. Many were then potted in spiced butter for dispatch to distant parts. For the small Elizabethan farmer, souse (boar) was eaten at Christmas dinner, and its dressing could include wine, ale, or verjuice, salt and spices, or simply strong brine.
Appetites were unabated. Sir William Petre and his family in 1552 consumed several kid pasties during the 12 Days of Christmas. In the UK, swans are now protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, but that didn’t stop the Percy family in Tudor times from eating 5 swans on Christmas Day, 4 on Twelfth Night, 3 on New Year’s Day, and 2 on St Stephen’s Day. (The mute swan has been protected by the Crown since 1482.) Turkey arrived in Britain after 1500, and from the 16th century, were reared in Norfolk. Christmas turkeys of the late Tudor and Stuart eras were “sticked full of cloves in their roasting” according to A. Boorde in A Compendyous Regyment, or a Dyetary of Health from 1542.
An Elizabethan recipe for turkey pie:
“To bake turkey fowl. Cleave your turkey fowl on the back and bruise all the bones. Season it with pepper gross beaten and salt, and put into it good store of butter. He must have five hours baking.”
And a modern recipe to simulate a Renaissance Christmas feast:
Chestnut, Bacon and Cranberry Stuffing
• 100g / 4 oz dried cranberries
50 mL / 2 fl oz ruby port
• 1 small onion, peeled and chopped
• 2 rashers
unsmoked back bacon, cut into strips
• 50g / 2 oz butter
• 2 garlic
• 450g / 1lb good-quality sausagemeat
• 140g/ 5 oz fresh
white or brown breadcrumbs
• 2 T chopped fresh parsley
• ½ t chopped fresh
• 140g / 5 oz peeled, cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
medium egg, lightly beaten
• Salt and freshly grated black pepper
Soak the cranberries in the port for an hour. Fry the onion and bacon gently in the butter, until the onion is tender the bacon is cooked. Add the garlic and try for another minute or so. Remove from heat and cool, then mix with all the remaining ingredients, including the cranberries and port, adding enough egg to bind—hands are easiest for this. (To check seasoning, fry a knob of stuffing in a little butter.) Use to stuff the neck end of the turkey, or shape into 1 ½ in round balls. To cook the stuffing balls, half an hour before the end of the turkey’s cooking time, put them into the tin around the turkey or cook them in a separate, oiled tin.
C. Anne Wilson.
C. Anne Wilson.