Monday, 31 December 2012

The Fiery Flames of the Stinging Snapdragon

                            The Puritan Pamphleteer Phillip Stubbes got himself into a right old lather about his neighbours’ festive amusements and let them know what he thought about them in the marvellous madness of his Anatomie of Madness (1583). 
But fpecially in Chriftimas tyme, there is nothing els vfed but cards, dice, tables, mafking, mumming, bowling, & fuch like fooleries.” 
Stubbes had a thing about dice in particular and rattled on about the sinfulness of playing with them ad nauseum, but he didn’t live to see the dies put away for the last time, (here’s a thing that might win you a pint in a pub bet – dice is the singular form, the plural is dies). Dies played a part in the ‘mummerie’ of 1377 I mentioned yesterday, when the then Prince Richard (later Richard II) was entertained by his future subjects, as related by John Stow in his Survey of London (1598),  
“… the said mummers did salute, showing by a pair of dice upon the table their desire to play with the prince, which they so handled that the prince did always win when he cast them. Then the mummers set to the prince three jewels, one after another, which were a bowl of gold, a cup of gold, and a ring of gold, which the prince won at three casts.” 
It’s surprising what you can get away with if you have a couple of loaded dice and a susceptible Prince to hand. 


Another Christmas game was Snapdragon, a marvellous pastime that has gone the way Hot-Cockles, Post and Pair, and the Fool Plough. In the times before Health and Safety and Political Correction Gone Mad, small children were encouraged to play with burning brandy, (mix together fire, alcohol and children - what could possibly go wrong?) in the game of Snapdragon, wherein currants or raisins (or other fruits and nuts, such as plums, figs, almonds etc), are put into a bowl, brandy is poured into the bowl and set alight, and the children each take turns to snatch a blazing fruit from the bowl and pop it into their mouth, thus extinguishing the flames. It is best played in a darkened room, when the blue flame of the burning spirit can be seen to finest advantage. What, I repeat, could possibly go wrong? And yet, this harmless parlour diversion has passed into history. 

Playing Snapdragon

There was a rhyme to be recited whilst the game was being played, 
Here he comes with flaming bowl,

Don't he mean to take his toll,

Snip ! Snap ! Dragon!

Take care you don't take too much,

Be not greedy in your clutch,

Snip ! Snap ! Dragon!

With his blue and lapping tongue

Many of you will be stung,

Snip ! Snap ! Dragon!

For he snaps at all that comes

Snatching at his feast of plums,

Snip ! Snap ! Dragon!

But Old Christmas makes him come,

Though he looks so fee ! fa ! fum !

Snip ! Snap ! Dragon!

Don't 'ee fear him, be but bold —

Out he goes, his flames are cold,

Snip ! Snap ! Dragon!”

A Snap-Dragon-Fly

A correspondent to the January 1857 edition of Notes and Queries speculated that the game took its name from the German words Schnapps – a spirit, and Drache – dragon, and went on to mention that the game had also been called flap-dragon and slap-dragon. The same article also adds quotations from Shakespeare, from The Winter’s Tale
But to make an end of the ship: to see how the sea flap-dragoned it,”  
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon,” 
and the second part of Henry IV
And drinks off candles' ends as flap-dragons.” 
This last recalls a variation of the game Snapdragon played by adults, wherein a lighted candle was fixed into a mug of ale or cider and players had to drink from the flagon with burning their faces or setting fire to their hair. What larks! 

Michael Faraday referred to Snapdragon in his first Royal Institution Christmas Lecture The Chemical History of a Candle (1848), suggesting the fruits acted as a wick for the burning spirits, allowing the burning to take place without consuming the wick. 

Michael Faraday - The Chemical History of a Candle

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are one of this country’s great treasures, begun in 1825 and given every year since (apart from a wee blip during 1939-42, due to Corporal Hitler’s Unpleasantness), they are a series of related public lectures on a single topic, given by a top boffin of the day (David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Susan Greenfield, Ian Stewart and Monica Grady spring to mind), and although aimed at children they are easily interesting enough for an adult audience. From 1966, they were televised, first of all on BBC2 and they were an important highpoint of this kid’s Christmas, when a grown-up would tell me really interesting stuff with a few experiments thrown in for good measure, and they are one of the things that first got me interested in science (which was the plan, after all). Things were going along fine until the pencil-squeezers and the bean-counters who, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, got their grubby fingers in the mix and the lectures were moved to, firstly, Channel 4 and then, unbelievably, Channel 5 and More4, until their return in 2010 to the BBC, in a reduced form of three instead of five lectures, now shown on BBC4, that other marvellous national treasure that broadcasts the best television in the world. Let’s hope that is the end of the matter and we can go on enjoying them henceforth.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Comedic Capers of the Merrymaking Mummers

               Waits were one tradition that fell away with time but the Mummers have remained, although changed, across the years, which is how it should be. Mumming is a folk tradition and folk traditions need to change if they are not to turn into museum pieces or self-consciously twee nonsense. The villages have changed, the villagers have changed, and if the old ways are to remain alive, vital and relevant, then the folk traditions need to change too. They are not nice wee performances to entertain smart city dwellers with their quaint, picturesque, funny country ways; they exist to bring the villagers together, to give them a common purpose and a feeling of belonging, to let the young people work with the old people, whereby both can learn to respect the other and discover their own place in their own community. 

Mediaeval Mummers

They are alive, and they must grow, develop and change; if they are merely preserved, they will shrivel and die, as pickled and dry and brittle as a bitter widow, cold and grudgingly tolerated but ultimately unloved and faintly embarrassing. This is why Shakespeare scares so many people, as the purists seek to preserve his works in vinegar but I have seen, for instance, a performance of Macbeth, performed in a broken old barn on a blasted heath in the middle of winter, done in modern dress and with solid northern accents, and all before an audience of a few dozen souls, that was more alive, significant and, damn it, more entertaining than anything that was ever made by a Hollywood committee with a budget of mega-millions. I’ve heard ‘better’ folk music sung in the back room of a village pub by the local postman on his second-hand guitar than I have when I’ve paid half a week’s wages to sit two hundred yards away from some bloke who considers himself to be considerably cooler if he wears his sunglasses indoors. 

Mediaeval Mummers

Anyway, Mumming. There are some people who say the word goes all the way back to the Greeks, from mommoμομμο – meaning ‘mask’ and there might well be something in this, although it's more likely that it comes from the old German mummer, meaning 'a disguised person' and vermummen meaning 'to mask one's face, to wear a disguise'. I’ll tell you about what used to happen in the ancient Greek theatre another time, but the Mummers plays started, well, nobody knows when, because they are a folk tradition and things weren’t written down about such things when only the winners bothered about writing down what they did from one day to the next. Ordinary folk were far too busy being oppressed to worry about it. Or at least that’s what some historians would like you to think. Actually, the folk were far too busy enjoying doing their Mumming to bother about it, and what mattered would be remembered because it mattered and what wasn’t important would be forgotten because it didn’t matter, because that’s how their minds worked back then, when they were alive and living in a tradition. 

A Victorian Mummer's Play

Mummers were Mumming in the Middle Ages, performing their plays with their set patterns at Christmastide to audiences in village pubs and in village squares, with locals dressing up as stock characters in prescribed roles, following the patterns of the plays that were as old as the oldest old people remembered, turning them and twisting them to local themes and local concerns, but all the time holding to the overall feel of the Mumming tradition. The Romans dressed up during Saturnalia, disguising themselves and getting up to mischief, and this habit continued after the Empire fell, with ordinary folk dressing up as legendary characters, mythological figures and such like and performing for their neighbours, often on Christmas Eve but also at other times of the year. 

A Party of Mummers comes to call

One strand of this developed into the mediaeval Mystery plays, which were scenes taken from the Bible and given a folksy English spin, and the other strand became the more secular Mummer’s plays, which featured such incongruous players as St George, Achilles, Father Christmas, Judas Iscariot, a Turkish Knight, a Dragon and a pompous, bumbling Doctor. The plays had a common theme, with (usually) Father Christmas acting as a narrator, two of the ‘heroic’ figures would fight, amidst great bluster and mock classicisms, and one would kill the other only to be brought back to life by the Doctor’s magical physick. 

A Mummers' carol

The actors (exclusively male) dressed up in home-made costumes and disguised themselves by, for instance, wearing masks or blacking their faces with burnt cork, giving us another name for them, ‘Guisers’, and they were also locally called Geese Dancers, Pace Eggers and Hobby Horsers. Quite often, the mummers went from house to house, performing their dramas in return for food, drink or money, and were a welcome Christmas entertainment for the most part, with their harum-scarum antics and high cockolorum, although sometimes things turned decidedly unpleasant when mummers with a long-held grudge exacted their revenge on an unsuspecting neighbour. 

Mummers a-calling

Indeed, in 1400 a dozen plotters disguised themselves as mummers in a plot to assassinate King Henry IV, only to be discovered hours before they could carry out the deed, leading to the customary hanging, drawing and quartering so beloved by the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenets. Ironically, Richard II, who was deposed by cousin Henry, had enjoyed a splendid ‘mummerie’ held in his honour at London just before Candlemas 1377, amidst great pageantry and jollity. The mummery of the ordinary people was enjoyed by other monarchs but were tidied up and polished to become the Masques of the Tudor and later courts. Henry VIII, when he wasn’t busy dismantling many of the country’s other ancient establishments, tried to ban mummery and guising, with anyone who went about in masks, beards or disguises liable to be arrested as a vagabond, thrown into gaol for three months and fined at the King’s pleasure but this didn’t check the popularity of mumming and the plays can still be seen, alive and well, in various towns and villages at Christmastide across England to this day.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Nocturnal Noises of the Wandering Waits

                 One old Christmas custom that, to all intents and purposes, had died out is now, in a slightly different form, making something of a return. I am referring to the Waits, the groups of musicians who played in towns and cities, usually at night, and who came to be associated with Christmastide. Why they were called Waits is something of a mystery - there is evidence to support all of the views, each of which has its own merits. There are some who believe that the term derives from the musical instruments that they played, others think that it refers to the type of music they played, whilst others prefer the view that it was applied to those who performed under special circumstances. 

The Waits

The name Waits was applied to the minstrels attached to the King’s court who patrolled the streets at night, protecting the citizenry and proclaiming the hour, in much the same manner as the city watch in those days before the police force was established. There was a regular company of Waits at Exeter as early as 1400 and an account in Liber Niger Domus Regis from the time of Edward IV records, 
A wayte, that nightelye from Mychelmas to Shreve Thorsdaye pipethe the watche withen this courte fower tymes, in the somere nyghtes iij tymes, and makethe bon gayte at every chambere dore and offyce, as well for feare of pyckeres and pillers.” 

Domestic Waits

This ‘Wait’ was a kind of yeoman-page, paid partly in money and partly in board-wages, and may well be the origin of the yeoman-waiter of later days, (it should be noted that in this version, he is a ‘domestic wayte’, rather than a ‘civil wayte’). In his edition of The Famous History of Dr Faustus (1858), William Thom writes, 
Lastly, was heard by Faustus all manner of instruments of musick, as organs, clarigolds, lutes, viols, citterns, waits, hornpipes, flutes, anomes, harps, and all manner of other instruments.” 

London Waits - words and music

Here the waits are included in the list of instruments, and in his Principles of Musik (1636), Charles Butler includes the same in a list, 
Harp, Lute, Bandora, Orparion, Cittern, Gittern, Cymbal, Pfalteri, Dulcimer, Viol, Virginal, &c. and (of Emfmeufta) Pipe, Organ, Shalm, Sagbut, Cornet, Recorder, Fluit, Waits or Hobois, Trumpet &c.” 

C Butler - Principles of Musik - 1636 (Waits and Hobois underlined)

This ‘waits or hobois’ implies that it is the same instrument known as the hoboy, hautboys, hautbois or oboe; it is called the waits or wayghtes, sometimes the wait-pipe, which was another name for the shawm, an old, double-reeded, woodwind instrument that was the fore-runner of the oboe and the bassoon. It was a long wooden pipe with a flared, trumpet-like bell at the end, and had a harsh, piercing sound that was well suited to open-air playing. 


Hautboys, the noun, has no singular form, and the name was passed to the performers who played them in public and thence to any performer who played any instrument in a similar manner. That the name of the instrument became the name of the performers can be seen in this extract from the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1756, describing the freemen of Alnwick who,  
“… enter the town, sword in hand, and are generally met by women dressed up with ribbons, bells and garlands of gum-flowers, who welcome them with dancing and singing, and are called timber-waits (perhaps a corruption of timbrel-waits, players on timbrels, waits being an old word for those who play on musical instruments in the streets)”. 
In a curious, old poetical satire by Andrew Brice The Mobiad, (1737), he writes, 
Shrill Hautboys and the fhriller Trumpet greet, 
Attentive Ears, by Turn, in ev’ry Street,” 
with an added note, 
Hautboys, &c. - The City Waits and Trumpet, about this Hour of Eight, begin to traverfe the Town.” 
In a letter to his brother dated January 2nd 1614, Robert Heyricke, an alderman of Leicester, wrote, 
Yow wryte how yow reacayved my letur of (on) St Stevens day, and that, I thanke yow, yow esteemed yt as weelcoom as the 18 trumpytors.” 

Waits Badge from Leicester

By the 1500s, the city waits were issued with uniforms and played at the parades made by mayors and other civic dignitaries, as well as watching over the nighttime streets until these patrols passed over to the regular police force. Samuel Johnson did not included the word ‘wait’ in this sense in his Dictionary, but Edmund Burke, in his copy of the same (now in the British Museum), has a hand-written addenda reading, 
WAIT, n. s. from ye French guet (literally a sentinel on outpost duty). 2. Waits, in ye pl. an old word signifying ye night Guard in ye city of London.” 

The calling Waits

A different entomology links ‘waits’ to the German ‘wacht’, as a watch-man and without the musical connotations, with others pointing to the old Scots word ‘waith’, meaning ‘to wander from place to place’, referring to the ‘menstrales’ of, for example, Glasgow, where certificates and uniforms where issued to old, often blind, respectable musicians who played slow, soothing airs on the December nights leading up to the New Year and who then collected subscriptions from the inhabitants of the city. 

The Waits call

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the peak of the waits as public performers, maybe following the examples of the carollers and wassailers, and for the three weeks preceding Christmas the waits would play every night in the streets of the cities, returning during the days to collect money, food and drink. 

Waits Badge from Wakefield - 1670

They were issued with special licences but other unofficial groups, cashing in on the practice, also performed and collected tips, leading the official, established waits to complain about the activities of these impromptu opportunists. It was probably the amateur performances of these ‘musicians’ that marked the beginning of the end of the waits, as the once welcome nighttime subtleties of an older age were replaced with a raucous, nocturnal clamour that roused the innocent householders from their December slumbers, with insult added to their injuries when the perpetrators returned in the daylight, demanding tips and Christmas boxes. 

The Unwelcome Waits

In December 1822, Mr Munroe, the authorised principal London Wait, brought charges against four men for playing musical instruments in St Martin’s Lane at half-past twelve in the morning and for soliciting Christmas boxes. Due to the wording of the Vagrancy Act, the defendants got off on a technicality, but were admonished by Mr Halls, the sitting magistrate, and ordered not to collect any more Christmas boxes. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, as part of the great early Reform acts, effectively ended the role of the official civic Waits, although amateur musicians continued to accompany carol singers at their concerts and modern Waits societies have revived the spirit of the Waits in their reconstructions (although, thankfully, they no longer parade and play through the streets during the winter nights).

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Visual Variety of the Christmas Card

                  Some people are well organised and get the job out of the way early, whereas others keep putting it off and leave it until the last minute. I’ll admit, I fall into the latter camp. It’s not a thing I enjoy doing and I’m glad when it’s over and done with. What is it? Why, writing the Christmas cards, of course. It has to be done, you know it does, and some people take it as a personal affront if they don’t receive one and when we fall out with someone, what’s the worst thing we can do? We can take them off our Christmas card list. 

The Star in the East card

That’s just about the worst slight we English can inflict on our fellow Englishmen. You know we mean business when we knock you off our Christmas card list. Forget vendettas, feuds, fisticuffs or a really stern look; if your name comes off the Christmas card list, you are beyond the pale, you are nothing to us, you may as well be dead. 

The Kindly Robin card

Like many other Christmas customs, we stole the idea of Christmas cards from our continental cousins. It was a well-founded tradition for the French and Germans to send out New Year letters to their kith and kin at the turning of the year (the Germans also sent out Namenstag cards, sent not on a birthday but on your namesake saint’s day); just a few lines to let them know how things were going and what you were up to, and those Johnny Foreigners with lots of friends and relations came up with the idea of just writing one letter and getting it printed up and sent out en masse. The English spotted this ruse and pinched it; it’s a thing we are especially good at and it’s the reason that the sun never set on the British Empire - as not even God would trust an Englishman in the dark. 

Horsley's prototype card - 1843

The idea of a Christmas card came from Henry Cole, a civil servant responsible for, amongst other things, designing the Penny Black postage stamp. Cole commissioned the Royal Academician John Callcott Horsley to design a greeting card for him in 1843, (his diary entry for November 17th 1843 includes, “Mr. Horsley came and brought design for Christmas card”). 

The First English Christmas Card - 1846

In 1846, Cole had one thousand cards lithographed and hand-coloured, which sold for one shilling each, issued under Cole’s pseudonym Felix Summerly, printed by Mr Jobbins of Warwick Court, Holborn, and sold by Cole’s friend, Joseph Cundall, from his shop in Old Bond Street, London (see Cundall’s letter to Notes and Queries of January 26th 1864, where he clearly states that ‘possibly not more’ than one thousand cards were sold - not the 2,500 as the Wikipedia article on Christmas Cards claims). 

Cundall's Letter to Notes and Queries - 1864

Detail of Horsley's design - Moral Degeneracy in Action

The card was a  single paste-board, the size of a lady’s calling card, with Horsley’s Germanesque design of three panels, the side ones depicting charitable acts and the central one showing a scene of a family celebrating with glasses of wine – which caused the Victorian abstainers to object that a little girl was being encouraged to drink alcohol because, as we all know, pictures of children imbibing with their family on a Christmas card is the first step on the rocky road to drunkenness, debauchery, the gutter and far, far worse. 

Christmas Frogs - What Else?

Although Cole’s cards sold out, the idea didn’t really catch on until about twenty years later, when playing-card manufacturers Charles Goodall and Sons branched out into the greeting cards business, producing visiting-card style cards with the simple message ‘A Merry Christmas’. 

A Christmas Pixie

Soon after, robins began to appear, but the early Victorian card illustrations were not particularly festive – they featured fairies, animals, flowers and children, and over the years far more bizarre images began to appear. Bicycles and steam engines may not strike us as particularly Christmassy, but neither do scantily-clad nymphs or cricket matches, yet these were grist to the mills of the card makers. 

Not Really What You Expect ...

... On A Christmas Card

It wasn’t long though until the familiar holly, snowmen, Kings, bells and all the other tat were rolled out and soon elaborate creations of lace, gilt, bells, silk, gold, silver, broche, embossing, scrolls, fans, pop-ups, velvet, scent and goodness knows what else began to appear. 

Lace, Swans and Lambs - on a Christmas Card

A Selection of Cards - 1911

This didn’t stop the killjoys and the puritans attempting to get in on the act, for as early as 1871 there were complaints in the newspapers that ‘legitimate correspondence’ was being delayed by all this whimsical postal nonsense and in 1873, The Times printed the first notice apologising for ‘not sending Christmas cards this year’. 

One of the Cards from the above catalogue - A Poodle riding a Pig.

By the 1890s, the custom of sending cards was beginning to decline and might well have died out all together had it not been for the resurgence during the First World War, when cards to and from the front became a welcome communication with loved ones. Christmas cards may well be in danger again as the habit of hand-written communication diminishes in the face of the instant messages of the e-mail, text and other modern forms of keeping in touch.

Christmas Card from King George VI - 1939

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Saintly Story of the Meritorious Monarch

                    You know when you listen to a song but you don’t quite catch the lyrics properly – an example of this was used in an advert for Maxell audio cassettes a good few years ago when the title line from Desmond Dekker’s hit Israelites was subtitled as ‘Me ears are alight’. These mis-hearings are called Mondegreens, a word coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright and derived from a seventeenth century ballad, The Bonny Earl O’Moray, the first verse of which is, 
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, 
Oh, where hae ye been? 
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray, 
And laid him on the green.” 
Wright wrote that some people have mis-heard that last line as ‘And Lady Mondegreen’, from which she coined the term for this phenomenon. Another example can be found in the Christmas song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, when the line ‘All of the other reindeer’ becomes ‘Olive, the other reindeer’. When I was a boy, my tin ear turned ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out’ into ‘Good King Wenslass last looked out’, which kind of makes sense if there ever was a Good King called Wenslass who looked out for a last time, which there wasn’t, and so it doesn’t. It was just me getting it wrong. 

Anyway, Wenceslas did his looking out on the feast of Stephen, which is feast-day of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, held on December 26th, the day after Christmas Day. Stephen was an early Christian deacon who found himself at odds with the Jewish authorities not long after the crucifixion of Jesus and was stoned to death by them for his troubles, with that self-serving opportunist Saul of Tarsus (who later styled himself Paul) holding their cloaks for them and looking on whilst they killed Stephen, (I side with the opinion of Thomas Jefferson, who thought Paul was the first corruptor of the teachings of Jesus. I have no truck with this Saul or his obnoxious theo-blatherings). 

So, who was this Wenceslas chappie, anyway? Václav I (Václav is Czech, and translates into English as Wenceslas) was a Bohemian Duke, born in about 907, to Wratislaw (a Christian Duke) and Drahomira (a tribal pagan), and after his father’s death, the young Wenceslas was raised and educated by his grandmother, Ludmilla. Drahomira resented Ludmilla’s influence over her son and arranged to have her strangled, an act that appalled Wenceslas, who wrested power from Drahomira and declared himself Duke. He supported the spread of Christianity in his realm and soon acquired a reputation for personal piety and charity to the poor. Drahomira plotted with her son Boleslav, Wenceslas’s younger brother and, on the Feastday of Saints Cosmas and Damian, September 28th 935, as Wenceslas was making his way to church, he was attacked and killed by three followers of Boleslav, who then assumed his brother’s title of Duke. 

Gathering Winter Fuel

After his death, Wenceslas was soon declared to be a martyr and given the posthumous title of King by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, a cult quickly grew up around him in both Bohemia and England, and by the eleventh century he was declared the Patron Saint of Bohemia. In the many hagiographies of his life, there are accounts of his numerous acts of kindness, generosity and mercy and he was soon regarded as the model of the Righteous King. 

John Mason Neale

In 1853, John Mason Neale, an English hymnologist (he also wrote Good Christian Men, Rejoice), published a carol Good King Wenceslas, which tells how the King went out on St Stephen’s day to take food, drink and fuel to one of his poor subjects and encourages his faltering servant to follow in his footsteps in the deep snow. 

Piae Cantiones - Tempus adest floridum

Neale took the tune from a thirteenth century spring carol, Tempus Adest Floridum (Spring has Now Unwrapped the Flowers), published in a rare (and possibly unique) Finnish song collection Piae Cantiones of 1582, a copy of which was given to Neale by G J R Gordon, Queen Victoria’s minister in Stockholm, (a verse with a similar beginning can be found in Carmina Burana (CB 142), although this quickly becomes rather more carnal than spiritual). 

Carmina Burana 142

The words are Neale’s translation of a poem by the Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda, (and bear no relation to the text of Tempus Adest Floridum); Neale had been aware of the legend of Wenceslas previously and had included a prose version of it in his Deeds of Faith (1849), a children’s book about the deeds of the martyrs. 

J M Neale - Deeds of Faith - 1849

Good King Wenceslas is now a very popular Christmas carol, although it has not always been so, as some snooty contemporary commentators questioned the matching of Neale’s ‘doggerel’ with an Easter hymn and looked forward to the carol falling into early oblivion. But fingers had always been pointed at Neale; although he was thought to be the finest Classical scholar in his year at Cambridge University, he was denied a First due to his deficiency in mathematics. 

Mark My Footsteps, My good page

He was ordained as an Anglican priest but was forced to resign a position following arguments with a bishop when he took a wardenship in East Grinstead. In 1854, Neale co-founded an order of Anglican nursing nuns, the Society of St Margaret, also at East Grinstead but came into opposition with some who questioned his High Church affinities, feeling that he was seeking to undermine the Anglican Church from within and turn it towards a more Roman Catholic form. Anti-Catholic feeling was running high in England at the time, and any move towards a more ritualistic system of worship was viewed with great suspicion. 

Thou and I shall see him dine

Neale’s position wasn’t helped when one of the young nuns died from an infection of scarlet fever contracted whilst nursing the sick. Her father believed she had been deliberately placed in danger by the order, a belief strengthened by her having altered her will after entering the order and leaving it a sum of money. At her funeral, the father attempted to disturb the ceremony and a mob gathered around, threatening the nuns and throwing Neale to the ground. The police were called in and the situation degenerated into an open riot, with threats made on Neale’s life and his house being stoned. 

Even after the funeral, the nun’s father caused further trouble in the press and Neale received further threats that his home was to be burned down. Eventually, the situation eased, not least because of Neale’s innate goodness, although he continued to be viewed with suspicion and he died, worn out through hard work, at the young age of forty-eight.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Boxing Boons of the Exacting Embezzlers

                  In England (and some of the Commonwealth nations), the day after Christmas Day is known as Boxing Day. It has nothing to do with pugilism and fighting with your kith and kin, or disposing of all the cardboard boxes that your Christmas presents came in, but refers instead to the ‘boxes’, or Christmas donations, that were once given by well-to-do to their servants, tradesfolk and the deserving poor. 

Handing out the Christmas Boxes

By some accounts, the practice began with boxes that were carried on board ships that went on lengthy voyages, and into which donations were placed to pay a priest to say masses for the safety of the vessel - this box would not be opened until the ship returned safely to harbour. The poorer passengers would beg money from the rich, with which they might make donations of their own and carried smaller boxes, into the slots of which the collected coins were dropped. This derivation, it must be said, seems unlikely, but the practice of the rich giving gifts to the poor at Christmas dates back to at least the Middle Ages. 

A Hand Out for a Hand-out

In The Book of Christmas (1836), Thomas Kibble Hervey notes that the practice of making a list of tradespersons and others who might have a claim to a Christmas-box was still in evidence but was, at that time, beginning to decline. He traces this to the abuses of the custom that saw innumerable claims being made by all and sundry, not only family servants and trusted tradesmen, but just about anyone who provided a service of any sort. Hervey writes that in London, on Boxing Day, 
“… every street resounds with the clang of hall-door knockers. Rap follows rap, in rapid succession,” 
as a succession of claimants knocked on the doors, demanding their Christmas-boxes. Some of these roaming gangs went out with trumpets and drums, to announce their arrival, as Samuel Pepys noted in his Diary entry for December 28th 1668, 
Up, called up by drums and trumpets; these things and boxes having cost me much money this Christmas already, and will do more.” 
One hundred and fifty years later, Hervey records a similar case, 
Called out by the parish beadle, dustmen, and charity-boys. The postman, street-sweepers, chimney-sweepers, lamp-lighters, and waits, will all be sure to wait upon me. These fellows have cost me much money this Christmas, — and will do more, the next.” 

The Poor Children's Christmas

In another case, Hervey writes of the indignation caused when, in addition to the usual stream of the brewer, the baker, the watch, the beadles, the dustmen and all the other tradesmen, even the parish clerk turned up at his door demanding half-a-crown. In some areas, the beadle would arrive bearing a printed verse broadside, with wood engraved illustrations, which were known as Bellman’s Verses. These had, at one time, been honest, vernacular poetry written in good faith, which were given in exchange for the Christmas-box, but by the 1830s they had degenerated into cynical, manipulative, money-making doggerel, as mourned by Leigh Hunt, in his London Journal, 
No, no! Give us the good old decrepit bellman's verses, hobbling as their bringer, and taking themselves for something respectable, like his cocked-hat, — or give us none at all.” 

Leigh Hunt's London Journal - December 24 1834

A London printer had, from 1735, printed in excess of ten thousand copies of his Bellman’s Verses each year but by the 1830s this number had fallen to less than three thousand, marking the passing of another old Christmas tradition. Another printed publication came on behalf of the Dustmen, of all people, who issued certificates proclaiming their ‘right’ to a Christmas tip (and distancing themselves from the less-deserving Scavengers). An example reads, 
Ladies and Gentlemen, — At this season, when you are pleased to give to labouring men, employed in collecting your dust, a donation, called Christmas-box, advantage of which is often taken by persons assuming the name of Dustmen, obtaining, under false pretences, your bounty, we humbly submit to your consideration to prevent such imposition, to bestow no gift on any not producing a brass figure of the following description—A Scotch Fifer, French horn, &c, between his legs. — James Dee and Jerry Cane. — Southampton Paving Act—on the bell. — Contractor — Thomas Salisbury. 
No connexion with scavengers—Please not to return this bill to any one.” 

Boxing Day - London

Another paper-based Boxing Day custom has gone the way of the Bellman’s Verses, that of the parish boys exhibiting examples of their calligraphy on December 26th, in churches and schoolrooms, or taken door-to-door and donations collected from admirers of the fine penmanship. 

The Servants' Christmas

But there is one Boxing Day custom that has, thankfully, ceased to be followed. It was the custom, in some places, to present as a Christmas gift a young, black slave child, and advertisements were issued of their availability – William Sandys condemns one such example of this ‘abomination’ in his Christmastide – its History, Festivals and Carols (1852), 
To be sold, a little mulatto, two years of age, very pretty, and well adapted for a festival present.” 
Like Hunting the Wren, it’s a Christmas tradition that we are glad to have seen the back of.  And good riddance.