CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS AND OBSERVANCES IN SCOTLAND.
“Nor failed old Scotland to produce,
At such high tide, her savoury goose.”
OLD Father Christmas, with his jolly face, his rubicund form, his frosty hair, his presents for the children, his cheer and good news for young and old, rich and poor, is once more on his way to us. And right welcome he always is, for the sacred lessons that he teaches us, and for the recollections of old days he brings along with him. We in Scotland now vie with our neighbours in England in greeting him, and in doing so we are only reviving a good old custom. For many years we gave him a somewhat cold reception, and there were, perhaps, some good reasons for this. But these reasons no longer exist, and to-night you and I, my reader, shall try to call back the past with a view of making our present welcome of him the heartier. We shall look at some old customs and observances with which our fathers held the festival of the winter’s solstice, the birthday of the world’s Saviour, and kept the merry days of Yule.
Various etymologies have been given of the name “Yule,” and a long and elaborate article to which I owe my obligations is devoted to the subject in the new edition of Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary, by the publication of which Mr. Gardner of Paisley has rendered all Scotsmen his debtors. Some have derived it from a Greek word which denoted a hymn sung by women in honour of Bacchus, a custom mentioned in this line translated from the Greek – “And preparing the salted flour, she sang the pleasant Iuli.” Because the 25th December was reckoned the middle of winter by Julius Cæsar, it has been conjectured that the Goths gave the name of Jul to this day; and even the venerable Bede seems to adopt what we must confess seems to us a most unlikely opinion. A more likely idea is that adopted by Dr. Charles Rogers in his most delightful work, Social Life in Scotland. He and others think it comes from the Saxon hiol, a wheel – a word primarily referring to the form of the Druidic temple, latterly signifying a feast. Perhaps it may be added that in old mythology a wheel was an emblem of the sun, and the name may have some reference to the lengthening day. In the old clog almanacs a wheel is the device employed for marking the season of Yule-tide. The learned Hickes derives it from a term literally signifying ale or beer, the chief liquor among the Goths, and metonymically a feast; while others derive it from the Mæso-Gothic iul, the sun.
Whatever was its original meaning, it has ever been associated with feasting and merry-making, and among Northers nations it has always been the great season of sacrifice – a remnant of which is perhaps visible in the presents and gifts we nowadays make to one another – sacrificing something to show good-will to others and to make them happy. The Goths offered horses at their feast of Yule – a clear survival of Persian idolatry – the horse being sacred to the sun in Eastern lands. They also used to sacrifice a boar, and it is still customary among the peasants of Northern Europe to make bread in the form of a boar at Christmas. This bread is placed on the table with bacon and other dishes, and as a good omen they expose it so long as the feast continues. The use that is made of the Maiden, or last handful of corn that has been cut down in harvest, is supposed to be analogous to this custom. It is divided among the horses or cows on the morning of Yule, or sometimes of the New Year, and is supposed to be alluded to in the New Year salutation of the auld farmer to his auld mare, Maggie:
“A guid New Year I wish thee, Maggie;
Hae, there’s a ripp to thy auld baggie.”
It was customary also in heathen times to set meat and drink offerings on the table as an offering to the Deity or a propitiation to “the Dæmon.” And we still have traces of this custom. In Angus it is lucky to be the first to open the door on Christmas morning, because he who does so “lets in Yule.” A new broom besom is set at the back of the door, and sometimes a table of chair is placed in the open door, covered with a clean cloth, and bread and cheese placed on it, as an offering to Yule. Bread and drink are set in the house, and every one who calls must partake. A servant who wishes the family well is careful to go at once to the well to draw water, to pull corn out of the stack, and to bring in kail from the kitchen yard. Somewhat analogous to this is the practice, on the stroke of twelve of New Year morning, to endeavour to get the scum or cream of the well – the flower of the well, as it is called in some placed. The girl who gets this is to win the heart and hand of the most accomplished young man in the parish. The custom is thus alluded to in one of the Rev. J. Nicol’s poems:-
“Twall struck. Twa neebor hizzies raise;
An’ liltin, gaed a sad gate;
‘The Flower o’ the well to our house gaes,
An’ I’ll the bonniest lad get.’ ”
As they go to the well they chant the last two lines.
Here also may be noted a custom mentioned by Dr. Rogers. In Aberdeenshire, on Christmas morning, each member of a family was served in bed with lagan le vrich, a species of sowens, while another dish consisted of crappit-heads, or the heads of haddocks stuffed with oatmeal and onions.
Christmas has always been a great day for the meeting of friends and relations and mutual entertainment. In Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-1799, it is stated with reference to the burgh of Montrose; “At Christmas and the New Year the opulent burghers begin to feast with their friends and go a round of visits, which takes up the space of many weeks. Upon such occasions the gravest is expected to be merry and to join in a cheerful song.” In regard to a parish in Forfarshire, it is said: “Christmas is held as a great festival in this neighbourhood. On that day the servant is free from his master, and goes about visiting his friends and acquaintances. The poorest must have beef or mutton on the table, and what they call a dinner with their friends. Many amuse themselves with various diversions, particularly with shooting for prizes, called here wad-shooting. And many do but little business all the Christmas week, the evening of almost every day being spent in amusement. All the lower classes of the people still observe the old style. Our fathers, they say, observed it on this day, and they add they may alter the style, but they cannot alter the seasons. In perhaps somewhat better-off “circles,” fat brose, made of the oil and juice extracted by boiling from the head and knee joints of a bullock, mixed with oatmeal, was eaten. After breakfast or at dinner, “the brose was made generally in a large punch-bowl, the mistress of the ceremonies dropping a gold ring among the oatmeal upon which the oily soup was poured. The family or party (for on these occasions there was generally a party of young people assembled), provided with spoons, and seated around the half-boiling brose, on the understanding that the person who was so fortunate as to get the ring was to be first married.”
And among a richer class still, the proverbial goose was eaten. It was a favourite dish at this time of the year in private families, and in such pleasant hospitable hostelries as Lucky Wood’s in the Canongate of Edinburgh, to which Allan Ramsay thus alludes:
“She ga’e us aft hail legs o’ lamb,
And did nae hain her mutton ham;
Then aye at Yule, whene’er we cam’,
A bra’ goose pye.”
The practice of making gifts and presents which now obtains again in Scotland at this season, but which for long was more in vogue at the New Year, originally belonged to Yule-tide. It is a remnant of a very old usage, if not, as we suggested, derived from the old sacrificial customs – Northern nations having been accustomed to make gifts to their Sovereign called the Jolagifers, or Yule gifts. And in our sweetie-skon, a loaf enriched with raisins, currants and spices, we see an indication of the old Roman custom of making presents of sweetmeats, dried figs, honey, &c., at this season of the year.
Candles of a particular kind were made for Yule-tide. They were made large so as to ensure their burning from the time they were lit until the day was done. They were then extinguished and carefully locked up in a chest, to be burned at the owner’s late-wake, so that evil spirits would not take possession of his body. “Wherefore serveth holy candles?” it is asked. The answer is: “To light up in thunder and to bless men when they lye a-dying.”
Another superstitious custom obtained in some parts of the country: Farmers went into their stables and byres on Yule-e’en and read a chapter of the Bible behind their horses and cattle to preserve them from harm. Others believed that if they went into the cow-house at twelve o’clock at night all the cattle would be seen to kneel. This, of course, refers to our Lord having been born in a stable. It was also believed that bees sang in their hives on Christmas Eve, to welcome the coming of the blessed day.
The wad-shooting – shooting at a mark for a prize laid in pledge – mentioned above is one of several amusements with which people were wont to hold Christmas. “The Christmas Ba’ing,” was another great sport. The author of Tullochgorum in his Chirstmas Ba’ing, has well described this kind of football, and the coarse, rough wrestling associated with it:
“The hurry-burry now began
Was right weel worth the seeing,
Wi’ routs and raps frae man to man,
Some getting and some gi’eing;
And a’ the tricks of feet and hand,
That ever was in being;
Sometimes the ba’ a yirddlins ran,
Sometimes in air was fleeing
Fu’ heigh that day.”
We find mention of several games in allusions to the manner in which James IV. held Christmas – allusions which show, as Dr. Rogers points out, that at the Scottish Court, in the fifteenth century, Christmas was observed with much “festivity and splendour.” At Christmas, 1489, “James IV. wore a crimson satin ‘syd’ gown, a long robe of velvet, each lined with fur, also a short gown of velvet lined with damask, and two doublets of black satin, and one of crimson. Preceded by heralds and pursuivants, he in the morning walked to high mass. Having at the altar bestowed a donation of fourteen shillings, he at noon handed largesses to his officers-at-arms. Thereafter he had with his Court recourse to games and pastimes. These were cards and dice, and ‘tables,’ or back-gammon.” Games at chance seem to have been very popular at this season, even children laying up stores of pins for playing at Tee Totum. The “merchants” used to provide themselves with a coarser kind, which they called “Yule pins.” In 1487, when James IV. observed Christmas at Aberdeen, he received from the Treasurer £156 to meet the cost of the “card-tables.” And among the out-door sports were “cach,” a species of tennis, also “kiles” and “lank bowlis,” each a form of skittles. At Aberdeen in Catholic times there were also mask balls, and a Christmas game known as Lady Templeton which was prohibited by the Kirk Session of Ayr early in the seventeenth century.
There were also, of course, all the festivities in connection with “The Abbot of Unreason” or “The Lord of Misrule.” This functionary acted as Master of the Ceremonies at the jollifications, and the following account is given of him by Stow: “In the feast of Christmas there was in the King’s house, wheresoever he lodged, a Lord of Misrule or Master of Merry Disputes, and the like had ye in the house of every nobleman of honour or good worship, were he temporal or spiritual.” In pre-Reformation times in Scotland the monasteries used to elect a functionary of a similar character, and our readers will remember the graphic description of one of those mock ecclesiastics in The Abbot of Sir Walter Scott. The Scottish Legislature in 1555 passed a law suppressing this annual burlesque and other festivities of a like kind at Christmas. It was subsequently repealed by the British Parliament.
It was not very easy to stop the national carnival. In Kirk Session records we see how hard it was to kill the practice, and we not the rigorous discipline that had to be enforced by the Reformers. In St. Andrews in 1573, several persons had to make “open satisfaction for observing Yule-day.” On the 21st December, 1649, the Kirk Session of the ancient city decreed that intimation be made from the pulpit “that no Yule be keepit, but that all be put to work as ane ordinar work day, with certification that those who are any idlers shall be taken notice of and be severlie censured.” In conformity with this judgment, a month later several persons were charged with playing jollie at the goose on Yule day, and were condemned for the next two Sabbaths “to be in the old College Kirk, and to be examined, and to sit altogether upon an form, before the publick congregation, and to be rebooked for their fault.” In 1683 the bakers of Glasgow were warned to discontinue the practice of baking Yule bread. To show their utter contempt of the day, the Reformers enjoined that the wives and servants were to spin in open sight of the people upon Yule day, and that the farm labourers were to yoke their ploughs. In 1603, John Wylie was summoned by the Kirk Session of Dundonald for “nott yoking his plough on Yuill day,” and only escaped censure by satisfying the Court that he was “at the smiddie, laying and mending the plough eernis.”
Matters did not improve for old Father Christmas under the Covenanters and English Puritanism, which Scotland so largely reflected. “You will say, sirs,” said an old divine, preaching against Christmas observances, “Good old Yule day! ‘But I tell you, Good old fool day!’ You will say, ‘It is a brave holiday!’ But I tell you it is a brave belly day!’ ” Others in ridicule called the day “Pie-mas.” And so the observances of the day passed into disrepute, to be brought back for a little at the Restoration, and put under ban once more at the Revolution.
Several proverbs still current bear reminiscences of Christmas: “A green Yule mak’s a fat kirkyard” – a proverb about the truth of which doctors proverbially differ. “As bare as the birk at Yule.” “Yule is Yule on Yule even, and auld on Saint Stephen,” meaning St. Stephen’s day, the 26th December. Then still in vogue we have such expressions as “The Yule boys,” the Gysars who used to be dressed in white, all save one, the Beelzebub, of the corps; “Yule e’en,” the night before Christmas; “Yule-blinker,” a Shetland name for the North or Christmas star; and a “Yule steek,” a Shetland phrase for a very wide stitch in sewing, such as might be made in dim wintry light, or by the low of a winter’s fire.
It is round such a fire, cheery and cosy, with dear faces and bonnie bairns by your side, that I trust you, my readers may read this slight account of how Father Christmas was honoured in bygone days in old Scotland.
Will you allow me, ere I close, to wish you “A merry Christmas,” and not only you, but all who along with you sit round your fireside, while the Yule log blazes, and by its cheery light you recall the old days and the sacred memories of the past.
– Scots Magazine, Sunday 1st December, 1889, pp.50-57.
This Season from the Book of Days
December 24th – Christmas Eve
St Gregory of Spoleto, martyr, 304. Saints Thrasilla and Emiliana, virgins.
Born. – Galba, Roman emperor, 3 B.C.; Eugene Scribe, French dramatist, 1791, Paris.
Died. – George of Cappadocia, noted Arian bishop, slain at Alexandria, 361 A.D.; Vasco de Gama, celebrated Portuguese navigator, 1525, Cochin, in Malabar; Madame de Genlis, popular authoress, 1830, Paris; Hugh Miller, geologist, 1856, Portobello.
The eves or vigils of the different ecclesiastical festivals throughout the year are, according to the strict letter of canonical rule, times of fasting and penance; but in several instances, custom has appropriated them to very different purposes, and made them seasons of mirth and jollity. Such is the case with All-Saints’ Eve, and perhaps even more so with Christmas Eve, or the evening before Christmas Day. Under the latter head, or 25th of December, will be found a special history of the great Christian festival; though the observances of both days are so intertwined together, that it becomes almost impossible to state, with precision, the ceremonies which are peculiar to each. We shall, however, do the best we can in the circumstances, and endeavour, under the 24th of December, to restrict ourselves to an account of the popular celebrations and customs which characterise more especially the eve of the Nativity.
With Christmas Eve, the Christmas holidays may practically be said to commence, though, according to ecclesiastical computation, the festival really begins on the 16th of December, or the day which is distinguished in the calendar as O. Sapientia, from the name of an anthem, sung during Advent. It is proper, however, to state that there seems to be a discrepancy of opinion on this point, and that, in the judgment of some, the true Christmas festival does not commence till the evening before Christmas Day. The season is held to terminate on 1st of February, or the evening before the Purification of the Virgin (Candlemas Day), by which date, according to the ecclesiastical canons, all the Christmas decorations must be removed from the churches. In common parlance, certainly, the Christmas holidays comprehend a period of nearly a fortnight, commencing on Christmas Eve, and ending on Twelfth Day. The whole of this season is still a jovial one, abounding in entertainments and merry-makings of all sorts, but is very much changed from what it used to be with our ancestors in feudal times, when it was an almost unintermitted round of feasting and jollity.
For a picture of Christmas Eve, in the olden time, we can desire none more graphic than that furnished by Sir Walter Scott in Marmion.
‘On Christmas Eve the bells were rung;
On Christmas Eve the mass was sung;
That only night, in all the year,
Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.
The damsel donned her kirtle sheen;
The hall was dressed with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry-men go,
To gather in the mistletoe.
Then opened wide the baron’s hall
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,
And Ceremony doffed his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose.
The lord, underogating, share
The vulgar game of ‘post and pair.’
All hailed, with uncontrolled delight,
And general voice, the happy night,
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down!
The fire, with well-dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide;
The huge hall-table’s oaken face,
Scrubbed till it shone, the day to grace,
Bore then upon its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
Then was brought in the lusty brawn,
By old blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar’s-head frowned on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.
Well can the green-garbed ranger tell,
How, when, and where the monster fell;
What dogs before his death he tore,
And all the baiting of the boar.
The wassail round in good brown bowls,
Garnished with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reeked: hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas-pye;
Nor failed old Scotland to produce,
At such high-tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry masquers in,
And carols roared with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But, oh! what masquers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!
England was merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
‘Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale;
‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.’
We have frequently, in the course of this work. had occasion to remark on the numerous traces still visible in popular customs of the old pagan rites and ceremonies. These, it is needless here to repeat, were extensively retained after the conversion of Britain to Christianity, partly because the Christian teachers found it impossible to wean their converts from their cherished superstitions and observances, and partly because the themselves, as a matter of expediency, ingrafted the rites of the Christian religion on the old heathen ceremonies, believing that thereby the cause of the Cross would be rendered more acceptable to the generality of the populace, and thus be more effectually promoted. By such an amalgamation, no festival of the Christian year was more thoroughly characterised than Christmas; the festivities of which, originally derived from the Roman Saturnalia, had afterwards been intermingled with the ceremonies observed by the British Druids at the period of the winter-solstice, and at a subsequent period became incorporated with the grim mythology of the ancient Saxons. Two popular observances belonging to Christmas are more especially derived from the worship of our pagan ancestors – the hanging up of the mistletoe, and the burning of the Yule log.
As regards the former of these practices. it is well known that, in the religion of the Druids, the mistletoe was regarded with the utmost veneration, though the reverence which they paid to it seems to have been restricted to the plant when found growing on the oak – the favourite tree of their divinity Tutanes – who appears to have been the same as the Phoenician god Baal, or the sun, worshipped under so many different names by the various pagan nations of antiquity. At the period of the winter-solstice, a great festival was celebrated in his honour, as will be found more largely commented on under our notice of Christmas Day. When the sacred anniversary arrived, the ancient Britons, accompanied by their priests, the Druids, sallied forth with great pomp and rejoicings to gather the mystic parasite, which, in addition to the religious reverence with which it was regarded, was believed to possess wondrous curative powers. When the oak was reached on which the mistletoe grew, two white bulls were bound to the tree, and the chief Druid, clothed in white (the emblem of purity), ascended, and, with a golden knife, cut the sacred plant, which was caught by another priest in the folds of his robe. The bulls, and often also human victims, were then sacrificed, and various festivities followed. The mistletoe thus gathered, was divided into small portions, and distributed among the people, who hung up the sprays over the entrances to their dwellings, as a propitiation and shelter to the sylvan deities during the season of frost and cold.
The following legend regarding the mistletoe, from the Scandinavian mythology, may here be introduced: Balder, the god of poetry and eloquence, and second son of Odin and Friga, communicated one day to his mother a dream which he had had, intimating that he should die. She (Friga), to protect her son from such a contingency, invoked all the powers of nature – fire, air, earth, and water, as well as animals and plants – and obtained an oath from them that they should do Balder no hurt. The latter then went and took his place amid the combats of the gods, and fought without fear in the midst of showers of arrows. Loake, his enemy, resolved to discover the secret of Balder’s invulnerability, and, accordingly, disguising himself as an old woman, he addressed himself to Friga with complimentary remarks on the valour and good-fortune of her son. The goddess replied that no substance could injure him, as all the productions of nature had bound themselves by an oath to refrain from doing him any harm. She added, however, with that awkward simplicity which appears so often to characterise mythical personages, that there was one plant which, from its insignificance, she did not think of conjuring, as it was impossible that it could inflict any hurt on her son. Loake inquired the name of the plant in question, and was informed that it was a feeble little shoot, growing on the bark of the oak, with scarcely any soil. Then the treacherous Loake procured the mistletoe, and, having entered the assembly of the gods, said to the blind Heda: ‘Why do you not contend with the arrows of Balder?’ Heda replied: ‘I am blind, and have no arms.’ Loake then presented him with an arrow formed from the mistletoe, and said: ‘Balder is before thee.’ Heda shot, and Balder fell pierced and slain.
The mistletoe, which has thus so many mystic associations connected with it, is believed to be propagated in its natural state by the missel-thrush, which feeds upon its berries. It was long thought impossible to propagate it artificially, but this object has been attained by bruising the berries, and by means of their viscidity, causing them to adhere to the bark of fruit-trees, where they readily germinate and take root. The growth of the mistletoe on the oak is now of extremely rare occurrence, but the plant flourishes in great frequency and luxuriance on the apple-trees. The special custom connected with the mistletoe on Christmas Eve, and an indubitable relic of the days of Druidism, handed down through a long course of centuries, must be familiar to all our readers. A branch of the mystic plant is suspended from the wall or ceiling, and any one of the fair sex, who, either from inadvertence, or, as possibly may be insinuated, on purpose, passes beneath the sacred spray, incurs the penalty of being then and there kissed by any lord of the creation who chooses to avail himself of the privilege.
The burning of the Yule log is an ancient Christmas ceremony, transmitted to us from our Scandinavian ancestors, who, at their feast of Juul, at the winter-solstice, used to kindle huge bonfires in honour of their god Thor. The custom, though sadly shorn of the ‘pomp and circumstance’ which formerly attended it, is still maintained in various parts of the country. The bringing in and placing of the ponderous block on the hearth of the wide chimney in the baronial hall was the most joyous of the ceremonies observed on Christmas Eve in feudal times. The venerable log, destined to crackle a welcome to all-comers, was drawn in triumph from its resting-place at the feet of its living brethren of the woods. Each wayfarer raised his hat as it passed, for he well knew that it was full of good promises, and that its flame would burn out old wrongs and heartburnings, and cause the liquor to bubble in the wassail-bowl, that was quaffed to the drowning of ancient feuds and animosities. So the Yule-log was worthily honoured, and the ancient bards welcomed its entrance with their minstrelsy. The following ditty, appropriate to such an occasion, appears in the Sloane Manuscripts. It is supposed to be of the time of [James II., (1430-1460)].
Welcome be thou, heavenly King,
Welcome born on this morning,
Welcome for whom we shall sing,
Welcome be ye Stephen and John,
Welcome Innocents every one,
Welcome Thomas Martyr one,
Welcome be ye, good New Year,
Welcome Twelfth Day, both in fere,1
Welcome saints, lovèd and dear,
Welcome be ye, Candlemas,
Welcome be ye, Queen of Bliss,
Welcome both to more and less,
Welcome be ye that are here,
Welcome all, and make good cheer,
Welcome all, another year,
Among the Roman Catholics, a mass is always celebrated at midnight on Christmas Eve, another at daybreak on Christmas Day, and a third at a subsequent hour in the morning. A beautiful phase in popular superstition, is that which represents a thorough prostration of the Powers of Darkness as taking place at this season, and that no evil influence can then be exerted by them on mankind. The cock is then supposed to crow all night long, and by his vigilance to scare away all malignant spirits.
THE CHRISTMAS-TREE: CHRISTMAS EVE IN GERMANY AND AMERICA.
In Germany, Christmas Eve is for children the most joyous night in the year, as they then feast their eyes on the magnificence of the Christmas-tree, and rejoice in the presents which have been provided for them on its branches by their parents and friends. The tree is arranged by the senior members of the family, in the principal room of the house, and with the arrival of evening the children are assembled in an adjoining apartment. At a given signal, the door of the great room is thrown open, and in rush the juveniles eager and happy. There, on a long table in the centre of the room, stands the Christmas-tree, every branch glittering with little lighted tapers, while all sorts of gifts and ornaments are suspended from the branches, and possibly also numerous other presents are deposited separately on the table, all properly labelled with the names of the respective recipients. The Christmas-tree seems to be a very ancient custom in Germany, and is probably a remnant of the splendid and fanciful pageants of the middle ages. Within the last forty years, and apparently since the marriage of Queen Victoria with Prince Albert, previous to which time it was almost unknown in this country, the custom has been introduced into [Britain] with the greatest success, and must be familiar to most of our readers. Though thoroughly an innovation on our old Christmas customs, and partaking, indeed, somewhat of a prosaic character, rather at variance with the beautiful poetry of many of our Christmas usages, he would be a cynic indeed, who could derive no pleasure from contemplating the group of young and happy faces who cluster round the Christmas-tree.
In the state of Pennsylvania, in North America, where many of the settlers are of German descent, Christmas Eve is observed with many of the ceremonies practised in the Fatherland of the Old World. The Christmas-tree branches forth in all its splendour, and before going to sleep, the children hang up their stockings at the foot of the bed, to be filled by a personage bearing the name of Krish-kinkle (a corruption of Christ-kindlein, or the Infant Christ), who is supposed to descend the chimney with gifts for all good children. If, however, any one has been naughty, he finds a birch-rod instead of sweetmeats in the stocking. This implement of correction is believed to have been placed there by another personage, called Pelsnichol, or Nicholas with the fur, in allusion to the dress of skins which he is supposed to wear. In this notion, a connection is evidently to be traced with the well-known legendary attributes of St Nicholas, previously described, though the benignant character of the saint is in this instance woefully belied. It is further to be remarked, that though the general understanding is that Krishkinkle and pelsnichol are distinct personages – the one the rewarder of good children, the other the punisher of the bad – they are also occasionally represented as the same individual under different characters, the prototype of which was doubtless the charitable St Nicholas.
SOME interesting particulars relative to the indoor diversions of our ancestors at Christmas, occur in the following passage quoted by Brand from a tract, entitled Round about our Coal-fire, or Christmas Entertainments, which was published in the early part of the last [18th] century. ‘The time of the year being cold and frosty, the diversions are within doors, either in exercise or by the fireside. Dancing is one of the chief exercises; or else there is a match at Blindman’s Buff, or Puss in the Corner. The next game is Questions and Commands, when the commander may oblige his subjects to answer any lawful question, and make the same obey him instantly, under the penalty of being smutted [having the face blackened], or paying such forfeit as may be laid on the aggressor. Most of the other diversions are cards and dice.’
From the above we gather that the sports on Christmas evenings, a hundred and fifty years ago, were not greatly dissimilar to those in vogue at the present day. The names of almost all the pastimes then mentioned must be familiar to every reader, who has probably also participated in them himself at some period of his life. Let us only add charades, that favourite amusement of modern drawing-rooms (and of these only the name, not the sport itself, was unknown to our ancestors), together with a higher spirit of refinement and delicacy, and we shall discover little difference between the juvenile pastimes of a Christmas-party in the reign of Queen Victoria, and a similar assemblage in the reign of Queen Anne or the first Georges.
The mummers, or, as they are styled in Scotland, the guisers or guizards, occupied a prominent place in the Christmas revels of the olden time, and their performances, though falling, like the other old customs of the season, into desuetude, are still kept up in several parts of the country. The passion for masquerade, like that for dramatic representation, seems an inherent one in human nature; and though social progress and fashion may modify and vary the peculiar mode of development, the tendency itself remains unaltered, and only adopts from age to age a new, and, it may be, more intellectual phase. Thus the rude and irreverent mysteries and miracle plays which delighted our ancestors, have been succeeded in the gradual course of improvement by the elaborate stage mechanism and display of our own times; and the coarse drolleries which characterised the old Christmas festivities, have made way for the games and charades, and other refined amusements of modern drawing-rooms. But in all these changes we only find an expression under altered and diversified forms of certain essential feelings and tendencies in the constitution of humanity.
Looking back to the Roman Saturnalia, from which so many of our Christmas usages are derived, we find that the practice of masquerading was greatly in vogue at that season among the people of Rome. Men and women assumed respectively the attire of the opposite sex, and masks of all kinds were worn in abundance. The early Christians, we are informed, used, on the Feast of the Circumcision or New-year’s Day, to run about in masks in ridicule of the pagan superstitions; but there can be no doubt that they also frequently shared in the frolics of their heathen neighbours, and the fathers of the church had considerable difficulty in prevailing on their members to refrain from such unedifying pastimes. Afterwards, the clergy endeavoured to metamorphose the heathen revels into amusements, which, if not really more spiritual in character than those which they supplanted, had at least the merit of bearing reference to the observances, and recognising the authority of the church and its ministers. The mysteries or miracle plays in which even the clergy occasionally took part as performers, were the results, amid numerous others, of this policy. These singular dramas continued for many centuries to form a favourite amusement of the populace, both at Christmas and other seasons of the year. The Christmas mumming was in many respects a kindred diversion, though it appears to have partaken less of the religious element, and resembled more nearly those medieval pageants in which certain subjects and characters, taken from pagan mythology or popular legends, were represented. Frequently, also, it assumed very much the nature of a masquerade, when the sole object of the actors is to disguise themselves, and excite alternately laughter and admiration by the splendid or ridiculous costumes in which they are arrayed.
As regards the guisers in Scotland, where the festivities of the winter-season cluster chiefly around the New Year, we shall have occasion to make special reference to them under the 31st of December.
THE LORD OF MISRULE.
In Scotland, previous to the Reformation, the monasteries used to elect a functionary, for the superintendence of the Christmas revels, under the designation of the Abbot of Unreason. The readers of the Waverley Novels will recollect the graphic delineation of one of these mock-ecclesiastics in The Abbot. An ordinance for suppressing this annual burlesque, with other festivities of a like kind, was passed by the Scottish legislature in 1555. In France, we find the congener of the Lord of Misrule and the Abbot of Unreason in the Abbas Stultorum – the Abbot or Pope of Fools.*
It is a curious circumstance, that no one appears clearly to know whether the term Waits denoted originally musical instruments, a particular kind of music, or the persons who played under certain special circumstances.
A writer in Notes and Queries draws attention to the analogy between the words waits and waith, the latter of which, in Scotland, means wandering or roaming about from place to place. Such wanderers were the minstrels of Scotland, who, three centuries ago, were under the patronage of the civic corporation of Glasgow, and at the city’s expense were clothed in blue coats or outer garments. ‘A remnant of this custom, still popularly called waits, yet exists in the magistrates annually granting a kind of certificate or diploma to a few musicians, generally blind men of respectable character, who perambulate the streets of the city during the night and morning, for about three weeks or a month previous to New-Year’s Day, in most cases performing on violins the slow, soothing airs peculiar to a portion of the old Scottish melodies; and in the solemn silence of repose the effect is very fine. At the commencement of the New-year, these men call at the houses of the inhabitants, and, presenting their credentials, receive a small subscription.’
It is evident that considerable confusion prevails on the subject of the waits, but if we abide by the modern meaning of the term, we shall find that it refers exclusively to a company of musicians whose performances bear a special relation to the season of Christmas. In Scotland, perhaps, they are more associated with the New Year.
1 In company.
* Our ‘Book of Days’ author, Robert Chambers, has, in his ‘Domestic Annals’ chapter for the Reign of Mary (1561-1565), alluded to the Abbot of Unreason and Robin Hood making their appearance in May, rather than at Christmas, but also adds that “the popular relish for all this was such as can scarcely now be credited.”
The Nativity of Jesus Christ. St Eugenia, virgin and martyr, about 257. St Anastasia, martyr, 304. Another St Anastasia.
Born. – Johann Jacobo Reiske, oriental scholar, 1716, Zorbig, Saxony.
Died. – Persius, satiric poet, 62 A.D.; Pope Adrian I., 795; Emperor Leo V., the Armenian, slain at Constantinople, 820.
The festival of Christmas is regarded as the greatest celebration throughout the ecclesiastical year, and so important and joyous a solemnity is it deemed, that a special exception is made in its favour, whereby, in the event of the anniversary falling on a Friday, that day of the week, under all other circumstances a fast, is transformed to a festival.
That the birth of Jesus Christ, the deliverer of the human race, and the mysterious link connecting the transcendent and incomprehensible attributes of Deity with human sympathies and affections, should be considered as the most glorious event that ever happened, and the most worthy of being reverently and joyously commemorated, is a proposition which must commend itself to the heart and reason of every one of His followers, who aspires to walk in His footsteps, and share in the ineffable benefits which His death has secured to mankind. And so though at one period denounced by the Puritans as superstitious, and to the present day disregarded by Calvinistic Protestants, as unwarranted by Scripture, there are few who will seriously dispute the propriety of observing the anniversary of Christ’s birth by a religious service.
A question, however, which has been long and eagerly agitated, is here brought forward. Is the 25th of December really the day on which our Saviour first shewed himself in human form in the manger at Bethlehem? The evidence which we possess regarding the date is not only traditional, but likewise conflicting and confused. In the earliest periods at which we have any record of the observance of Christmas, we find that some communities of Christians celebrated the festival on the 1st or 6th of January; others on the 29th of March, the time of the Jewish Passover; while others, it is said, observed it on the 29th of September, or Feast of Tabernacles. There can be no doubt, however, that long before the reign of Constantine, in the fourth century, the season of the New Year had been adopted as the period for celebrating the Nativity, though a difference in this respect existed in the practice of the Eastern and Western Churches, the former observing the 6th of January, and the latter the 25th of December. The custom of the Western Church at last prevailed, and both of the ecclesiastical bodies agreed to hold the anniversary on the same day. The fixing of the date appears to have been the act of Julius I., who presided as pope or bishop of Rome, from 337 to 352 A.D. The circumstance is doubted by Mosheim, but is confirmed by St Chrysostom, who died in the beginning of the fifth century. This celebrated father of the church informs us, in one of his epistles, that Julius, on the solicitation of St Cyril of Jerusalem, caused strict inquiries to be made on the subject, and thereafter, following what seemed to be the best authenticated tradition, settled authoritatively the 25th of December as the anniversary of Christ’s birth, the ‘Festorum omnium metropolis,’ as it is styled by Chrysostom. It is true, indeed, that some have represented this fixing of the day to have been accomplished by St Telesphorus, who was bishop of Rome 128-139 A.D., but the authority for the assertion is very doubtful. Towards the close of the second century, we find a notice of the observance of Christmas in the reign of the Emperor Commodus; and about a hundred years afterwards, in the time of Dioclesian, an atrocious act of cruelty is recorded of the last-named emperor, who caused a church in Nicomedia, where the Christians were celebrating the Nativity, to be set on fire, and by barring every means of egress from the building, made all the worshippers perish in the flames. Since the end of the fourth century at least, the 25th of December has been uniformly observed as the anniversary of the Nativity by all the nations of Christendom.
Though Christian nations have thus, from an early period in the history of the church, celebrated Christmas about the period of the winter-solstice or the shortest day, it is well known that many, and, indeed, the greater number of the popular festive observances by which it is characterised, are referable to a much more ancient origin. Amid all the pagan nations of antiquity, there seems to have been a universal tendency to worship the sun as the giver of life and light, and the visible manifestation of the Deity. Various as were the names bestowed by different peoples on this object of their worship, he was still the same divinity. Thus, at Rome, he appears to have been worshipped under one of the characters attributed to Saturn, the father of the gods; among the Scandinavian nations he was known under the epithet of Odin or Woden, the father of Thor, who seems afterwards to have shared with his parent the adoration bestowed on the latter, as the divinity of which the sun was the visible manifestation; whilst with the ancient Persians, the appellation for the god of light was Mithras, apparently the same as the Irish Mithr, and with the Phœnicians or Carthaginians it was Baal or Bel, an epithet familiar to all students of the Bible.
Concurring thus as regards the object of worship, there was a no less remarkable uniformity in the period of the year at which these different nations celebrated a grand festival in his honour. The time chosen appears to have been universally the season of the New Year, or, rather, the winter-solstice, from which the new year was frequently reckoned. This unanimity in the celebration of the festival in question, is to be ascribed to the general feeling of joy which all of us experience when the gradual shortening of the day reaches its utmost limit on the 21st of December, and the sun, recommencing his upward course, announces that mid-winter is past, and spring and summer are approaching. On similar grounds, and with similar demonstrations, the ancient pagan nations observed a festival at mid-summer, or the summer-solstice, when the sun arrives at the culminating-point of his ascent on the 21st of June, or longest day.
In the early ages of Christianity, its ministers frequently experienced the utmost difficulty in inducing the converts to refrain from indulging in the popular amusements which were so largely participated in by their pagan countrymen. Among others, the revelry and licence which characterised the Saturnalia called for special animadversion. But at last, convinced partly of the inefficacy of such denunciations, and partly influenced by the idea that the spread of Christianity might thereby be advanced, the church endeavoured to amalgamate, as it were, the old and new religions, and sought, by transferring the heathen ceremonies to the solemnities of the Christian festivals, to make them subservient to the cause of religion and piety. A compromise was thus effected between clergy and laity, though it must be admitted that it proved anything but a harmonious one, as we find a constant, though ineffectual, proscription by the ecclesiastical authorities of the favourite amusements of the people, including among others the sports and revelries at Christmas.
Ingrafted thus on the Roman Saturnalia, the Christmas festivities received in Britain further changes and modifications, by having superadded to them, first the Druidical rites and superstitions, and then, after the arrival of the Saxons, the various ceremonies practised by the ancient Germans and Scandinavians. The result has been the strange medley of Christian and pagan rites which contribute to make up the festivities of the modern Christmas. Of these, the burning of the Yule log, and the superstitions connected with the mistletoe have already been described under Christmas Eve, and further accounts are given under separate heads, both under the 24th and 25th of December.
The name given by the ancient Goths and Saxons to the festival of the winter-solstice was Jul or Yule, the latter term forming, to the present day, the designation in the Scottish dialect of Christmas, and preserved also in the phrase of the ’Yule log.’ Perhaps the etymology of no term has excited greater discussion among antiquaries. Some maintain it to be derived from the Greek, ουλοι or ιουλος, the name of a hymn in honour of Ceres; others say it comes from the Latin jubilum, signifying a time of rejoicing, or from its being a festival in honour of Julius Caesar; whilst some also explain its meaning as synonymous with ol or oel, which in the ancient Gothic language denotes a feast, and also the favourite liquour used on such occasion, whence our word ale. But a much more probable derivation of the term in question is from the Gothic giul or hiul, the origin of the modern word wheel, and bearing the same signification, the Yule festival received its name from its being the turning-point of the year, or the period at which the fiery orb of day made a revolution in his annual circuit, and entered on his northern journey. A confirmation of this view is afforded by the circumstance that in the old clog almanacs, a wheel is the device employed for marking the season of Yule-tide.
In reference to the superstition anciently prevalent in Scotland against spinning on Christmas or Yule day, and the determination of the Calvinistic clergy to put down all such notions, the following amusing passage is quoted by Dr Jamieson from Jhone Hamilton’s Facile Traictise: ‘The ministers of Scotland – in contempt of the vther halie dayes obseruit be England – cause their wyfis and seruants spin in oppin sicht of the people upon Yeul day; and their affectionnate auditeurs constraines their tennants to yok thair pleuchs on Yeul day in contempt of Christ’s Natiuitie, whilk our Lord has not left vnpunisit; for thair oxin ran wod [mad], and brak their nekis, and leamit [lamed] sum pleugh men, as is notoriously knawin in sindrie partes of Scotland.’ In consequence of the Presbyterian form of church -government, as constituted by John Knox and his coadjutors on the model of the ecclesiastical polity of Calvin, having taken such firm root in Scotland, the festival of Christmas, with other commemorative celebrations retained from the Romish calendar by the Anglicans and Lutherans, is comparatively unknown in that country, art least in the Lowlands. The tendency to mirth and jollity at the close of the year, which seems almost inherent in human nature, has, in North Britain, been, for the most part, transferred from Christmas and Christmas Eve to New-year’s Day and the preceding evening, known by the appellation of Hogmanay. In many parts of the Highlands of Scotland, however, and also in the county of Forfar, and one or two other districts, the day for the great annual merry-making is Christmas.
In olden times, it was customary to extend the charities of Christmas and the New Year to the lower animals. Burns refers to this practice in ‘The Auld Farmer’s Address to his Mare,’ when presenting her on New-Year’s morning with an extra feed of corn:
‘A guid New-year, I wish thee, Maggie!
Hae, there’s a ripp to thy auld baggie!’
The great-grandfather of the writer – a small proprietor in the Carse of Falkland, in Scotland, and an Episcopalian – used regularly himself, every Christmas-morning, to carry a special supply of fodder to each individual animal in his stable and cow-house. The old gentleman was wont to say, that this was a morning, of all others in the year, when man and beast ought alike to have occasion to rejoice.
It is evident that the use of flowers and green boughs as a means of decoration, is almost instinctive in human nature; and we accordingly find scarcely any nation, civilised or savage, with which it has not become more or less familiar. The Jews employed it in their Feast of Tabernacles, in the month of September; the ancient Druids and other Celtic nations hung up the mistletoe and green branches of different kinds over their doors, to propitiate the woodland sprites; and a similar usage prevailed, as we have seen, in Rome. In short, the feeling thus so universally exhibited, is one of natural religion, and therefore not to be traced exclusively to any particular creed or form of worship.
The favourite plants for church decoration at Christmas are holly, bay, rosemary, and laurel. Ivy is rather objectionable, from its associations, having anciently been sacred to Bacchus, and employed largely in the orgies celebrated in honour of the god of wine. Cypress, we are informed, has been sometimes used, but its funereal relations render it rather out of place at a festive season like Christmas. One plant, in special, is excluded – the mystic mistletoe, which. from its antecedents, would be regarded as about as inappropriate to the interior of a church, as the celebration of the old Druidical rites within the sacred building.
THE CHRISTIAN AND OTHER ERAS IN CHRONOLOGY.
The Christian Era adopts a particular year as a commencement or starting-point, from which any subsequent year may be reckoned. It has no particular connection with Christmas-day, but it may suitably be noticed in this place as associated with that great festival.
All nations who have made any great advance in civilisation, have found it useful to adopt some particular year as a chronological basis. The Romans adopted for this purpose the year, and even the day, which some of their historians assigned as the date for the foundation of Rome. That particular date, designated according to our present chronology, was the 21st of April, in the year 754 B.C. They were wont to express it by the letters A. U. C., or Ab urbe condita, signifying ‘from the foundation of the city.’ The change effected in the calendar by the first two Cæsars, and which, with the alteration afterwards rendered necessary by the lapse of centuries, forms, to the present day, the standard for computing the length and divisions of the year, took place 47 B.C. or 707 A.U.C.
The Olympiads were a Greek mode of computing time, depending on chronological groups, each of which measured respectively four years in length. They began in 776 B.C., in commemoration of an event connected with the Olympic Games. Each period of four years was called an Olympiad; and any particular date was denoted by the number of the Olympiad, and the number of the year in it; such as the third year of the first Olympiad, the first year of the fourth Olympiad, and so on. The Greeks, like the Romans, made in ancient times their civil years a little longer or a little shorter than the true year, and were, like them, forced to reform their calendar occasionally. One of these reforms was made by Meton in 432 B.C., a year which corresponded to the fourth year of the eighty-sixth Olympiad; and another in 330 B.C. When the power of Greece sank to a shadow under the mighty influence of that of Rome, the mode of reckoning by Olympiads gradually went out of use.
The Christian Era, which is now adopted by all Christian countries, dates from the year in which Christ was born. According to Greek chronology, that year was the fourth of the 194th Olympiad; according to Roman, it was the year 753 A.U.C. – or 754, if the different dates for beginning the year be rectified. It is remarkable, however, that the Christian era was not introduced as a basis of reckoning till the sixth century; and even then its adoption made very slow progress. There is an ambiguity connected with the Christian era, which must be borne in mind in comparing ancient dates. Some chronologists reckon the year immediately before the birth of Christ, as 1 B.C.; while others call it O B.C., reserving 1 B.C. for the actual year of the birth. There is much to be adduced in favour of each of these plans; but it suffices to say that the former is the one most usually adopted.
The Julian Period is a measure of time proposed by Joseph Scalinger, consisting of the very long period of 7980 years. It is not, properly speaking, a chronological era; but it is much used by chronologists on account of its affording considerable facilities for comparing different eras with each other, and in marking, without ambiguity, the years before Christ. The number of years (7980) forming the Julian period, marks the interval after which the sun, moon, and earth will come round to exactly the same positions at the commencement of the cycle. The exact explanation is too technical to be given here; but we may mention the following two rules:- To convert any date B.C. into the Julian system, subtract the year B.C. from 4714, and the remainder is the corresponding year in the Julian period; to convert any date A.D. into the Julian system, add 4713 to the year of the Christian era.
The Mahommedan Era, used by most or all Mohammedan nations, dates from the flight of Mohammed to Medina – the 15th of July, 622 A.D. This date is known as the Hegira, or flight. As the Christian era is supposed to begin on the 1st of January, year 0, a process of addition will easily transfer a particular date from the Mohammedan to the Christian era.
For some purposes, it is useful to be able to transfer a particular year from the Roman to the Christian era. The rule for doing so is this: If the given Roman year be less than 754, deduct it from 754; if the given Roman year be not less than 754, deduct 753 from it; the remainder gives the year B.C. in the one case, and A.D. in the other.
In like manner it may be useful to know how to convert years of the Greek Olympiads to years of the Christian era. It is done thus: Multiply the next preceding Olympiad by 4, and add the odd years; subtract the sum from 777 if before Christ, or subtract 776 from the sum if after Christ; and the remainder will be the commencement of the given year – generally about the middle of July in the Christian year.
In regard to all these five eras (and many others of less importance), there is difficulty and confusion in having to count sometimes backwards and sometimes forward, according as a particular date is before or after the commencement of the era. To get over this complexity, the Creation of the World has been adopted, by Christians and Jews alike, as the commencement of a universal era. This would be unexceptionable, if authorities agreed as to the number of years which elapsed between that event and the birth of Christ; but so far are they from agreeing, that, according to competent authorities, there are one hundred and forty different computations of this interval! The one most usually adopted by English[-speaking] writers is 4004 years; but they vary from 3616 up to 6484 years. The symbol A.M., or Anno Mundi, signifying ‘year of the world,’ is arrived at by adding 4004 to the Christian designation for the year – that is, if the popular chronology be adopted. There are, however, three other calculations for the year of the world that have acquired some historical note; and the best almanacs now give the following among other adjustments of eras – taking the year 1863 as an example.
|Christian Era (A.D.),||1863|
|Roman Year (A.U.C.),||2616|
|Anno Mundi (Jewish account),||5623|
|“ “ (Alexandrian account),||7355|
|“ “ (Constantinopolitan),||7371|
|“ “ (Popular Chronology),||5867|
|Mohammedan Era (A.H.),||1279|
December 26th – St Stephen’s [Boxing] Day
St Stephen, the first martyr. St Dionysius, pope and confessor, 269. St Iarlath, confessor, first bishop of Tuam, in Ireland, 6th century.
Born. – Gulielmus Xylander, translator of the classics, 1532, Augsburg.
Died. – Antoine Houdart de la Motte, dramatist, 1731, Paris; Joel Barlow, American author and diplomatist, 1812, near Cracow; Stephen Girard, millionaire, 1831.
We must not be too hard on the system of Christmas-boxes or hansels, as they are termed in Scotland, where, however, they are scarcely ever claimed till after the commencement of the New Year. That many abuses did and still do cling to them, we readily admit; but there is also intermingled with them a spirit of kindliness and benevolence, which it would be very undesirable to extirpate. It seems almost instinctive for the generous side of human nature to bestow some reward for civility and attention, and an additional incentive to such liberality is not unfrequently furnished by the belief that its recipient is but inadequately remunerated otherwise for the duties which he performs. Thousands, too, of the commonality look eagerly forward to the forth-coming guerdon on Boxing-day, as a means of procuring some little unwonted treat or relaxation, either in the way of sight-seeing, or some other mode of enjoyment. Who would desire to abridge the happiness of so many?
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