Popular Christmas Festivities


"At Ripon, on Christmas Eve, the grocers, send each of their customers a pound or half of currants and raisins to make a Christmas pudding. The chandlers also send large mould candles, and the coopers logs of wood, generally called Yule logs, which are always used on Christmas Eve; but should it be so large as not to be all burnt that night, which is frequently the case, the remains are kept till old Christmas Eve."


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In Sinclair's Account of Scotland, parish of Kirkden, county of Angus (1792), Christmas is said to be held as a great festival in the neighbourhood. "The servant is free from his master, and goes about visiting his friends and acquaintance. 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." And in the account of Keith, in Banffshire, the inhabitants are said to "have no pastimes or holidays, except dancing on Christmas and New Year's Day."

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The Christmas Games at the beginning of the nineteenth century include the old Christmas game of Forfeits, for every breach of the rules of which the players have to deposit some little article as a forfeit to be redeemed by some sportive penalty, imposed by the "Crier of the Forfeits" (usually a bonnie lassie). The "crying of the forfeits" and paying of the penalties creates much merriment, particularly when a bashful youth is sentenced to "kiss through the fire-tongs" some beautiful romp of a girl, who delights playing him tricks while the room rings with laughter.

Some of the old pastimes, however, have fallen into disuse, as, for instance, the once popular game of Hot Cockles:

The rules of Hot Cockles are as follows - One player sits down, another player is blindfolded, kneels, and places his/her head in the sitter's lap. The kneeler places an open hand on his/her back, with palm uppermost, which other players take it in turns to strike, and the kneeler must guess who has struck the blow.

The game was popular because, in mixed company, it allowed some mild flirtation. It dates back to as early as the mid-16th Century.

A book dating back to 1801 shows that a game popular with families at Christmas 200 years ago involved placing your head in someone's lap while guessing who was hitting you from behind.

The game, called Hot Cockles, was a variation of the classic Blind Man's Buff, also a well-loved pastime with our Victorian ancestors.

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Hunt the Slipper:

This game is from 'The Girls Own Book' by Mrs Child, 1864
'All the players but one are placed in a circle; that one remains inside to hunt the slipper, which is passed from hand to hand very rapidly in the circle. The Hunter cannot judge where it is, because all the players keep their hands moving all the time, as if they were passing it. The one in whose hand it is caught become the Hunter, and pays a forfeit.

'Usually, I believe, little girls play sitting side by side, very close to each other, on low stools, or resting upon their feet. If the company be sufficiently numerous, it is better to have two circles, on within another, sitting face to face, resting on their feet, with their knees bent forward so as to meet each other; in this way a sort of concealed arch is formed, through which the slipper may be passed unperceived. There should be two slight openings in the circle, one on one side, and the other opposite. When the slipper is passing through these openings, the player who passes it should tap it on the floor, to let the Hunter know where it is. She springs to seize it; but it is flying round so rapidly, and all hands are moving so fast, that she loses it, and, in less than an instant, perhaps, she hears it tapping on the other side.

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'This game may be played rudely, and it may be played in a ladylike manner. If little girls are rude, they are in great danger of knocking each other down in trying to catch the slipper; for, cowering upon their feet, as they do in this game, they easily lose their balance. It is best for the Hunter never to try to catch the slipper except at the two openings in the circle; then there is no danger of tumbling each other down. Some prefer playing this game with a thimble or a marble, because it is not so likely to be seen as a slipper. If any one happens to drop the slipper in passing it, she must pay a forfeit.'

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... and "the vulgar game of Post and Pair":
a card game popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. A hand consisted of three cards, a pair royal ranking highest, or failing this, the highest pair. Another name of the game was Pink.

but Cards are still popular, and Snapdragon continues such Christmas merriment as is set forth in the following verses:

Snap Dragon

"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!"

"Don't 'ee fear him, be but bold," accords with the advice of a writer in "Pantalogia," in 1813, who says that when the brandy in the bowl is set on fire, and raisins thrown into it, those who are unused to the sport are afraid to take out, but the raisins may be safely snatched by a quick motion and put blazing into the mouth, which being closed, the fire is at once extinguished. The game requires both courage and rapidity of action, and a good deal of merriment is caused by the unsuccessful efforts of competitors for the raisins in the flaming bowl.

Blindman's Buff

A favourite game of Christmastide, is thus described by Thomas Miller

in his "Sports and Pastimes of Merry England":

"The very youngest of our brothers and sisters can join in this old English game: and it is selfish to select only such sports as they cannot become sharers of. Its ancient name is 'hoodman-blind'; and when hoods were worn by both men and women—centuries before hats and caps were so common as they are now—the hood was reversed, placed hind-before, and was, no doubt, a much surer way of blinding the player than that now adopted—for we have seen Charley try to catch his pretty cousin Caroline, by chasing her behind chairs and into all sorts of corners, to our strong conviction that he was not half so well blinded as he ought to have been. Some said he could see through the black silk handkerchief; others that it ought to have been tied clean over his nose, for that when he looked down he could see her feet, wherever she moved; and Charley had often been heard to say that she had the prettiest foot and ankle he had ever seen. But there he goes, head over heels across a chair, tearing off Caroline's gown skirt in his fall, as he clutches it in the hope of saving himself. Now, that is what I call retributive justice; for she threw down the chair for him to stumble over, and, if he has grazed his knees, she suffers under a torn dress, and must retire until one of the maids darn up the rent. But now the mirth and glee grow 'fast and furious,' for hoodman blind has imprisoned three or four of the youngest boys in a corner, and can place his hand on whichever he likes. Into what a small compass they have forced themselves! But the one behind has the wall at his back, and, taking advantage of so good a purchase, he sends his three laughing companions sprawling on the floor, and is himself caught through their having fallen, as his shoulder is the first that is grasped by Blindman-buff—so that he must now submit to be hooded."


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"Christmas in the Olden Time,"

- - by Sir Walter Scott.
On Christmas-eve the bells were rung;
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.
Thus opened wide the baron 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 baitings of the boar.
The wassal 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 savory goose.

Then came the merry maskers in,
And carols roared with blithesome din.
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong;
Who lists may in their murmuring see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But O, wht maskers richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!

Festivities of the Nobility and Gentry

#Mr. Irving afterwards depicts, in his own graphic style, the Christmas festivities observed at an old-fashioned English hall, and tells how the generous squire pointed with pleasure to the indications of good cheer reeking from the chimneys of the comfortable farmhouses, and low thatched cottages. "I love," said he, "to see this day well kept by rich and poor; it is a great thing to have one day in the year, at least, when you are sure of being welcome wherever you go, and of having, as it were, the world all thrown open to you; and I am almost disposed to join with poor Robin, in his malediction on every churlish enemy to this honest festival:

"'Those who at Christmas do repine,
And would fain hence despatch him,
May they with old Duke Humphry dine,
Or else may Squire Ketch catch 'em.'

"The squire went on to lament the deplorable decay of the games and amusements which were once prevalent at this season among the lower orders, and countenanced by the higher; when the old halls of castles and manor-houses were thrown open at daylight; when the tables were covered with brawn, and beef, and humming ale; when the harp and the carol resounded all day long, and when rich and poor were alike welcome to enter and make merry. 'Our old games and local customs,' said he, 'had a great effect in making the peasant fond of his home, and the promotion of them by the gentry made him fond of his lord. They made the times merrier, and kinder and better; and I can truly say with one of our old poets:

" 'I like them well—the curious preciseness
And all-pretended gravity of those
That seek to banish hence these harmless sports,
Have thrust away much ancient honesty.' "

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Christmas Crackers

divOne of the popular institutions inseparable from the festivities of Christmastide has long been the "cracker." The satisfaction which young people especially experience in pulling the opposite ends of a gelatine and paper cylinder is of the keenest, accompanied as the operation is by a mixed anticipation—half fearful as to the explosion that is to follow, and wholly delightful with regard to the bonbon or motto which will thus be brought to light. Much amusement is afforded to the lads and lassies by the fortune-telling verses which some of the crackers contain. But the cracker of our early days was something far different from what it is now. The sharp "crack" with which the article exploded, and from which it took its name, was then its principal, and, in some cases, its only feature; and the exclamation, "I know I shall scream," which John Leech, in one of his sketches, puts into the mouth of two pretty girls engaged in cracker-pulling, indicated about the all of delight which that occupation afforded. Since then, however, the cracker has undergone a gradual development. Becoming by degrees a receptacle for bon-bons, rhymed mottoes, little paper caps and aprons, and similar toys, it has passed on to another and higher stage, and is even made a vehicle for high art illustrations. Considerable artistic talent has been introduced in the adornment of these novelties. For instance, the "Silhouette" crackers are illustrated with black figures, comprising portraits of well-known characters in the political, military, and social world, exquisitely executed, while appropriate designs have been adapted to other varieties, respectively designated "Cameos," "Bric-a-brac," "Musical Toys," etc.; and it is quite evident that the education of the young in matters of good taste is not overlooked in the provision of opportunities for merriment.

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