History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 December 2007

Happy Holidays from the Hoydens!!!

We're going to be taking the week "off", but we've prepared a group of tiny posts about the winter holidays to tide you over till the new year . . .

Mummer's Plays and Other Celebrations
from Lauren Willig: Historical Christmases are a subject dear to my heart right now since, appropriately enough, the book I'm working on begins over the Christmas season of 1803-4, on a large ducal estate where all the traditional Christmas celebrations are observed. As my fellow Hoydens have mentioned, the pre-Victorian Christmas season meant not just Christmas Eve and Day as we know them, but the whole twelve days of Christmas, all with their own traditions and symbolism. There are a number of fascinating practices that survive right through the eighteenth century-- mummers' plays, Twelfth Night cakes with hidden objects that made the finder king or queen for the night-- but the one that really struck my fancy was the tradition in the south and west of England of shooting away the evil spirits on Epiphany Eve. The local men would gather around a tree and fire their guns off into the air to scare away the evil spirits. Cider would be poured into the roots of the tree (and undoubtedly into the revelers' mouths, as well). Sometimes toast soaked with more cider would be tucked into the crook of the tree as an additional offering. I've read various explanations for the rite. Some say it's a continuation of ancient Roman ceremonies, some that it's a pagan ritual to ensure a good harvest the next year, others that it's a variant of German customs where evil spirits must be frightened away before the Christ child can reign. Personally, I think it gave the men of the household a good excuse to get out of the house, fire off their guns, and get sloshed in manly company. Whether you toast your trees or just each other, I hope all of you reading out there have a glorious holiday season and a very happy New Year!

Kissing Under the Mistletoe from Amanda Elyot: Kissing under the mistletoe is one of the grand romantic traditions of the holiday season, one that has its origins in the pagan beliefs of the Norse, a plant sacred to Frigga, their goddess of love and marriage.

One of Frigga's sons was Baldur. At Baldur's birth, Frigga made every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm Baldur. But Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant -- and the mischievous god of the Norse myths, Loki, took advantage of this oversight, tricking one of the other gods into killing Baldur with a spear fashioned from mistletoe. The demise of Baldur, a vegetation deity (or god of springtime), brought winter into the world, although the gods did eventually restore Baldur to life. On Baldur's resurrection, Frigga pronounced the mistletoe sacred, ordering that from now on it should bring love rather than death into the world. Happily complying with Frigga's wishes, any two people passing under the plant from now on would celebrate Baldur's resurrection by kissing under the mistletoe.

Mistletoe has long been regarded as an aphrodisiac and fertility herb. It may also possess abortifacient qualities, which would help explain its association with uninhibited sexuality.

The unusual botanical history of mistletoe goes a long way towards explaining the awe in which it was held in the Norse myths. For in spite of not being rooted in the soil, mistletoe remained green throughout the winter, while the trees upon which it grew and upon which it fed did not (the European mistletoe often grows on apple trees; more rarely on oaks). Mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, as well as an emblem of fertility, although its genesis is rather unpleasant.

Now for the coal in your stocking: According to Sara Williams, "It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a br
anch or twig where birds had left droppings. 'Mistel' is the Anglo-Saxon word for 'dung,' and 'tan' is the word for 'twig'. So, mistletoe means 'dung-on-a-twig'." Not exactly a word origin in keeping with the romantic reputation of mistletoe plants!

Its poisonous sticky berries derive from guano deposits made by thrushes. The plant we kiss under at Christmastime, phoradendron flavescens, grows as a parasite on trees along the eastern seaboard, from New Jersey to Florida, but we're only carrying on a tradition that goes all the way back to the ancient Greek Saturnalia festivals.

One old custom about kissing under the mistletoe originated in England. A gentleman standing under the hanging mistletoe had to kiss each woman who passed him. For each kiss, the man plucks one of the berries. The kissing continues until all the berries are gone. Another mistletoe tradition is that the sprig should never touch the ground between the time it is cut until its removal as the last of the Christmas symbols to be tossed after the holiday season -- allowing for maximum
kissing time, as I see it.

Why don't you create a mistletoe tradition of your own this week! How? Same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice.

Seasons Greetings to all!

Christmas Dinner from Mary Blayney: Before standard cookbooks were readily available the recipes kept by a household would vary widely. Special holiday dinners would include the dishes that were most popular and most treasured by the family.

Some things have changed but not everything: when time and inclination allow we use cookbooks and the internet to find new ways to prepare foods we like, but on holidays I would wager that most families fall back on their traditional favorites.

In our house Christmas dinner is always the same: standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding and the All-American green bean casserole with a Trifle for dessert.

Here is a recipe for Trifle originated by one Martha Lloyd who lived with Jane Austen and her mother and sister in Hampshire for several years. This information is from The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye. The book offers the original “receipt” and an adaptation for today's kitchen.

Take three Naple Biscuits cut them in Slices dip then in sack lay them

in the bottom of your dish, then make a custard of a pint of cream &

Five Eggs & put over them then make a whipt Syllabub as light as

possible to cover the whole the higher is it piled the handsomer it


In case you are curious, “Naple Biscuits” were twice-baked, hard sponge cakes made as convenient and then used as needed. The sack was used to soften the them.

Whether your holiday feast is beef, turkey or a dish unique to your family I send best wishes for the whole holiday season and the happiest of New Years.

Comfort and Joy from Pam Rosenthal: "December" isn't my favorite of John Clare's* Shepherd's Calendar poems, lacking as it does his more usual glancing views of half-hidden nature.

It's an indoor poem, devoted to warmth, comfort, and the keeping of old customs -- Christmass (as Clare spells it), in the cottage of a Northamptonshire farm-laborer, just a mile or two (in my own internal Regency countryside) from the gates of Mansfield Park -- and no more than a day's drive from Lincolnshire, and the Linseley Manor of my Almost A Gentleman (the flat, sometimes marshy countryside in both places being particularly susceptible to enclosure and agricultural "improvement").

It's a poem
about bringing the outdoors inside. Because I'm guessing that the custom most generally honored at earlier Christmases was to cut down evergreens and decorate the house with them. **

Each house is swept the day before
And windows stuck wi evergreens
The snow is beesomd*** from the door
And comfort crowns the cottage scenes
Gilt holly wi its thorny pricks
And yew and box wi berrys small
These deck the unusd candlesticks
And pictures hanging by the wall

As Amanda writes in her holiday post, the greenery includes mistletoe:

That neath each cottage beam is seen
Wi pearl-l
ike-berrys shining gay

The outdoors are not just brought in for decoration, though, but for warmth . . .

Hung wi the ivys veining bough
The ash trees round the cottage farm
Are often stript of branches now
The cotters christmass hearth to warm
He swings and twists his hazel band
And lops them off wi sharpend hook
And oft brings ivy in his hand
To decorate the chimney nook

. . . well, warmth and decoration. Perhaps what's most touching about this Christmas is how (perhaps only at Christmas) warmth and decoration, body and spirit, are not at odds. The cotter brings in the ash boughs to burn in the fireplace, but uses the ivy entwined about it "to decorate the chimney nook."

Old winter whipes his ides bye****
And warms his fingers till he smiles
Where cottage hearths are blazing high
And labour resteth from his toils
Wi merry mirth beguiling care

The day progresses, entertainers show up at the door -- wassail singers, morrice dancers "bedeckt in masks and ribbons gay," to perform traditional plays of "clown-turnd-kings" "for pence and spicy ale."

There are toys for the children --

The wooden horse wi arching head
Drawn upon wheels around the room
The g
ilded coach of ginger bread
And many colord sugar plumb
Gilt coverd books for pictures sought

And yes, then as now,

And many a thing a minutes sport
Left broken on the sanded floor
When we woud leave our play and court
Our parents promises for more

Oh, and in fact there's also a little bit of the interspecies contention of the rougher outdoor poems. At least one sort of animal is making its crafty, patient way into the festivities:

The yule cake dotted thick wi plumbs
Is on ea
ch supper table found
And cats look up for falling crumbs
Which greedy childern litter round
And huswifes sage stuffd seasond chine
Long hung in chimney nook to drye
And boiling eldern berry wine
To drink the christmass eves 'good bye'

Have a lovely holiday week, everyone.

*I wrote more about Clare here, and you can find this entire poem here. Note also that Clare didn't feel himself capable of punctuating his poems, and left it to his publisher. But since the "Shepherd's Calendar" poems were published in vastly truncated form, there is no punctuated version available.
**I was happy, when I read Clare's poem, to find that I got some of the trees right, that Phoebe and David used to decorate the great hall at Linseley Manor, even if the current cover of Almost a Gentleman makes it seem as tho
ugh the story takes place in a tanning salon.
***From the Oxford English Dictionary, beesom, or besom, is: an implement for sweeping, usually made of a bunch of broom, heather, birch, or other twigs bound together round a handle; a broom. (Dialectally, as in Scotland, the generic name for sweeping implements of any material, e.g. a heather, birch, or broom besom, a hair besom; but in literary Eng. 'broom' is now generic, and 'besom' specific.)"
****I don't know that this means. I imagine a personified Winter wiping his eyes -- "bye" perhaps meaning sideways.
*****Again from the OED, chine is "a 'joint' consisting of the whole or part of the backbone of an animal, with the adjoining flesh. The application varies much according to the animal; in mutton it is the 'saddle'; in beef any part of the back (ribs or sirloin)."

Boxing Day from Tracy Grant: December 26th is one of my favorite days of the holiday season. A friend and I go after-Christmas sale shopping in downtown San Francisco (at seventy-percent off we can afford labels that would otherwise be completely out of reach), look at the decorations, and have a holiday at a lovely restaurant with a view of Union Square. December 26th would also be an important day for the characters in the late Regency world of my books, but Mélanie Fraser would not spend the day meeting her friend Isabel Lydgate for an afternoon of shopping in the Burlington Arcade. Instead, Mélanie and her husband Charles would be presenting Christmas boxes (filled gifts such as food, clothing, toys, and money) to their servants. If they were at their country house, they would hold an open house for their tenants and present them with Christmas boxes (being very responsible landowners, I'm sure Charles and Mélanie would arrange for a Boxing Day party for their tenants even if they weren't in the country themselves). Being responsible parents, I imagine they would have their children help fill and distribute the boxes. A far more altruistic way to spend the day, I confess, than sale shopping :-).December 26th is known as Boxing Day after these Christmas boxes (not, as I vaguely thought as a child when I first read the term in British novels, because it was a day prize fights were held). It coincides with St. Stephen's Day, the day when "Good King Wenceslas looked out" and saw "a poor man gathering winter fuel." The Christmas Box tradition is owed at least in part to the fact that servants would not have December 25th off and so would celebrate with their families on the 26th (taking with them the contents of their Christmas boxes). Thinking about this reminded me once again that there would be a great many people working very hard to keep the elite world of the beau monde running smoothly. Charles and Mélanie are very egalitarian and forward-thinking, but I doubt they'd have done without a staff on Christmas Day. I do think they'd have gone to great lengths to throw a wonderful Boxing Day party, however.

Warmest wishes for a wonderful holiday season!

Hogmanay from Kalen Hughes: My dad’s family is Welsh and Scottish, and like so many expats, they cling to the more obscure bits of their heritage. One of these is adding Hogmanay into our winter rituals.

From Wikipedia: “The roots of Hogmanay perhaps reach back to the celebration of the winter solstice among the Norse, as well as incorporating customs from the Gaelic New Year's celebration of Samhain. In Europe, winter solstice evolved into the ancient celebration of Saturnalia, a great Roman winter festival, where people celebrated completely free of restraint and inhibition. The Vikings celebrated Yule, which later contributed to the Twelve Days of Christmas, or the "Daft Days" as they were sometimes called in Scotland. The winter festival went underground with the Protestant Reformation and ensuing years, but re-emerged near the end of the 17th century.

There are many customs, both national and local, associated with Hogmanay. The most widespread national custom is the practice of 'first-footing' which starts immediately after midnight. This involves being the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbour and often involves the giving of symbolic gifts such as salt (less common today), coal, shortbread, whisky, and black bun (a rich fruit cake) intended to bring different kinds of luck to the householder. Food and drink (as the gifts) are then given to the guests. This may go on throughout the early hours of the morning and well into the next day (although modern days see people visiting houses until the 3 January). The first-foot is supposed to set the luck for the rest of the year, so it is important that a suitable person does the job. A tall, handsome, and dark-haired man bearing a gift is strongly preferred. According to popular folklore, a man with dark hair was welcomed because he was assumed to be a fellow Scotsman; a blond or red-haired stranger was assumed to be an unwelcome Norseman.”

Somehow the description always makes me think of the romantic hero ideal (tall, dark and handsome). So when the rest of your holidays are over (and perhaps you’re suffering from a champagne-induced hangover), I wish you a very merry Hogmanay!

I’m going to strike a decidedly non-historical stance and simply urge you all to get your hands on a copy of the television miniseries of Terry Prachett’s Hog Father (which I think must be a play on Hogmanay). Death filling in for this alt-reality’s version of Santa (the Hogfather, who’s been sidelined). Death’s adopted granddaughter out to save the day (after she’s done thrashing the monsters under the bed). Murder an mayhem in the castle of the Tooth Fairy, and as always, the desire for a puppy. You’ll never think of Hogmanay the same way again.


Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

You guys rock! I'm in Arkansas visiting my parents, and although I didn't get my stuff together for the post today, I did READ the entire post to my family this morning.

They send their thanks (many history buffs amongst us)---my six year old son was especially fascinated by the mistletoe facts. ;-)

Wishing you all a happy holiday season. Have a wonderful day!

9:37 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Hoydens: You're amazing!! Loved these bits of history and story. Merry Christmas.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What a great post! Happy Holidays everyone!

4:27 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kathrynn, I'm not surprised at an "ewww, gross!!" reaction from little boys to the less palatable mistletoe facts ... even ickier than actually having to kiss a girl.

Funny ... I wonder if little girls have the same reaction to kissing boys. I recall that I sure as heck didn't!

6:12 PM  

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