Thursday, December 22, 2011

“Don’t forget the good old way” … “Nappy Ale both brown and stale”. The ideal Christmas, 1688.

My festive text is an anonymous late 17th century book of carols A Cabinet of choice jewels, or, The Christians joy and gladness set forth in sundry pleasant new Christmas-carrols, 1688.

That’s the title page woodcut: a nativity scene. The oxen in the byre aren’t bad, but as for the rest of it, well, the artist has hardly risen to the subject, with a very large Mary, and a micro cephalic Christ-child. Perhaps one should not expect much, as this is only the cheapest end of the popular market, and our anonymous author most probably spent the rest of his year turning out ballads. Even so, it’s a dire woodcut: one feels that the Dutch wood block cutters of this era would have been astonished and derisive.

We are in the reign of James II, and there’s a precarious insistence on everyone being loyal, with a kind of rallying cry implied, that England can, despite everything, still be like it was in the old days. That nostalgia for Christmas past is typographically rendered: when he remembers to do so, the compositor puts words like ‘Christmas’ or ‘wassail’ into black letter (along with refrains and Bible names).

The author gets the religious material over quite quickly, with two carols for Christmas Day. They say this kind of thing:

Let Christians now with joyful mirth

Both young and old, yes great and small,

Still think upon our Saviours Birth

Who brought Salvation to us all…

Upon this day let none be found

To practice any idle game,

And though thy mirth do much abound

Yet let it not be so prophane …

He can then turn to his real subject, copious Christmas food and strong drink. The two are often taken together, in that distinctive early modern way of loading foodstuffs into their drink. If you drank small ale all the time as your main liquid intake, the festive versions would be tend to end up as ale spiced, strengthened, and thickened. Noticeable about the carols is that way of demanding ‘wassail’ with mild menaces: loyal addresses to the gentry, and effusive good wishes are extended to them, but apparently on the understanding that now’s the time for the rich folk to divvy up, and let the plain folk in to feast mightily and meatily, and drink ‘bumpers’ (vessels full to the very brim) of strong (‘nappy’) beer, or ‘lamb’s wool’ (“A drink consisting of hot ale mixed with the pulp of roasted apples, and sugared and spiced”). At least that’s what the gentry should do if they want to keep things sweet. That metaphorical turn about laying siege to the roast goose allows talk about ‘fury’ if there’s any resistance or grudging.

We complain annually these days about the Christmas season starting around October in our shops. The early modern Christmas season may have not had the long commercial lead-in, but they did sustain the festive season. My author bids farewell to Christmas at Candlemas day (usually February 2nd).

So, after the religious carols, here’s the author getting down to the important matter for his target readership of songs to elicit seasonal food and drink:

A Carrol for Christmas Day at Night

My Master your Servants

and Neighbours this Night,

Are come to be merry,

with love and delight.

Now therefore be Noble,

and let it appear,

That Christmas is still

the best time of the Year:

To sit by the fire,

rehearse an old tale,

And taste of a bumper

of nappy old Ale.

It flows from the Barley,

that fruit of the Earth,

Which quickens the fancy,

for pastime and mirth;

And therefore be jolly,

now each bonny Lad,

For we have no reason

at all to be sad:

remember the season,

and then you’l ne’er fail,

To bring in a bumper

of nappy brown Ale.

Now some of your dainties,

let us freely taste,

My stomach is ready,

I am now in haste;

And therefore sweet Mistress,

I hope you’ll be brief,

To bring out the Sirloin

or Ribs of Roast Beef;

With other choice dainties,

I hope you’ll not fail,

At this happy season,

with nappy brown Ale.

And now let me tell you

what dainties I prize,

I long to be doing

with curious minc’d pies;

Where plumbs in abundance,

lies crowding for room,

But if I come near it,

I’le tell you its doom;

I’d soon part the quarrel,

But hold, let’s not fail,

To think of a bumper

of nappy brown Ale.

The Pig, Goose and Capon,

I’de like to forgot,

But yet I do hope they’ll

come all to my lot;

We’ll lay a close siege

to the walls of the Goose,

And storm her strong Castle,

there is no excuse

Shall hinder our fury,

therefore let’s not fail,

To have a full bumper

of nappy brown Ale.

All those that are willing

to honour this day,

I hope that they never

will fall to decay;

But always be able,

their Neighbours to give,

And keep a good Table,

as long as they live;

That love, peace and plenty,

with them may ne’er fail,

And we may ne’er miss

of good nappy Ale.

It is rather stridently demanding: detailed and specific about what is wanted, drifting from a collective and festive ‘we’ into the voice of the individual and greedy-sounding food-fantasist. Only ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’, supposedly 16th century, preserves into our present repertoire of carols that note (‘we won’t go until we’ve got some’).

A clutch of brief carols then carries the revellers towards the main gift-giving day at the New Year. All these saints remind us that a Catholic king was on the throne:

A Carrol for St Stephens Day (December 26th)

A carrol for St John’s Day (December 27th)

A Carrol for Innocents Day (‘Tune of, Bloody fate’) (December 28th)

Then a fuller length ‘A Carrol for New-Years-day’ (‘Tune of, Caper and Jerk it’), full of this kind of sentiment about gift-giving:

“The young men and maids on New Years day,

Their loves they will present,

With many a gift both fine and gay,

Which gives them true content,

And though the gift be great or small,

Yet this is the custom still,

Expressing their loves in Ribbons and Gloves,

It being their kind good will …

Young Batchelors will not spare their coins,

But thus their love is shown,

Yoing Richard will buy a Bodkin fine,

And give it honest Jone…”

Twelfth Night returns us to hectoring the gentry for more supplies of drink: ‘What the House doth now afford / Should be plac’d upon the board’, etc.:

A Carrol for twelfth-Day

(‘Tune of, O mother, Roger’)

Sweet Master of this Habitation,

with my Mistress, be so kind,

As to grant an Invitation,

if we may this favour find:

To be invited in,

Then in mirth we will begin

Many a sweet and pleasant Song,

Which doth to this time belong,

Let every Loyal honest Soul,

Contribute to the Wassail Bowl.

So may you still enjoy the Blessing,

of a loving virtuous Wife,

Riches, honour still possessing,

with a long and happy life;

Living in Prosperity,

Then let Generosity,

Always be maintained I pray,

Don’t forget the good old way,

Let every Loyal honest Soul,

Contribute to the Wassail-bowl.

Before this season is departed,

in your presence we appear,

Therefore be so noble-hearted,

to afford some dainty cheer;

Freely let us have it now,

Since the season doth allow,

What the House doth now afford,

Should be plac’d upon the board,

Whether it be Roast Beef or Fowl,

And liquor well the Wassel-bowl.

For now it is a time of leisure,

then to those that kindness show,

May they have Wealth, peace and pleasure,

and the spring of bounty flow,

To enrich them while they live,

That they may afford to give,

To maintain the good old way,

Many a long and happy day;

Let every Loyal honest soul,

Contribute to the Wassail Bowl.

You worthy are to be commended,

if in this you will not fail,

Now our song is almost ended,

fill our bowl with nappy Ale;

Then we’ll drink a full carouse,

To the Master of the House,

Aye, and to our Mistress dear,

Wishing both a happy Year,

In peace and love without control,

Who brought joy to our wassel-bowl.

By February 2nd, our author is finally ready to say farewell to Christmas. That’s quite a spell on the lash. ‘Nappy Ale both brown and stale’ does rather capture this fag-end of the revels, a dogged effort by faded celebrants to down every drop.

A Carrol for Candlemas-Day

Now Candlemas is come at last,

therefore my dearest friend,

Since Christmas time is almost past,

I mean to an end

Of this our mirth and merriment,

and now the truth to tell,

He must be m our presence sent,

O Christmas now farewell.

Now Christmas will no longer stay,

my very heart doth grieve,

Before from us he take his way,

of him I’ll take my leave:

It is a time none of the least,

as I the truth may tell,

For him we’ll make a worthy Feast,

Then Christmas now farewell.

I do declare as I am true,

I’ll love him while I die,

I’ll call my Friends and Neighbours too,

to keep him company:

With nappy Ale and dainty Cheer,

our grief we will expel;

And Christmas while another year,

We’ll bid thee now farewell.

To make our joys the more complete,

we court the charming bowl,

In Merriment and music sweet,

let e’ry loyal soul

Drink off his glass, and let it pass,

in mirth we will excel,

In sweet delight we’ll spend the night,

Then Christmas now farewell.

With nappy Ale both brown and stale,

we’ll fill our Bumpers full;

And pippins too, as I am true.

they make the best Lambs wool:

So fast and smooth it will go down,

They sorrow to expel,

And then as last, when all is past,

Christmas we’ll bid farewell.

Earlier in the century, Robert Herrick was the verse-anthropologist or sociologist of all these customs: the bad luck of keeping up Christmas trimmings after Candlemas, the Christmas brand burned again, and then extinguished to be used to kindle the fire next Christmas.

Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve.

Down with the Rosemary and Bays,
Down with the Mistletoe;
In stead of Holly, now up-raise
The greener Box (for show.)

The Holly hitherto did sway;
Let Box now domineer;
Until the dancing Easter-day,
Or Easters Eve appear.

Then youthful Box which now hath grace,
Your houses to renew;
Grown old, surrender must his place,
Unto the crisped Yew.

When Yew is out, then Birch comes in,
And many Flowers beside;
Both of a fresh, and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsontide.

Green Rushes then, and sweetest Bents,
With cooler Oaken boughs;
Come in for comely ornaments,
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

The Ceremonies for Candlemas day.

Kindle the Christmas Brand and then
Till Sun-set, let it burn;
Which quenched, then lay it up agen,
Till Christmas next return.

Part must be kept wherewith to tend
The Christmas Log next year;
And where 'tis safely 'kept, the Fiend,
Can do no mischief (there.)

Upon Candlemas day.

End now the White-loaf, & the Pie,
And let all sports with Christmas dye.

Herrick’s two wassail poems are far more alive to the grateful tour of all the food-production sites of the parish, with libations to secure another year of the same, and less anxious than the anonymous writer to bully a good welcome for the wassailers. In his poem, they take offence at not having been given the expected drink, and leave with an expression of certainty that the inhospitable household shall come to know dearth:

The Wassail.

1. Give way, give way ye Gates, and win
An easy blessing to your Bin,
And Basket, by our entering in.

2. May both with manchet stand replete;
Your Larders too so hung with meat,
That though a thousand, thousand eat;

3.Yet, ere twelve Moons shall whirl about
Their silv'rie Spheres, ther’s none may doubt,
But more’s sent in, then was serv’d out.

4. Next, may your Dairies Prosper so,
As that your pans no Ebb may know;
But if they do, the more to flow.

5. Like to a solemn sober Stream
Banked all with Lillies, and the Cream
Of sweetest Cow-slips filling Them.

6. Then, may your Plants be pressed with Fruit,
Nor Bee, or Hive you have be mute;
But sweetly sounding like a Lute.

7. Next may your Duck and teeming Hen
Both to the Cocks-tread say Amen;
And for their two eggs render ten.

8. Last, may your Harrows, Shares and Ploughs,
Your Stacks, your Stocks, your sweetest Mows,
All prosper by your Virgin-vows.

9. Alas! we bless, but see none here,
That brings us either Ale or Beer;
In a dry-house all things are near.

10. Let's leave a longer time to wait,
Where Rust and Cobwebs bind the gate;
And all live here with needy Fate.

11. Where Chimneys do for ever weep,
For want of warmth, and Stomachs keep
With noise, the servants eyes from sleep.

12. It is in vain to sing, or stay
Our free-feet here; but we'll away:
Yet to the Lares this we'll say,

13. The time will come, when you’ll be sad,
And reckon this for fortune bad,
T’have lost the good ye might have had.

1 comment:

Ray Girvan said...

"If you drank small ale all the time as your main liquid intake, the festive versions would be tend to end up as ale spiced, strengthened, and thickened"

Indeed. Historically, celebrations tended to involve some ghastly drinks. Check out Far from the Madding Crowd:

"Friends, it is not only the harvest home that we are celebrating to-night; but this is also a Wedding Feast. A short time ago I had the happiness to lead
to the altar this lady, your mistress, and not until now have we been able to give any public flourish to the event in Weatherbury. That it may be thoroughly well done, and that every man may go happy to bed, I have ordered to be brought here some bottles of brandy and kettles of hot water. A treble-strong goblet will he handed round to each guest."

And in Hardy there's also the furmity woman, selling what's essentially majorly alcoholic porridge.