Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas Frivolity

For Christians as well as pagans, the end of December was a time for celebrating the triumph of light over darkness, and life over death. Beginning at sundown December 24th, the festivities lasted until Twelfth Night (Epiphany), January 6th.

Twelfth Night Revels
In Medieval England, Twelfth Night was the culmination of Christmastide. Games, plays and general revelry were the order of the evening. A special Twelfth Night Cake was prepared with a bean and a pea baked inside. The man who got the hidden bean in his piece was declared Lord of Misrule or King of the Bean. The woman who received the pea was Queen for the night.

Revelers had to follow the Lord of Misrule’s commands no matter how outlandish. And the world turned upside down on Twelfth Night, just as it did during Saturnalia in Rome. The master and mistress of the house waited on their servants while those servants sat at the high table and aped their betters. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is believed to have been written for the court celebration of 1601. Its theme is indicative of the holiday—things are not always what they seem.

Twelfth Night celebration declined in the 18th century, but many of its traditions lived on. The bean charm moved into the Christmas pudding where it joined others—a coin for prosperity, a ring for marriage, a shoe for travel and a key for opportunity in the new year. It is thought the custom of wearing paper crowns at Christmas is derived from the King and Queen of Twelfth Night tradition.

Mummers Play
From the German word mummen (a mask) and the French momer, to act in a dumb show or silent mime. Mumming was popular in the royal courts of England during the Middle Ages. In the 18th and 19th centuries, anti-mask laws prohibited mummers from completely disguising themselves out of fear of criminal behavior. Instead, the male players would blacken their faces and attach strips of colored paper and material to their clothing. Donning elaborate hats, they acted out hero combat skits that demonstrate the struggle between good and evil. The most popular was St. George and the Dragon, but Robin Hood was another favorite.

While the mummers play is rooted in the Middle Ages, the pantomime, or panto, is an 18th century invention with origins in Italian comedy. More akin to the masque—an elaborate stage production of singing, dancing and acting that was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries—pantomime reached its height during the Victorian Era. Today, we know the medium as burlesque.
The first panto appeared at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theater in 1717 under the direction of John Rich. The medium quickly gained popularity and, by the Regency period, was a Christmas tradition. Its cast of characters included Harlequin, Columbine (a fairy-like creature), Pantaloon (a silly old man) and Sprite. But it was the invention of Clown for which we can be eternally grateful. One of the most famous clowns was Joseph Grimaldi who made his first appearance in 1800 at Sadler’s Wells. To this day, clowns are called “joeys” because of him.

Sword Dancing
Sword dancing is a stylized combat dance performed by 5-8 men. It culminated with the ritual beheading of a victim and that victim’s miraculous restoration. Sword dancing symbolized winter death and spring rebirth. Some believe it a reenactment of the ritual bull sacrifice practiced by pagans around the winter solstice. Another theory is that sword dancing was introduced into Britain by the Vikings. Sword dancing has been documented all over Europe since the Middle Ages. The earliest reference to it in Britain is John Marston’s 1604 play, The Malcontent. Sword dancing became an essential part of Christmas holiday celebrations during the 19th century.

In addition to the more common holiday games of bobbing for apples, charades and blindman’s bluff (hoodman), people of the Regency enjoyed the following:
bullet puddinga bowl was filled with flour and piled into a peak or pyramid. A bullet then was placed on the top. Players had to take slices out of the flour pile with a knife. The object was to do so without dislodging the bullet. If it fell, the unlucky person had to poke their face into the flour pile and retrieve the bullet with their teeth.
forfeits - Players each put a piece of clothing, jewelry or some other personal item into a pile on the floor. One person was chosen to be the judge, and another held one of the items over the judge's head and said: 

Heavy, heavy hangs over thy head. What shall the owner do to redeem the forfeit?

The judge, without seeing the item, had to command the owner of it to do some act or stunt in order to get his/her property back.
memory game – it’s said the song, Twelve Days of Christmas, was written as a holiday memory game. The words were first published in 1780 in the book Mirth Without Mischief but the tune is believed to have originated much earlier in France.
hot cockles - one person was blindfolded and stood, sat, or knelt with their head in another player’s lap. The rest would run up and touch the blindfolded person’s shoulder. He/she had to guess who tapped them. If they guessed right, the person identified was blindfolded and the game began anew.
hunt the slipper - a game of keep away. “Cobblers” sat on the floor while a “customer” handed them a shoe and turned away. The “cobblers” then pass around the shoe behind their backs while the “customer” counted to ten. When the “customer” turned around again, he/she had to guess which “cobbler” possessed the shoe. “Cobblers” keep passing the footwear until the correct “cobbler” was identified. Then the “customer” and the identified “cobbler” traded places and they started again.
post and pair - an old game of cards, in which each player is dealt three cards. Winning hand was a pair of kings, queens or jacks, or otherwise highest ranking pair.
shoe the wild mare - a kind of seesaw game known since 1609. A plank (mare) was suspended between two people or posts, high enough for the “farrier’s” feet not to touch the ground. The “farrier” then struck the underside of the “mare” thirty-two times with a hammer without falling off.
snapdragons - raisins soaked in a bowl of brandy. The brandy is lit and players try to snare one of the raisins without burning their fingers.

Ghost Stories
The Celts, believed the veil between this world and the next was thin at the time of the winter solstice. But unlike Samhain when malicious spirits walked abroad, this was the time of year one’s ancestors and other friendly spirits manifested. Thus the telling of ghost stories became an integral part of the season. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol from the mid-19th century best exemplifies this tradition.

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