Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The German Christmas Tree

Introduction of the German Christmas tree to the English court is generally attributed to Queen Victoria. But it was around from at least the early 1700s. In a footnote on p.75 of The Loseley Manuscripts, the editor wrote:

We remember a German of the household of the late Queen Caroline, making what he termed a Christmas tree for the juvenile party at that festive season. The tree was a branch of some evergreen fastened on a board. Its boughs bent under the weight of gilt oranges, almonds, &c. and under it was a neat model of a farmhouse, surrounded by figures of animals, &c. and all due accompaniments. The forming Christmas trees is, we believe, a common custom in Germany: evidently a remain of the pageants constructed at that season in ancient days.

Note: The Queen Caroline referred to here is likely Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II and queen from 1727-1737. Caroline of Brunswick was married to the Prince of Wales in 1795 (George IV) and was queen from January 1820 until her death in August, 1821. However, she was estranged from her husband and lived abroad from 1814 until she died.

Charlotte Papendiek, assistant wardrobe keeper and reader to Queen Charlotte (George III) observed in her 1789 journal:

This Christmas Mr. Papendiek proposed an illuminated tree, according to the German Fashion, but...I objected to it. Our eldest daughter, Charlotte, being only six the 30th of this November, I thought our children too young to be amused at so much expense and trouble. Mr. Papendiek was vexed--yet I do hope and trust the children were made happy.

In his Memoirs of Her Most Excellent Majesty, Sophia-Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain, John Watkins observed that at the beginning of October,1800:

...the royal family left the coast for Windsor, where Her Majesty kept the Christmas-day following in a very pleasing manner. Sixty poor families had a substantial dinner given them; and in the evening the children of the principal families in the neighbourhood were invited to an entertainment at the Lodge. Here, among other amusing objects for the gratification of the juvenile visitors, in the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew-tree place in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins, in papers, fruits, and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles. After the company had walked around and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets which it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted.

Amelia Murray wrote in her recollections of her mother, Lady Anne Murray (lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, and later, Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria):

Christmas-trees are now common. In the early part of this century they were seldom seen, but Queen Charlotte always had one dressed up in the room of Madame Berkendorff her German attendant; it was hung with presents for the children, who were invited to see it, and I well remember the pleasure it was to hunt for one's own name, which was sure to be attached to one or more of the pretty gifts.

Georgina Townsend, housekeeper at Windsor Castle for 35 years (she died in 1835 at the age of 75) wrote that Queen Charlotte:

The Queen entertained the children here, Christmas Evening, in German fashion, A fir tree, about as high as any of us, lighted all over with small tapers, several little wax dolls among the branches in different places, and strings of walnuts and raisins alternately tied from one to the other, with skipping ropes for the boys, and each bigger girl had muslin for a frock, a muslin handkerchief, a fan, and a sash, all prettily done up in the handkerchief, and a pretty necklace and earrings besides. As soon as all the things were delivered by the Queen and Princesses, the candles on the tree were put out, and the children set to work to help themselves.

Years before she married her beloved Prince Albert, 13-year old Princess Victoria wrote in her diary on Christmas Eve, 1832:

After dinner we went upstairs. I then saw Flora, the dog which Sir John was going to give Mamma. Aunt Sophia came also. We then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room. After Mamma had rung a bell three times we went in. There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the tree. I had one table for myself and the Conroy family had the other.

The Loseley Manuscripts, edited by Alfred John Kempe; 1836: footnote p. 75

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Celebrating Horniness

October 18th is St. Luke’s Day. Legend has it that, on this date sometime during the 12th century, King John passed through the village of Charlton near Greenwich while hunting. He stopped at a mill to rest and was captivated by the absent miller's beautiful wife. When the husband returned unexpectedly and caught the two dallying, he threatened to kill them. King John made a bargain: in exchange for their lives, he granted the man ownership of the land between Charlton and the bend in the Thames at Rotherhithe. With it came the right to hold a fair at Charlton every St. Luke’s Day.
So how did the festival become associated with horns?

St. Luke is represented by the horned ox. (See: Symbols of the Four Evangelists.) Furthermore, from the mid-15th century onward, horns had a sexual connotation, most likely a reference to stags in rut. For a man “to wear the horns” meant to be cuckolded. (The word cuckold derives from the Old French word for the cuckoo, cucu. Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests.)

The bend in the river at Rotherhithe was known as Cuckold's Point. A pole with ram's horns atop it stood there until at least the late 17th century. On St. Luke's Day, revelers sporting antlers and blowing on ram's horns would gather at the Point and riotously make their way to Charlton.

Daniel Defoe described the Horn Fair as a yearly collection of mad people. “[T]he mob…take all kinds of liberties, and the women are eminently impudent…as if it were a time that justified the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency without any reproach…”

Harper's New Magazine reported in 1888: "While Horn Fair is not so famous in literature as is Mayfair or the Fair of St. Bartholomew, it is worthy of a place in profane history on account of its noise, drunkenness, ribaldry, and riot. Nothing was sold at Horn Fair but horns and things made of horn, unless it were gingerbread as tough as horn, and the worst strong drink that was ever brewed or distilled, or ever quailed from horn. It was frequented by a most motley crew; rabble from tho East End of London and from the City proper; men and women in smock-frocks and new white caps from the country round about, who came to drink the lusty, lusty horn, and to dance and gape and brawl and fight; with a liberal smattering of belles and gallants from Westminster, who had a passion in those days for riot, no matter how rough and unrefined it might be."

Many believe the festival actually is rooted in Celtic tradition. Whatever its lascivious origins, the event was stopped by the Greenwich Council in 1873. One hundred years later, it was revived as a family event that is now held in June.

Cuckold's Point
The Horn Fair of London: London's First Carnival?
Harper's New Magazine, Vol. 77; 1888; p.990
Travels in England, by Paul Hentzner
A Tour Through the Island of Britain Vol. 1, by Daniel Defoe; 1762; p.129-131
The sign of the cuckold
Charlton's Horn Fair Parade Revived

Monday, May 31, 2010

Shoes in the Wall

One of the more unusual customs I’ve run across is the placing of worn shoes in the walls of buildings when they are constructed. Concealed shoes have been found in churches, cottages, manor houses, public buildings and castles. The Romans likely brought the custom to Britain. Food and drink sacrifices (and sometimes more gruesome offerings) were buried in the foundations of their own buildings.

In Britain, worn shoes have been discovered walled up over windows, doors, or in chimneys, but also in staircases and under floorboards. The oldest known concealed shoe was found in the wall of Winchester Cathedral’s choirstalls. It was put there in 1308. Recently a cache of shoes from the 17th-19th century was discovered in the walls of Liedberg Castle in Germany.

Shoes are a symbols of good luck. (Think of the old bridal poem, “something old, something new…and a silver six pence in her shoe.”) To put them near windows and doors indicates they were meant to prevent evil from coming inside.

The notion of shoes as protectors dates to the 14th century when John Schorn, rector of North Marston, Buckinghamshire is purported to have cast the devil into a boot.

Curse of the Slippers of Papillion Hall

In the early 18th century, David Papillon kept his Spanish mistress a virtual prisoner in the east attic of Papillon Hall in Leicestershire. She died mysteriously, and her date of death and place of burial went unrecorded.

In 1903, during a renovation of the attic, the skeleton of a woman was found in the walls. Believed to be the bones of that long ago Spanish mistress, the story goes that her former lover murdered her because she was a witch but that, before she died, she evoked a curse. If her slippers ever were removed from the property, ill fortune would befall the owner.

Each time the Hall was sold, the lady's slippers were given to the new owner. There were a few times, however, when this custom wasn't followed--with disastrous results. (To read more about the curse, and to learn the whereabouts of the slippers today, click on the link below.)

This story dovetails with the commonly held belief that bad luck will follow if a concealed shoe is removed from its resting place during renovations. Homeowners should either place them back when repairs are completed, or substitute another shoe.

Brocade Shoes of Papillon Hall
The Curse of Papillon Hall -- the final
The Cutrsed Shoes of Papillon Hall

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wilt thou be mine, Love--aye or no?

In 1819, the poet Charles Lamb wrote of February 14th: [T]his is the day upon which those charming little missives, ycleped Valentines, cross and intercross each other at every street and turning. The weary and all for-spent twopenny postman sinks beneath a load of delicate embarrassments, not his own. It is scarcely credible to what an extent this ephemeral courtship is carried on…to the great enrichment of porters, and detriment of knockers and bell-wires.

Lamb was speaking of a custom that dates to at least the 15th century. The oldest known valentine written in English was discovered among the Paston Letters in the British Library. Margery Brews penned it to her fiancé John Paston in 1477:

Right reverent and worshipful and my right well-beloved valentine, I recommend me unto you full heartedly, desiring to hear of your welfare, which I beseech Almighty God long for to preserve unto his pleasure and your hearts desire.

Prior to that discovery, the oldest valentines in British possession were those of Charles, Duke of Orleans. Orleans wrote more than sixty to his wife in France over the course of his twenty-five year incarceration in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt in 1415:

Wilt thou be mine? dear Love, reply--
Sweetly consent or else deny.

Whisper softly, none shall know,

Wilt thou be mine, Love?--aye or no?

Many examples of Victorian valentines have survived, but what did the earlier ones look like?

Usually homemade, they were hand-painted and decorated with lacy paper, ribbons, gold leaf, satins, silks and exotic feathers. Enterprising publishers took advantage of the craze by printing chapbooks of verses. Publications like The New English Valentine Writer by J. Turner (1784), and Every Ladies Own Valentine Writer by J. Roach (1797) addressed all levels of intimacy and even provided responses to their own poems.

According to Mr. Lamb: In these little visual interpretations, no emblem is so common as the heart—that little three-cornered exponent of all our hopes and fears…it is twisted and tortured into more allegories and affectations than an opera hat." Some were on the "finest gilt paper with borders--full not of common hearts and heartless allegory, but all the prettiest stories of love from Ovid and older poets...

In 1667, Dr. Samuel Pepys wrote: This morning, came up to my wife's bedside, I being up dressing myself, little Will Mercer to be her Valentine; and brought her name writ upon blue paper in gold letters... Two days later, Pepys visited Mrs. Pearse and was given a valentine by her little girl. But here I do first observe, he wrote, the fashion of drawing mottos as well as names, so that Pearse, who drew my wife, did draw also a motto...'Most courteous and fair'...

In her article for Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1901, Millicent Olmsted provides a glimpse at a particular style with which we all are familiar--the cut paper valentine. According to Ms. Olmsted, they were folded and delicately cut with saw-tooth edges, then opened and filled in with written sentiments. The one shown here is very old, ragged, yellow and limp. It was sent to Permillia Wainright in New Jersey, and bears on the back of it her initials and the date, 1783. During the decades, the valentine has fallen to tatters and has lost a narrow outer ring that bore the inscription: "Round is the ring that has no end. So is my love to you, my friend."

(Olmsted goes on to describe a puzzle purse valentine from 1790. To see what it looked like, click on Nancy's Puzzle Purse Valentine in the resource list below. The one Ms. Rosin shows from 1816 fits Olmsted's description. To read the verses, click the Boston Evening Transcript link to Come Be My Valentine, or refer to Olmsted's Cosmopolitan article.)

Other popular valentine designs: acrostic -- first letter of each verse spells a vertical word pinprick -- holes were pricked in a pattern with a needle or pin stencil rebus -- pictures drawn to convey a word, like an eye for the word "I" loveknots

It seems odd that, in all Jane Austen's letters and stories, she never refers to Valentine's Day. Most Janeites believe Frank Churchill's gift of a pianoforte to Jane Fairfax in Emma occurred on February 14th, but Austen doesn't say so. Perhaps her opinion of valentines more closely resembled that of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice:

"I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!"
"I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," said Darcy.
"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."

Valentine's Day, Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb, 1819
Love's Labour Found, BBC News, February 14, 2000
Two Letters from Margery Brews to John Paston in February 1477, The ORB:On-Lone Reference Book for Medieval Studies
Victorian Valentines: Part 1, Candice Hern, February 1,2003
Valentine Puzzle Purses, Origami Resource Center
Nancy's Puzzle Purse Valentine
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, the Globe Edition with introduction and notes by G. Gregory. Smith, London 1905, MacMillan and Co. Ltd., p. 465
Chapbooks: Definition and Orgins
Valentine Writers, Victoriana Magazine
The Festival of Love by Millicent Olmsted, Cosmopolitan: A Monthly Illustrated Magazine, Vol. XXX; November 1900-April, 1901; Millicent Olmstead, p. 372-380
"Come Be My Valentine", Boston Evening Transcript, March 20, 1899; p. 7
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918; p.44