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"Get Ivy and Holly and deck up thine house,
E now enter upon that era which was a period of transition, not merely as regards our national religion, but likewise as regards our national literature. The Reformation, and the introduction of printing had begun to produce their fruits, and, amongst other changes that were taking place, somewhat of the barbarism of our national manners, was in process of eradication. And it was fitting that such should be the case under the auspices of a female sovereign, who, although she possessed but little of the gentleness of her sex, yet brought her influence to bear in refining the manners of her courtiers, and with no other object beyond the gratification of her own vanity, converted them into so many beaux chevaliers, who did homage to her person, more perhaps because she was a woman,
than by reason of her position as a queen. Among the many changes that were effected, none were, perhaps, more apparent than in the festive entertainments of the time. Some idea of the ceremony observed on these occasions may be formed from the following code of instructions for the guidance of a nobleman's household :
“On Christmas day, service in the church ended, the gentlemen presently repair into the hall to breakfast, with brawn, mustard, and malmscy.
“At dinner, the butler, appointed for the Christmas, is to see the tables covered and furnished; and the ordinary butlers of the house are decently to set bread, napkins, and trenchers, in good form, at every table; with spoons and knives. At the first course is served in a fair and large boar's head, upon a silver platter, with minstrelsy.
“Two 'servants' are to attend at supper, and to bear two fair torches of
wax, next before the musicians and trumpeters, and stand above the fire with the music, till the first course be served in through the hall. Which performed, they, with the music, are to return into the buttery. The like course is to be observed in all things, during the time of Christmas.
“At night, before supper, are revels and dancing, and so also after supper, during the twelve days of Christmas. The Master of the Revels is, after dinner and supper, to sing a carol, or song; and command other gentlemen then there present to sing with him and the company; and see it is very decently performed."
A recent writer, deriving his information from contemporary sources, furnishes us with some additional particulars in reference to the style of entertainment in vogue among the higher orders during the Elizabethan period. “The nobility,” he says, “had discarded entirely their huge joints of salted beef, and platters of wood and pewter, together with the swarms of jesters, tumblers, and harpers, that formerly had been indispensable to the banquet-room ; a stately ceremonial and solemn silence were considered to be the indications of true politeness. The table was daily set out with a great variety of dishes, consisting of beef, mutton, veal, lamb, pork, kid, coney, capon, pig, or so many of these as the season afforded, with store of red or fallow deer, and varieties of fish and fowl. The wine and other liqueurs were not placed upon the table with the dishes, but on a sideboard, and each person called, as occasion required, for a flagon of the wine he preferred; by which, as Harrison informs us, much idle tippling was avoided. When the company had finished eating, the remaining provisions were sent to the waiters and servants; and when these had sufficiently dined, the fragments were distributed among the poor, who waited without the gate."
None suffered so much from these innovations as the once highly rewarded minstrel, he, who had been in past times the soul of the tournament, and a welcome guest at every banquet, was now “a street ballad-singer, or alehouse fiddler, chaunting forth from benches and barrel heads to an audience consisting of a few gaping rustics from the country, or a parcel of idle boys; and, as if the degradation of these despised and unhoused favourites of former days had not been enough, the stern justice of the law made them doubly vile, obliging them to skulk into corners, and perform their merry offices in fear and trembling. Minstrels were now classed in the statute with rogues and vagabonds, and made liable to the same pains and penalties.”
One distinguishing feature of the Christmas festivities of this era was the custom, which, originating in the reign of Henry VII., was now at its height, of appointing a Lord of Misrule or Master of Merry Disports, who exercised a twelve days' sway, perpetrating within that brief while a sufficient number of solemn tomfooleries to be repented of during the course of a long life. Not only was one of these Christmas princes appointed for the special entertainment of the sovereign and her court, but every corporation selected a similar officer to preside over the festivities of the season, and according to old Stow there was the like “in the house of every nobleman of honour or good worship, were he spiritual or temporal.” Stow moreover informs us, that during the
THE ELIZABETHAN ERA.
period of the sway of the Lord of Misrule, “there were fine and subtle disguisings, masks, and mummeries, with playing at cards for counters, nails, and points in every house, more for pastime than for gain.”
In these days town and country would seem to have vied with each other as to which should exhibit the greatest extravagance in the preparation of the Christmas entertainment, for we find Massinger exclaiming
“Men may talk of country Christmasses--
Were fasts, compared with the city's.”. Although a more decorous and even refined style of entertainment had usurped the place of the boisterous feastings of former times, there was no diminution in that ancient spirit of hospitality, the exercise of which had become a part of the national faith. And, in the “good old times” of the virgin queen, all classes were in a condition to put so excellent a theory into frequent practice. The labouring population of the Elizabethan era lived, it is true, in mere hovels, like the peasantry of our own day, but their fare was of a very different character. The remark of the Spanish ambassador who visited England about this period, will be recollected. “ These English,” said he, “ have their houses made of sticks and dirt, but they fare, commonly, as well as the king." Early in the reign of Elizabeth, the substantial yeoman was housed no better than his own ploughman; and even the state rooms of royalty were then strewn daily with clean rushes, just as we now provide our stables with fresh litter. Subsequently, however, the thatched timber buildings, with their reredosses, or open fire-places, gave place to those picturesque red brick farm houses, and their clusters of tall chimneys, which are still to be seen scattered through almost every sequestered valley in the land. A writer of the period,* in alluding to the changes that had taken place within his own recollection, particularly calls attention to the “multitude of chimneys recently erected; whereas, in his young days, there were not above two or three, if so many, in most uplandish towns of the realm (the religious houses, and manor places of the lords always excepted).” The buildings themselves give ample evidence that the new fashion of chimneys was in high favour; and that these same chimneys were put to good use, and that hospitality formed part and parcel of the festivities of the Christmas season among the English yeomen of that time, may be gathered from the following poems by Tusser, which have been extracted from his “Five Hundred Points of good Husbandry.”
Thomas Tusser, a georgical poet of great popularity in his own and the succeeding age, was born about 1515, and died in 1580. He was a chorister and agriculturist by turns. His great merit consists in his poems being faithful pictures of the manners, customs, and domestic life of the English farmer of that day; and in the morality, piety, and benevolent simplicity which pervade all that he has written.
A DESCRIPTION OF APT TIME TO SPENT).
Of all other doings, house-keeping is chief,
Thongh, hearken to this, we should ever among,
A DESCRIPTION OF APT TIME TO SPEND).
LET such (so fantastical) liking not this,
At Christmas good husbands have corn in the ground,
At Christmas the hardness of winter doth rage,
At Christmas, by labour is little to get,