A man might then behold
At Christmas, in each hall
Good fires to curb the cold,
And meat for great and small.
The neighbors were friendly bidden,
And all had welcome true,
The poor from the gates were not chidden,
When this old cap was new.
–From an old song
Of the many holiday tales out there, “Old Christmas” remains one of my favorites. Published in 1819 by the American writer Washington Irving, who, as the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” knew how to spin a captivating yarn, “Old Christmas” recounts the observations and experiences of one Geoffrey Crayon, an American gentleman abroad (and fictional stand-in for the author). His exploration of the British Isles carries Crayon to a Yorkshire inn.
There in the inn coziness reigns — a roaring fire, great tankards of ale, and rounds of cold beef to ease the hunger of any guest. Crayon has arrived on Christmas Eve, and the cheerful scene entices him to stay the night. He in fact determines to do just that. Yet, as it happens, he will not, thanks to an unexpected reunion.
The reunion begins with the arrival of a post-chaise. From the carriage steps Frank Bracebridge, “a sprightly good-humored fellow,” as Crayon characterizes him. A traveling companion of Crayon’s years before, Bracebridge enters the inn, where the two men’s eyes meet. Immediate recognition sparks delight, and soon Bracebridge plies Crayon with an offer.
Bracebridge proposes to bring Crayon home with him to Bracebridge Hall, where Crayon may join in celebration of Christmas “in something of the old-fashioned style,” as his old friend puts it. Crayon takes Bracebridge up on the offer. He steps into Bracebridge’s post-chaise, and the two onetime companions head for Bracebridge Hall.
Along the way, Bracebridge explains a certain quirk of his father’s. Known simply as “the Squire,” the elder Bracebridge takes fierce pride in belonging to one of Yorkshire’s oldest families. With the honor comes the obligation, as the Squire reckons, of “keeping up something of the old English hospitality.”
Indeed, the Squire reveres all the ancient customs and lore of his county seat. He keeps the gardens surrounding Bracebridge Hall adorned with “obsolete finery,” as the younger Bracebridge tells his coach-mate, and the halls festooned with burnished suits of armor and portraits of heroic ancestors.
Similar punctiliousness the Squire brings to yuletide observances. He insists that everyone in his household enact the rites and rituals of the holiday with utter exactitude. As master of the revels, the Squire himself sees to the exactitude by regularly consulting “old books for precedent and authority” as guides to the finer points of “merrie disport.” The regime of pleasure involves not only Bracebridges but their servants, as well. The Squire grants his servants leave to revel throughout the twelve days of Christmas, provided that they do so “comfortably to ancient usage.”
In this injunction, the household servants bear an easy yoke; “ancient usage” turns out to mean many games. Frank Bracebridge rattles off for Crayon several: “hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple and snapdragon” — all by the warm glow of Christmas candles and a Yule log.
Perhaps less comfortable but no less merry is the celebration in the main hall. There the squire gathers relations near and distant. They range from aged aunts and uncles and “blooming country cousins,” to “comfortably married dames,” “superannuated spinsters” and “bright-eyed boarding-school hoydens,” among other specimens of the Bracebridge clan. They likewise celebrate Christmas according to custom, chatting and playing cards and other ancient games before the Yule log, which the Squire himself lights with a brand from the previous year’s log. The flourish with which he lights the log comports to — you guessed it! — ancient fashion.
Ancient fashion dictates the holiday meals, as well. Bracebridge and Crayon arrive to Bracebridge Hall and a Christmas Eve supper of frumenty — wheat cakes boiled in richly spiced milk — and mince pie, the latter dish “an old friend,” as Crayon describes it. These delights, however, offer a mere foretaste of far more sumptuous fare on Christmas Day. Into the great hall bedecked with evergreen and lit by Yule candles that beam “like stars of the first magnitude” enters an “enormous pig’s head decorated with rosemary” and set on a silver platter. “Ancient sirloin” follows as the next dish — “ancient” reflecting, one hopes, the method of preparation rather than the freshness. A pie of pheasant completes a trio of meat. Only with this last dish does the Squire swerve from tradition: ancient authority ordains that peacock meat fill the pie. Yet the Squire cannot bring himself to slaughter the peacocks of his manor. He contents himself, rather, with plucking a few peacock feathers to adorn the crust. (Custom governing this pie’s preparation calls for a peacock’s head and gilt beak to jut forth from one end of the pie. It also calls for gravy made from “three fat wethers” and a third side of pheasant dressed in ambergris.)
Dinner guests perhaps overwhelmed by all the rich dishes could look forward to the appearance of the Wassail Bowl, the holiday vessel containing the Squire’s “richest and raciest wine.” Not content, however, to allow the richness and raciness speak for themselves, the Squire invokes tradition yet again by having nutmeg, ginger, sugar, and roasted crabapples added to his wine. Only with such garnishes does the wine, in the Squire’s estimation, become “the ancient fountain of good feeling, where all hearts meet together.”
To the most newly arrived heart meeting at the ancient fountain of good feeling, the festivities of Bracebridge Hall must have come as a revelation. The Christmas holiday in Crayon’s United States had fallen into a woeful condition. Where it wasn’t simply neglected it was outlawed, owing to a notion that it encouraged drunkenness and belligerence. And from the revelation followed an urge for restoration. Crayon’s real-world counterpart Irving found himself so moved by the joyous revelry in England that he mounted a defense of the holiday in his home country. Out must go the low impulses given scope at Christmas in the U.S. in favor of “hallow and elevated enjoyment.” Such enjoyment rests on “solemn and sacred feeling” experienced anew — feeling that “blends well with our conviviality” and that “lifts the spirit to a state” befitting it.
We today might snicker at the Squire in his obsession with preserving “ancient ways.” Certainly, not all of them merit preservation. The same Squire of Bracebridge Hall who summons his servants to merry disport also laments their having become “too knowing,” a development that has led them to “begin to read newspapers.” Yet, this unevenness on the Squire’s part should not overcloud the animating idea behind the holiday tradition he strives to uphold. The ways that attach to holidays as various as Christmas or, say, Diwali create a gentle eddy in the otherwise relentless onrush of a lived time that sweeps us from trial to trial. In this eddy we can set aside our differences and share the great good luck of being able to eat and drink our fill with family and friends.
That we might find tranquility and happiness in holidays risks becoming a quaint notion worthy of our Squire. We would do well to attend to the risk, because where we abandon the shared pleasures that have cheered us for millennia, we leave just one more void for the current moment to fill with some meager, unattractive replacement. So, whatever holiday you happen to celebrate these next few days and weeks, celebrate it well and wholly — and share your good fortune and cheer with others, if you can.
And what better way to share good fortune and cheer than with this American version of the Wassail Bowl from Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em (1937)?
- 2 baked apples
- 2 tablespoons fine sugar
- 1 tablespoon allspice
- 1 lemon, juiced and peeled
- 1 quart hot ale
- 1 pint warm sherry
To make the Wassail Bowl bake two apples and cut in small pieces. Add the sugar, the allspice, the lemon, the heated ale, and warm sherry. Mix well, mashing with a muddler, heat and serve hot.
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