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Father Christmas And His Family

[The Story Of The Three Kings]  [Some Twelfth Night Customs]  [St. Nicholas In England]  [Father Christmas And His Family]  [Pantomime In The Past And Present]  [Saint Nicholas In Europe]  [Saint Nicholas In America]  [All About Yule Tide]  [More Christmas Articles] 

( Originally Published 1909 )

The English, as I have said, have no Saint Nicholas, no Santa Klaus, no Chris-kinkle to act as a distributor of gifts on Christmas eve. They hail as the patron of the season a vague allegorical being, usually called Father Christmas, though he has, sometimes, been known also as Old Christmas, Captain Christmas, and by other titles.

He appears only in picture, in poetry, and in dramatic pieces specially got up for the holidays. In the latter he has played an important part from a very early period. The most famous of such pieces was a "masque" written by Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's friend and rival, and produced at the court of King James I in the year 1616. That, by the way, is the very year of Shakespeare's death.

Christmas festivities at that time were frowned down upon by many of the more zealous Protestantsjust then beginning to earn the name of "Puritans"who fancied that these mummeries and rejoicings smacked too strongly of "Papist" or Roman Catholice tendencies. Indeed many fanatics had striven to abolish Christmas altogether, and had partly succeeded in doing so, at least among the people who believed as they did. But James I, though a foolish person in some respects was a learned man and a great lover of the traditions of the past.

It is in allusion to the Puritan attempt to suppress him altogether that Ben Jonson's Father Christmas utters these words as he makes his entrance upon the stage:

"Why, gentlemen, do you know what you do? Ha! would you have kept me out? CHRISTMAS!-Old Christmas Christmas of London, and Captain Christmas! Pray you let me be brought before my Lord Chamberlain; I'll not be answered else. 'Tis merry in hall, when, beards wag all.' I have seen the time you have wished for me, for a merry Christmas, and now you have me, they would not let me in: I must come another time! A good jest-as if I could come more than once a year. Why, I am no, dangerous person, and so. I told my friends of the guard. I am old Gregory Christmas, still, and, though I come out of the Pope's Headalley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish."

He must have been a quaint looking figure, this same Father Christmas, for we are told that his costume consisted of "round hose, long stockings, close doublet, high-crowned hat, with a brooch, long, thin beard, truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, with his scarfs and garters tied cross, and his drum beaten before him,"

And now, to the sound of the drum, in troop all his merry family-sons and daughters and nephews and nieces. Among them are the Lord of Misrule, who in old days directed the Christmas revels; Roast Beef, "that English Champion bold," who has saved many a sturdy Englishman from starvation; Plum Pudding, a blackamoor, with rich round face and rosemary cockade; and Minced Pie, and Baby Cake, and Mumming and Wassail and Offering and Carol, and New Year's Gift, and others too numerous to mention.

Many members of this robust family will be recognized as contributors to the Christmas cheer of today. Others have disappeared forever.

The Lord of Misrule, for example, the "Grand Captain of Mischief," as the Puritans called him, no longer summons around him all the madcap youths of town or village for a brief period of lawless revelry.

In Scotland this personage was known as the Abbot of Unreason, a name which clearly shows that he was a direct descendant from the chief performer in the mediaeval Feast of Fools, and as such was a great-great-etc.-grandson of Silenus, the merrymaker in the Greek Bacchanalia.

King James I of England was succeeded by his son Charles I. During the reign of the latter unhappy monarch, the Puritan party in England gathered so much strength that, under the lead of Oliver Cromwell, they hurled Charles from his throne and cut off his head, sending his entire family into exile for a period of a dozen years. Father Christmas shared the exile of his royal patrons, or if he dared show his face in England at all, it was only here and there in remote country places or behind locked doors in the obscurer parts of the great cities. Meanwhile his absence was greatly deplored by that part of the English people who had remained loyal to the crown. One of these put forward a curious little book en titled "An Hue and Cry after Christmas." The following paragraph shows the spirit in which the book was written:

"Any man or woman, that can give any knowledge, or tell any tidings of an old, old, very old greybearded gentleman, called Christmas, who was wont to be a very familiar guest and visit all sorts of people, both poor and rich, and used to appear in glittering gold, silk and silver, in the court, and in all shapes in the theatre in White Hall, and had ringing, feasts and jollity in all places, both in the city and the country, for his coming-whoever can tell what is become of him, or where he may be found, let him bring him back again into England."

Well, Father Christmas did come back to England in the train of Charles I's son, Charles II who shortly after Cromwell's death was restored to the English throne by the wish of the majority of the English people.

When he resumed the rule that had been wrested by the Puritans from his father the old celebrations of Christmas were to some extent revived in the royal and other mansions and at the theatres.

"To some extent"-that is too often a sad phrase! It means, in this case, that pretty much all the life and spirit of the old ceremonies had departed so that no revival could restore them to their former vitality.

The changes wrought by the troublous times through which England had passed were fatal to the old-time splendors of the Christmas season. In the country many of the great old estates had passed into new hands and the old ties between the lord of the manor and his tenants had been forever sundered. The rafters of the old baronial halls no longer rang with the merriment which had graced the meeting of master and servants on a holiday basis of equality. Friends and relatives who from childhood had gathered together around the Yule log were now scattered or had been slain by the chances of war. Members of old country families deprived by Cromwell of their estates and driven into exile, now flocked to London to become hangers-on at the court of a "Merry Monarch" whose mirth was often bought at the expense of his subject's years.

The Merry Monarch, himself (that was the name given to Charles 11), was a prodigal and a spendthrift, who found all sorts of new ways in which to squander the money raised by taxes from his subjects. He had little left, therefore, to imitate the splendid pageants that distinguished the courts of Queen Elizabeth and James I at the ancient holiday seasons.

A famous song called "The Old and Young Courtier" was written shortly after Charles II had regained his throne. It sadly contrasts the good old times and the good old people with the bad new times and the bad new people of the Restoration.

The old courtier is lovingly described as "a worshipful old gentleman who had a great estate," with a lovely old wife by his side, and a great band of servants around them. Then followed this verse:

With a good old fashion when Christmas was come, To call in all his old neighbors with bagpipe and drum, With good cheer enough to furnish every room, And old liquor able to make a cat speak, and man dumb; Like an old courtier of the queen's And the queen's old courtier.

A contrast is drawn between this old courtier of the queen's and the young courtier of the king's, with all his new fangled notions, and especially

With a new fashion, when Christmas is drawing on, On a new journey to London we must straight all begone And leave none to keep house but our new porter John Who relieves the poor with a thump in the back with a stone. Like a young courtier of the king's And the king's young courtier.

From time to time, even in periods nearer to our own, complaints have been raised in England that the spirit of the old-time Christmas merriment has departed forever, and that good old Father Christmas is once more an exile from his own.

A cartoon by Linley M. Sambourne published in the London Punch for December 24, 1881, shows the Old-Fashioned Christmas holding a lively conversation with the New.

This prose bit is printed beneath the picture:



Then follows this poem, which still further explains the meaning of the picture:

Says the Old-fashioned Christmas to the New-fangled Christmas,

"'Pon my word, my boy, I don't think much of you." Says the New-fangled Christmas to the Old-fashioned Christmas,

"Well, with tastes like yours, I don't suppose you do. For, to celebrate a season, very fortunately brief,

At your age too,-with an orgie of plum-pudding and roast beef,

Crowned with holly, in a dressing-gown! The thing's past all belief!"

Says Old Christmas, with a nod, "My boy, that's true."

Says the New-fangled Christmas to the Old-fashioned Christmas,

"For tomfoolery like yours we have no zest."

Says the Old-fashioned Christmas to the New-fangled Christmas,

"What now! You to talk like that! Well, I am blest! `Tomfoolery'? Why, what do you call all this here modern fad,

Sending gimcrack cards by dozens, dauby, glaring, good, and bad,

Nymphs-and what not? Why, between you, you drive friends and Postmen mad."

Says Young Christmas, "When it's over, they can rest."

Says the Old-fashioned Christmas to the New-fangled Christmas,

"Where's the jollity of twenty years ago?"

Says the New-fangled Christmas to the Old-fashioned Christmas,

"How on earth, now, do you think that I should know? For today, with Art and Culture's dainty trifles by the score, We just manage to scrape through the time, confessing it's a bore;

But, by Jove, if you came back again, 'twould soon be something more!"

Says Old Christmas, "Well, I really call that low."

Says the New-fangled Christmas to the Old-fashioned Christmas,

"I don't see the day a bit, you know, like you."

Says the Old-fashioned Christmas to the New-fangled Christmas,

"Never mind, my boy, there's something you can do. Have your fads; but copy me, my boy. Go on as I've begun.

Remember, when your table's spread, the thousands that have none.

So, get your cheque-book out, my boy. Show you're your father's son."

Says Young Christmas, "Well, I don't mind if I do."

After all, may it not be safe for us to decide that it is. not the spirit but the fashion which alters, that the heart of Old Father Christmas still beats warm under the new garb wherein changing tastes have clothed him? Surely, if we have dropped some of the revellings of the past, we have dropped also the abuses which gradually made distasteful the horse play that attended those revelries.

On the whole the "new fangled Christmas" has many points that show an improvement over the oldfashioned Christmas while in all essentials the two remain one and the same.

Some humble members of Father Christmas' family still surviving to a small extent in London are the "waits" or wandering musicians who play dismal tunes under the windows of the well-to-do in the hopes of obtaining a few pennies.

These are direct descendants from the "jongleurs" or minstrels who in the Middle Ages celebrated the birth of Christ on Christmas night with song and dance.

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