The Complaint of Christmas: A Serialised Christmas Tale. Part 1

A contemporary image of Old Christmas

In a series of seven blog posts over Christmas, I’m going to serialise, in small(ish) chunks, a story written in 1631 that is set at Christmas and indeed stars Christmas himself. The tale recounts the adventures of Christmas, who visits earth on the 25th December as an old man (a precursor to Father Christmas no doubt) along with his companions, the 12 days of Christmas. His adventures take him around Europe and then to England where he discovers what has become of Christmas charity and hospitality. It has some utterly fantastic turns of phrase and pieces of observation that feel remarkably modern “the [bread] went up and downe the Table, like a Bowle in an Alley, every man might have a fling at him”. Of course, like any good Christmas tale it unearths some miserly, Scrooge-like characters who have no time for charity and hospitality.

The tale has a clear historical background in the apparent decline in traditional hospitality in and around feast days that occurred in the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Century. This was seen as a sign of moral decline and the blame for this corruption was laid at the door of absentee landowners who had been lured to the licentious delights of the profligate City of London (no change there then).  In a speech to the Starr Chamber in 1613, King James I of England, made it clear that this trend must be reversed, and that aside from official parliamentary business the Gentry should not be found lingering in the City:

…I made a Proclamation… That all Gentlemen of qualitie should depart to their owne countreys and houses, to maintaine hospitalitie amongst their neighbours… One of the great causes of all Gentlemens desire, that have no calling or errand, to dwell in London, is apparently the pride of the women: For if they be wives, then their husbands; and if they be maydes, then their fathers must bring them up to London; because the new fashions is to be had no where but in London… now in England, all the countrey is gotten into London; so as with time, England will onely be London, and the whole countrey will be left waste… So have we got up the Italian fashion, in living miserably in our houses, and dwelling all in the citie: but let us in Gods name leave these idle forreine toyes, and keepe the old fashion of England: For it was wont to bee the honour and reputation of the English nobilitie and Gentry, to live in the countrey, and keepe hospitalitie, for which we were famous above all the countreys in the world.

James’ proclamation inspired a number of pieces of literature, including poems and a Masque by Ben Johnson. Clearly sixteen years later things had still not improved much and the waterman John Taylor decided address the issue in a Christmas tale.

I have moved the text around so that it reads better in a blog format and have modernised some spellings (particularly the u/v and f/s switch). Some of the headings in bold Italic I’ve taken from the original text, some I’ve added myself to help split the text down a bit and highlight some aspects of the passage. This tale feels very much like a Dickens Christmas ghost story (like A Christmas Carol or Cricket in the Hearth) and wit and puns abound. The appearance of the personified father of Christmas in such an early text is in itself very interesting. I hope you enjoy the posts.

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The complaint of Christmas, and the teares of Twelfetyde

By John Taylor.

LONDON:

Printed for James Boler, dwelling at the signe of the Marigold in Pauls Church-yard. 1631.

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THE COMPLAINT OF CHRISTMAS.

About that time of the yeare when Skiegilding, and Earth-polishing Don Phoebus had (like a skilfull Clothworker) stretch’d the nights upon the longest Tenterhookes of time, and curtold the dayes to the coldest abreviation, or a briefe coldnesse, (an embleme of frozen charity:) I, Christmas, according to my old custome of 1600. yeares standing, visited the world; and like a quick Post, riding upon the wings of full speed, in ten dayes space I haunted the most Kingdomes and Climates of the Christian world.

[…]

Christmas arrives in England

I arrived in England the 25. of December, about one of the clocke in the morning, where I was no sooner landed, but (as old as I was) I cut a caper for joy, assuring my selfe that I was now in my ancient Harbour or heaven of happinesse, in the Eden of the Earth, the Paradice of Terrestriall Peace, Plenty and Pleasure, the most fruitfull Garden of the rotundious Globe, the comfortable Canaan, that flowest with Milke and Hony. And as thou (O England) hast ever given old Christmas (with his twelve Holy-day Servingmen) good entertainment, with such cheere, hospiltality, and welcome, as the Christian world never hath done the like. So (I observing the ancient Proverbe) where I was wont to fare well am come againe.

I having beene foure houres wrapt in this extasie of ioy of my safe landing, at last I heard Master Chantecleere [rooster] (the nights living Clocke, or Cocke, and the dayes dyall) with the care-piercing clang of his Horne-trumpet, crow out a Proclamation of the approach of Aurora; which I was glad to heare, for poore Christmas was as cold as a Snowball. Day being risen out of his orientall bed (the blacke Curtaines of the night being drawne) I look’d up and downe the Country to see into which house I should goe first, for I saw many faire houses which I had often beene well entertained at; but I could perceive no doores open no lights thorow the windowes, or smoake from the Chimnies, which made mee doubtfull where I was. My poore twelue old fellowes were halfe frozen with feare and amazement, till (by meere fortune) I spi’d a swarme of Beggers, who made towards us, bidding us very welcome, saying, they had mist us long, acknowledging themselves beholding to vs all, but chiefly to me.

Not much to me (quoth I) but I remember there is a Lords of the Mannours house at the end of this Village, I will goe thither, and doe you come after me, and anon I will give you your bellies full of good cheere. So the Beggers and I parted, and I with my men went to the Lords house, where finding the gate shut, I peep’d in at the Key-hole, saw an old poore halfe-starv’d Servingman leane against the wall, bewailing the miseries of the time present, and grieving at the alterations of the time past, despairing of the amendment of the time to come. I was halfe afraid of him dreading that instead of better meat he would fall aboord of mee and my troope; at last, seeing me retreat backe, he beckened to me, and watering every word with a teare, he spake to mee as followeth:

An old Servingman’s complaint to Christmas. 

“Oh Christmas, old reuerend Christmas! whither art thou going? What haste art thou now making to this house, where hospitality had once her habitation; where the poore man was relieved, the stranger succoured, the traueller refresh’d, and all men bid welcome? Why art thou making such haste now? Now it is decayed, ruined, sunke. This house that from the Conquest hath beene famous for Hospitality, is now buried in her owne ruins.

Looke round about thee, where are now those high woods that did shelter this house from the winds violence? Now they are low enough, the woodmans axe hath humbled their proud heads. Looke into the Parks: Deere may be deare now, for there are very sew there: My young Master not long since closed them in a Paste Pale, in a Taverne, where they were hunted by a company of fawning flattering hounds.

Looke into the Meddowes, dost thou see an Oxe there? No, no; they are all driven to the Citie. Is there a Calfe or Sheepe in the Pastures? no, they are all knockt on the head, and have their throats cut, having Parchment made of their skinnes to make him bonds after hee had sold their flesh.

Looke into the Garden, is there a Bee|hiue there? no, all the honey-birds are fled, and the Waxe spent in sealing Bonds for Commodities.

Looke about the Yard, there is not a Ducke, Chicken, Hen or Capon to be seene? not a Goose to be had? they are all pluckt, and have pens made of their quils to set his hand to his undoing.

Looke into the Barne, there is not so many Eares to be found there as there are on a common Bailies head; or so much Corne in the Garners as will breakfast a Chicken.

O Christmas, Christmas, my old eyes are almost bloodshot with weeping at the follies of my yong Master, who instead of making his Chymneyes smoake in the Countrey, makes his nose smoake in a Tobaceo-shop in the Citie. His Predecessours was wont to invite his Tenants to dinner, but now he hath more neede to be invited himselfe; which his Quondam Tenants are not able todoe, for their new Landlord hath used them like Traytors, and set them on the Racke. Instead of keeping a good house in the Countrey, some blinde house in the City keepes him: Instead of keeping a kennell of hounds, he is afraid to be fed on by hounds; hee dares not looke a Serjeant in the face, for feare he should bite him by the shoulder. Instead of keeping a faire Stable of horse, hee keepes a foule Table of—Rauenous beasts that at one riotous supper will devoure more than the Paris-Garden dogs. Instead of keeping a proper Servingmen, he hath much adoe to keepe himselfe; and whereas hee should walke in his owne gardens in the Country, he walks the Temple garden in the City: and last of all he thinks Milford lane as safe a harbour for him as Milford Haven.

Oh Christmas, is it not pitty that such an ancient house as this where Hospitality, the Romans houshold God dwel[…]a should thus decay? An old Userer in the deepe whi[…]e|pit of his ill conscience, hath devoured my young Masters house and lands. Thus have I unballanced my selfe of that burthen of griefe I was laden with, if you will not beleeve me draw nigh the house; the doore is open for this old penny-father (whom I am forced to serve) need feares no theeves, for they rather feare him: for if they see any thing in this house now worth carrying away, they have better eyes than ever I had.”

Christmas begins to survey a changed house

In which he near faints as he recounts the changes to the once merry hall.

The complaint of this poore Servingman was but an ill breakfast for me and my company that cold morning; yet I and my Comrades went along with him thorow the yard, which look’d much of his complexion, very leane; and I no sooner was in the house but I fell into a swound: so that had it not beene for those that were about me I had departed; for they gave me hot waters, and rubb’d my temples, and at last, with much adoe, brought me to my selfe; so that then I purposed, what sight soever should poyson my eyes, I would make a full survey of all the chiefe parts of the house.

The wide roome that I first set my foot in, was rather like the hole of some lothsome jaile, than the Hall of an House: Indeed it rather was a hell where a damnable extorting Divell dwelt with a few spirits about him. I may properly call them spirits, for they had little flesh about them. There was not so much fire in the Chimney as would broyle a Pilcher, for his Harth was as cold as my heart.

The Blacke-jacke whom every Servingman in the house was wont to wring by the eare, for being too sawcie with them, (for hee often would fling them into the fire, and make them quarrell without

without cause) was cast aside in a blinde corner. This spright of the Buttery, (that would runne foaming at the mouth up and downe the house as being weary of travelling) was lamentably abused; this leather-suited

Servingman (whom the Butler had often pitch’d over the Barre) I saw lye in a darke corner on his belly, with his mouth wide open like a Canon, as it were gaping for that full Charge hee was wont to have in his old Master’s time. Thus lay he sleeping in a hole that had made many sleepe.

A feast in Better times

A delightful contest between man and feast

The Tables (that were wont to be spread with cleane Linnen, Diaper and Damaske for the rich, and homespunne for the poore,) were now covered with dust, and a company of starv’d Mice and Rats, that for

want of crummes were scarce able to crawle out of their nests, supplyed the places of many guests, that were wont to fill them, in the time of bounteous house|keepers.

I have knowne the time when I have seene a Gentleman Sewer (that Captainelike led a company of Servingmen bare, or bare Servingmen) armed with full dishes of meat, and the Clerke of the Kitching, the

Clerke of that stomackfull Band bringing up the Reare, that in a quarter of an houres warning, would performe a brave peece of service, and spite of hunger and famine place the right worshipfull sur-loyne at the upper end of the Table, attended by two sawcers of Vineger and Pepper, that waited on him like his Pages. I had almost forgot the (Note: Mince-pies were quite forgot, also plum-broth) stiffe-neck’d colerick Coller of Brawn, that boldly charg’d on the Front with his sprig of Rosemary on his head, instead of a white feather, like a Bridebush: but if these stout Captaines, Brawne and burly Beefe could not take downe the stomackes of those that did assault them with their sleighted blades, instantly upon the Reare would come whole troopes of hot souldiers, ss Capons, Hens, Lambe, Mutton and Veale to their rescue, and after them whole compani[…]s of wilde-fowle would come flying to their succour; many tender-hearted Chicken have I seene torne in peeces in these terrible conflicts, many plumpe Partriges and Quailes that could not quaile their stomacks.

Often have I seene the dogges (that could doe more than many Knights of the Post) fall together by the eares for bones, the well fill’d guests have slung under the Tables to them. I have seene the wide throated Usher of the Hall, that tooke no small pride to cry Gentlemen and Yeomen to the Dresser, fill the Almes. basket with meat and bread well sopp’d with the fat of wholesome powder Beefe. I have seene these windowes stucke full of Holly and Ivy; but now the laborious Spider, that most skilfull Spinner and Weaver, that in his nets intraps the silly Flie, as artificially as the Spider-like Trades-man doth the young Gentleman, hath his Loomb-worke hanging in every window, not fearing the house wives Broome.

Last of all, this Hall have I seene strewed with rushes, a signe of the soft and kinde entertainment the guests should have: I have seene a Lord of Misrule, that with his honest mirth hath made old Christmas laugh: I have seene Armour, Swords, and Pikes adorne this Hall, which seemed to defend and ayd Hospitality, but now there is no such Starre appeares, no such sight seene, and I feare, I am growne so old and dimme, that I shell never see it againe.

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Next Instalment – the lamentable tour of the house continues & a confrontation with the villain who wrought the change 

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5 thoughts on “The Complaint of Christmas: A Serialised Christmas Tale. Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Complaint of Christmas: A Serialised Christmas Tale. Part 2 « In Pursuit of History

  2. Pingback: The Complaint of Christmas: A Serialised Christmas Tale. Part 3 « In Pursuit of History

  3. Pingback: The Complaint of Christmas: A Serialised Christmas Tale. Part 5 « In Pursuit of History

  4. Pingback: The Complaint of Christmas: A Serialised Christmas Tale. Part 4 « In Pursuit of History

  5. Pingback: History Carnival CXI (December 2011-January 2012) – Frog in a Well Japan

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