“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful. ”
― Norman Vincent Peale
Christmas is around the corner and at Boydell & Brewer we are getting into the Christmas spirit. What better way to do that than to find Christmas themes in our publications?
Below you will find extracts from a wide range of book which have focused part of their research on Christmas. You can read about food, religion and social traditions at Christmas during different times in history. We hope these extracts will lead to further explorations of the festive season.
A Family in the Wars of the Roses
The Pastons provides vivid first-hand accounts of life in England at the time of the Wars of the Roses, presented in their historical context.
In this extract, you will find a letter from Margaret to John, written on Christmas Eve, where Margaret seeks John’s advise on what the correct etiquette is in a great household in mourning on Christmas.
‘Right worshipful husband, I commend myself to you. This is to let you know that I sent your eldest son to Lady Morley to find out what entertainment was put on in her house the Christmas after the death of her husband. And she said that there were no disguisings or harping or lute-playing or singing, and no noisy amusements, but backgammon and chess and cards; these were the games she allowed her people to play, and no others. Your son did his errand very well, as you will hear later. I sent your younger son to Lady Stapleton, and she said the same as Lady Morley, adding that this was what they did in respectable houses that she had been to.
‘I am sorry you will not be home at Christmas; please come as soon as you can. I shall feel half a widow because you will not be there. God have you in his keeping. Written on Christmas eve.’
The Household Accounts of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1635-1642
This publication, from the Church of England Record Society, contributes to a better understanding not only of ecclesiastical power and politics but of life in an élite household in seventeenth-century Britain.
Below you will find an extract explaining the generosity towards the indigent, showing the archbishop’s more benevolent side.
Every Christmas, a substantial £20 was given to the ‘poor of Lambeth’, while their Croydon counterparts received £5. Prisoners at the gaols in Ludgate, the Savoy and Southwark were also the recipients of Laud’s munifcence every Christmas and Easter, while spur-of-the moment donations were handed out regularly, when the archbishop was travelling to and from court or Croydon Palace. Over and above this, numerous one-off payments – whether ‘a poore woman at Epsom’, ‘a poor maultese’, ‘a poore dumbe man’ or ‘to a poore Scottishman’ – attest to the willingness of Laud and his entourage to give spontaneously while going about their daily business.
Laud went to court several times over this Christmas and New Year period. On 2 Jan. 1636, for instance, he offciated at the christening of the newborn Princess Elizabeth, second daughter of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, born on 28 Dec. 1635
The Medieval Cook
The Medieval Cook explores the figure of the medieval cook, in the context of time and circumstance.
One of the dishes this publication discusses is porridge and how it has often been ‘praised for many virtues, but full-bodies flavour is never on the list.’ The author goes on to explain how one can add ‘a touch of salt, or honey, a handful of herb, a nut or two […]’ in order to turn the dish from boring, into a relished treat.’
The author also explains how in Denmark, ‘the hiding of an almond for good luck in the similarly bland rice pudding which is still served on Christmas Eve’.
The below extract gives the reader a glimpse of the medieval cook’s work for the great Christmas meal.
At the court of Edward IV in England, crisp sweet wafers were served every day to the king, the most senior members of his household and the most important visitors. Only at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, the principal feasts of the year, was the rule relaxed, and: ‘other lower officers more generall’ allowed to share the privilege of enjoying those delectable little confections.
God and the Gawain-Poet
Theology and Genre in Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
This book provides a fresh examination of the four poems of the Cotton manuscript, arguing that they share a profound theological vision. How does this relate to Christmas?
Chapter 4 of this publication focuses on Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. In this poem, the Green Knight appears before Arthur’s court on Christmas, holding a bough of holly in one hand, and an axe in the other. He then issues a challenge: he will allow one man to strike him once with his very own axe, on the condition that he can return the blow the following year. Most of the knights in Arthur’s court refuse to fight this giant green man, and feeling outraged with shame at this embarrassment, Arthur decides to take up the challenge himself. Gawain realises that Arthur is about to get killed and thus he takes up the challenge on Arthur’s behalf. Gawain decides to swing a blow that be-heads the knight and the court is horrified when the knight picks up his head, seemingly reattaches it and then rides off.
There is a moment of choice, earlier in the encounter with the Green Knight, when the Christmas gomen could be taken as just that and no more. The moment passes, seemingly without anyone noticing that an important interpretation has been adopted on which the story will depend. It passes unnoticed because the society depicted has as its basis of interpretation the violence inherent in self-assertion. It might be objected that, if Gawain had playfully poked the Green Knight with a bit of holly, there would be no story, to which the answer is: precisely. Such a plot is implicitly judged if we take both it, and a Christian notion of peaceful behaviour, seriously.
This last one does not specifically mention Christmas, but it’s been included to get everyone a little extra jolly for the festive season. Let us ask you this: Do you, or your family, bring out special plates and serving dishes for Christmas? Many families do. The final title in our Christmas special is dedicated to a publication which celebrates the reassembly of more than 160 pieces of the original Worcester porcelain factory in Ireland.
Birds, Bugs and Butterflies: Lady Betty Cobbe’s ‘Peacock’ China
A Biography of an Irish Service of Worcester Porcelain
A major contribution to our knowledge of the Worcester porcelain factory in its early years, based on a single large and elaborate dinner service commissioned by an Irish family.
Thirty years of research have established that the ‘Peacock’ dinner and dessert service of Worcester porcelain commissioned in the mid eighteenth century by Lady Betty Cobbe (1736–1806) for Newbridge House, Co. Dublin, is doubtless the largest recorded service of English porcelain of its period. Moreover, it appears to have been unique, among its English and Irish peers, in having matching sets of porcelain cutlery handles. The latter are exceptional too, in that the dessert set is fitted with solid Irish silver blades and tines rather than the usual steel – this being, perhaps, an Irish luxurious quirk, since the only other known porcelain cutlery set of the period with all-silver mounts was also for an Irish client. Lady Betty’s service additionally included sets of Irish steel cutlery with the same matching porcelain handles, used for meat courses rather than dessert. Overall, the Peacock service originally consisted of perhaps as many as 500 pieces.
We wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!