This week at Brontë’s Page Turners we’ll be getting in the festive mood with a selection of Yuletide-themed literary treats.
Christmas Entertainment 1740 is a reproduction of an 18th century tract about all things festive. It is published by the excellent Pryor Publications who specialize in facsimile reproductions of old books.
It may be almost 300 years old but there is much in this pamphlet which sounds familiar. Firstly, the criticism of the ‘stingy tribe’ who fail to observe those ‘old ways of hospitality’ is the 18th century equivalent of our present despair at the declining size of Quality Street tubs and quality of Christmas television:
an English gentleman…had all his tenants and neighbours enter’d his hall by day-break, the strong beer was broach’d…the rooms were embower’d with holly…and a bouncing Christmas log in the chimney glowing like the cheeks of a country milk-maid…every bit of brass as polished as the most refined gentleman…the tables all spread…and all those with sharp stomachs and sharp knives eat heartily…
Then there is the over-excess: the various entertainments of country-dancing, masquerading, blind man’s buff, and a rather dodgy-sounding game called ‘puss in boots’ (‘when a man catches a woman, he may kiss her ’till her ears crack…if one offers at a struggle…then be assured she is a prude’), which only end when ‘most of them are drunk enough, and reel home, or lie down in the barn.’ This is basically every work Christmas party I have ever known (even the Civil Service can hang loose, y’all), and certainly every Turner family Christmas since all of my cousins and I reached legal drinking age and our parents realized they no longer needed to portray any semblance of sobriety. The only one who has retained any dignity is my Nanny Iris, and even she can be misled with a Baileys if the mood is right.
Things did take a peculiar turn with the descriptions of the other entertainment ‘frequently used’: the distinctly non-Christmassy story-telling of ‘hobgoblins, witches, conjurers, ghosts, fairies, and such like common disturbers.’ But then I thought back again to Turner family Christmases and the peculiar rituals we observe: the protracted way in which my brother and I, despite being home-owning professionals in our thirties, insist that the family approaches present opening (sat by the Christmas tree, in order of ‘children’ and ‘adults’); the designation of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Zulu as Christmas films; and, lastly, the tradition of walking home from my Aunt Maria’s house at 1am after the aforementioned booze-athon, just so that we can go through the park and each hug a tree. (Yes, we all hug a tree. My mum especially goes for it.) I’m sure – well, hope – your family has similarly unusual traditions and would love to hear about them.
In other words, at Christmas, be it the 21st or 18th century, we all over-indulge, observe some funny rituals that may seem perfectly reasonable to your family but would sound barmy to mine, and then complain that Christmas was much better back in the day. Get ready, people. It’s on.