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Title: An Old Fashioned Christmas Day
Author: Irving, Washington
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "An Old Fashioned Christmas Day" ***

(This file was produced from images generously made

                             Christmas Day

[Illustration: Christmas Day]


[Illustration: We were escorted by a number of gentleman-like dogs]


                             CHRISTMAS DAY
                           WASHINGTON IRVING

                         PICTURES IN COLOUR BY
                              CECIL ALDIN

                   NEW YORK:    HODDER  &  STOUGHTON



We were escorted by a number of gentleman-like dogs

The editions of Caxton and Wynkin de Worde were his delight

Winding all up by a nasal solo

The dinner was served up in the Great Hall

The little beings were as happy about him as the mock fairies about

Master Simon led the van


[Illustration: Christmas Day]

WHEN I awoke the next morning, it seemed as if all the events of the
preceding evening had been a dream, and nothing but the identity of the
ancient chamber convinced me of their reality. While I lay musing on my
pillow, I heard the sound of little feet pattering outside of the door,
and a whispering consultation. Presently a choir of small voices chanted
forth an old Christmas carol, the burden of which was:

                    Rejoice, our Saviour He was born
                    On Christmas Day in the morning.

I rose softly, slipped on my clothes, opened the door suddenly, and
beheld one of the most beautiful little fairy groups that a painter
could imagine.

It consisted of a boy and two girls, the eldest not more than six, and
lovely as seraphs. They were going the rounds of the house, and singing
at every chamber door; but my sudden appearance frightened them into
mute bashfulness. They remained for a moment playing on their lips with
their fingers, and now and then stealing a shy glance from under their
eyebrows, until, as if by one impulse, they scampered away, and as they
turned an angle of the gallery, I heard them laughing in triumph at
their escape.

The house was surrounded with evergreens, according to the English
custom, which would have given almost an appearance of summer; but the
morning was extremely frosty; the light vapour of the preceding evening
had been precipitated by the cold, and covered all the trees and every
blade of grass with its fine crystallisations.

I had scarcely dressed myself, when a servant appeared to invite me to
family prayers. He showed me the way to a small chapel in the old wing
of the house, where I found the principal part of the family already
assembled in a kind of gallery, furnished with cushions, hassocks, and
large prayer-books; the servants were seated on benches below. The old
gentleman read prayers from a desk in front of the gallery, and Master
Simon acted as clerk, and made the responses.

[Illustration: The editions of Caxton and Wynkin de Worde were his

The service was followed by a Christmas carol, which Mr. Bracebridge
himself had constructed from a poem of his favourite author, Herrick;
and it had been adapted to an old church melody by Master Simon. As
there were several good voices among the household, the effect was
extremely pleasing; but I was particularly gratified by the exaltation
of heart, and sudden sally of grateful feeling, with which the worthy
Squire delivered one stanza: his eyes glistening, and his voice rambling
out of all the bounds of time and tune:

              ’Tis thou that crown’st my glittering hearth
                  With guiltlesse mirth,
              And giv’st me wassaile bowles to drink,
                  Spiced to the brink:
              Lord, ’tis Thy plenty-dropping hand,
                  That soiles my land;
              And giv’st me for my bushell sowne,
                  Twice ten for one.

Our breakfast consisted of what the Squire denominated true old English
fare. He indulged in some bitter lamentations over modern breakfasts of
tea and toast, which he censured as among the causes of modern
effeminacy and weak nerves, and the decline of old English heartiness;
and though he admitted them to his table to suit the palates of his
guests, yet there was a brave display of cold meats, wine, and ale, on
the sideboard.

After breakfast I walked about the grounds with Frank Bracebridge and
Master Simon. We were escorted by a number of gentlemanlike dogs, that
seemed loungers about the establishment; from the frisking spaniel to
the steady old staghound; the last of which was of a race that had been
in the family time out of mind.

The old mansion had a still more venerable look in the yellow sunshine
than by pale moonlight; and I could not but feel the force of the
Squire’s idea, that the formal terraces, heavily moulded balustrades,
and clipped yew trees, carried with them an air of proud aristocracy.

While we were talking we heard the distant toll of the village bell, and
I was told that the Squire was a little particular in having his
household at church on a Christmas morning; considering it a day of
pouring out of thanks and rejoicing; for, as old Tusser observed:

        At Christmas be merry, _and thankful withal_,
        And feast thy poor neighbours, the great and the small.

‘If you are disposed to go to church,’ said Frank Bracebridge, ‘I can
promise you a specimen of my cousin Simon’s musical achievements. As the
church is destitute of an organ, he has formed a band from the village
amateurs, and established a musical club for their improvement; he has
also sorted a choir, as he sorted my father’s pack of hounds, according
to the directions of Jervaise Markham, in his “Country Contentments”;
for the bass he has sought out all the “deep solemn mouths,” and for the
tenor the “loud ringing mouths,” among the country bumpkins; and for
“sweet mouths” he has culled with curious taste among the prettiest
lasses in the neighbourhood; though these last, he affirms, are the most
difficult to keep in tune.’

As the morning, though frosty, was remarkably fine and clear, the most
of the family walked to the church, which was a very old building of
grey stone, and stood near a village, about half a mile from the park
gate. Adjoining it was a low snug parsonage, which seemed coeval with
the church. As we passed this sheltered nest, the parson issued forth
and preceded us.

I had expected to see a sleek, well-conditioned pastor, such as is often
found in a snug living in the vicinity of a rich patron’s table; but I
was disappointed. The parson was a little, meagre, black-looking man,
with a grizzled wig that was too wide, and stood off from each ear; so
that his head seemed to have shrunk away within it, like a dried filbert
in its shell. He wore a rusty coat, with great skirts, and pockets that
would have held the church Bible and prayer-book; and his small legs
seemed still smaller, from being planted in large shoes decorated with
enormous buckles.

I was informed by Frank Bracebridge that the parson had been a chum of
his father’s at Oxford, and had received this living shortly after the
latter had come to his estate. He was a complete black-letter hunter,
and would scarcely read a work printed in the Roman character. The
editions of Caxton and Wynkin de Worde were his delight; and he was
indefatigable in his researches after such old English writers as have
fallen into oblivion from their worthlessness. He had pored over these
old volumes so intensely, that they seemed to have been reflected into
his countenance indeed; which, if the face be an index of the mind,
might be compared to a title-page of black-letter.

On reaching the church porch, we found the parson rebuking the
grey-headed sexton for having used mistletoe among the greens with which
the church was decorated. It was, he observed, an unholy plant, profaned
by having been used by the Druids in their mystic ceremonies; and though
it might be innocently employed in the festive ornamenting of halls and
kitchens, yet it had been deemed by the Fathers of the Church as
unhallowed, and totally unfit for sacred purposes. So tenacious was he
on this point, that the poor sexton was obliged to strip down a great
part of the humble trophies of his taste, before the parson would
consent to enter upon the service of the day.

The interior of the church was venerable but simple; on the walls were
several mural monuments of the Bracebridges, and just beside the altar
was a tomb of ancient workmanship, on which lay the effigy of a warrior
in armour, with his legs crossed, a sign of his having been a crusader.
I was told it was one of the family who had signalised himself in the
Holy Land, and the same whose picture hung over the fireplace in the

The orchestra was in a small gallery, and presented a most whimsical
grouping of heads, piled one above the other, among which I particularly
noticed that of the village tailor, a pale fellow with a retreating
forehead and chin, who played on the clarionet, and seemed to have blown
his face to a point; and there was another, a short pursy man, stooping
and labouring at a bass viol, so as to show nothing but the top of a
round bald head, like the egg of an ostrich. There were two or three
pretty faces among the female singers, to which the keen air of a frosty
morning had given a bright rosy tint; but the gentlemen choristers had
evidently been chosen like old Cremona fiddles, more for tone than
looks; and as several had to sing from the same book, there were
clusterings of odd physiognomies, not unlike those groups of cherubs we
sometimes see on country tombstones.

[Illustration: Winding all up by a nasal solo]

The usual services of the choir were managed tolerably well. But the
great trial was an anthem that had been prepared and arranged by Master
Simon, and on which he had founded great expectation. Unluckily there
was a blunder at the very outset; the musicians became flurried; Master
Simon was in a fever; everything went on lamely and irregularly until
they came to a chorus beginning ‘Now let us sing with one accord,’ which
seemed to be a signal for parting company: all became discord and
confusion; each shifted for himself, and got to the end as well, or
rather as soon, as he could, except one old chorister in a pair of horn
spectacles bestriding and pinching a long sonorous nose; who, happening
to stand a little apart, and being wrapped up in his own melody, kept on
a quavering course, wriggling his head, ogling his book, and winding all
up by a nasal solo of at least three bars’ duration.

The parson gave us a most erudite sermon on the rites and ceremonies of
Christmas, and the propriety of observing it not merely as a day of
thanksgiving, but of rejoicing. He kindled into warmth with the ardour
of his contest, and the host of imaginary foes with whom he had to
combat; had a stubborn conflict with old Prynne and two or three other
forgotten champions of the Roundheads, on the subject of Christmas
festivity; and concluded by urging his hearers, in the most solemn and
affecting manner, to stand to the traditionary customs of their fathers,
and feast and make merry on this joyful anniversary of the Church.

I have seldom known a sermon attended apparently with more immediate
effects; for, on leaving the church, the congregation seemed one and all
possessed with the gaiety of spirit so earnestly enjoined by their
pastor. The elder folks gathered in knots in the churchyard, greeting
and shaking hands; and the children ran about crying, Ule! Ule! and
repeating some uncouth rhymes:

                       Ule! Ule!
                       Three puddings in a pule;
                       Crack nuts and cry ule!

which the parson, who had joined us, informed me had been handed down
from days of yore. The villagers doffed their hats to the Squire as he
passed, giving him the good wishes of the season with every appearance
of heartfelt sincerity, and were invited by him to the Hall, to take
something to keep out the cold of the weather; and I heard blessings
uttered by several of the poor, which convinced me that, in the midst of
his enjoyments, the worthy old cavalier had not forgotten the true
Christmas virtue of charity.

On our way homeward his heart seemed overflowing with generous and happy
feelings. As we passed over a rising ground which commanded something of
a prospect, the sounds of rustic merriment now and then reached our
ears; the Squire paused for a few moments, and looked around with an air
of inexpressible benignity.

There was something truly cheering in this triumph of warmth and verdure
over the frosty thraldom of winter; it was, as the Squire observed, an
emblem of Christmas hospitality, breaking through the chills of ceremony
and selfishness, and thawing every heart into a flow. He pointed with
pleasure to the indications of good cheer reeking from the chimneys of
the comfortable farmhouses and low, thatched cottages.

The Squire went on to lament the deplorable decay of the games and
amusements which were once prevalent at this season among the lower
orders, and countenanced by the higher: when the old halls of castles
and manor-houses were thrown open at daylight; when the tables were
covered with brawn, and beef, and humming ale; when the harp and the
carol resounded all day long, and when rich and poor were alike welcome
to enter and make merry.

[Illustration: The dinner was served up in the Great Hall

                LET EVERY MAN BE JOLLY,
                AND EVERY POST WITH HOLLY.


We had not been long home when the sound of music was heard from a
distance. A band of country lads, without coats, their shirt-sleeves
fancifully tied with ribands, their hats decorated with greens, and
clubs in their hands, were seen advancing up the avenue, followed by a
large number of villagers and peasantry. They stopped before the hall
door, where the music struck up a peculiar air, and the lads performed a
curious and intricate dance, advancing, retreating, and striking their
clubs together, keeping exact time to the music; while one, whimsically
crowned with a fox’s skin, the tail of which flaunted down his back,
kept capering around the skirts of the dance, and rattling a Christmas
box with many antic gesticulations.

After the dance was concluded, the whole party was entertained with
brawn and beef, and stout home-brewed. The Squire himself mingled among
the rustics, and was received with awkward demonstrations of deference
and regard.

It is true, I perceived two or three of the younger peasants, as they
were raising their tankards to their mouths when the Squire’s back was
turned, making something of a grimace, and giving each other the wink;
but the moment they caught my eye they pulled grave faces, and were
exceedingly demure. With Master Simon, however, they all seemed more at
their ease.

The bashfulness of the guests soon gave way before good cheer and
affability. When the Squire had retired, the merriment increased, and
there was much joking and laughter, particularly between Master Simon
and a hale, ruddy-faced, white-headed farmer, who appeared to be the wit
of the village: for I observed all his companions to wait with open
mouths for his retorts, and burst into a gratuitous laugh before they
could well understand them.

The whole house, indeed, seemed abandoned to merriment. As I passed to
my room to dress for dinner, I heard the sound of music in a small
court, and, looking through a window that commanded it, I perceived a
band of wandering musicians, with pandean pipes and tambourine; a
pretty, coquettish housemaid was dancing a jig with a smart country lad,
while several of the other servants were looking on. In the midst of her
sport the girl caught a glimpse of my face at the window, and, colouring
up, ran off with an air of roguish affected confusion.

I had finished my toilet, and was loitering with Frank Bracebridge in
the library, when we heard a distant thwacking sound, which he informed
me was a signal for the serving up of the dinner.

The dinner was served up in the great hall, where the Squire always held
his Christmas banquet. A blazing, crackling fire of logs had been heaped
on to warm the spacious apartment, and the flame went sparkling and
wreathing up the wide-mouthed chimney. The great picture of the crusader
and his white horse had been profusely decorated with greens for the
occasion; and holly and ivy had likewise been wreathed around the helmet
and weapons on the opposite wall. Before these stood the two Yule
candles, beaming like two stars of the first magnitude: other lights
were distributed in branches, and the whole array glittered like a
firmament of silver.

We were ushered into this banqueting scene with the sound of minstrelsy,
the old harper being seated on a stool beside the fireplace, and
twanging his instrument with a vast deal more power than melody.

The parson said grace, which was not a short, familiar one, such as is
commonly addressed to the Deity in these unceremonious days; but a long,
courtly, well-worded one of the ancient school.

There was now a pause, as if something was expected; when suddenly the
butler entered the hall with some degree of bustle; he was attended by a
servant on each side with a large wax-light, and bore a silver dish, on
which was an enormous pig’s head, decorated with rosemary, with a lemon
in its mouth, which was placed with great formality at the head of the
table. The moment this pageant made its appearance, the harper struck up
a flourish.

Though prepared to witness many of these little eccentricities, from
being apprised of the peculiar hobby of mine host; yet, I confess, the
parade with which so odd a dish was introduced somewhat perplexed me,
until I gathered from the conversation of the Squire and the parson that
it was meant to represent the bringing in of the boar’s head: a dish
formerly served up with much ceremony, and the sound of minstrelsy and
song, at great tables on Christmas Day. ‘I like the old custom,’ said
the Squire, ‘not merely because it is stately and pleasing in itself,
but because it was observed at the College of Oxford, at which I was
educated. When I hear the old song chanted, it brings to mind the time
when I was young and gamesome--and the noble old college-hall--and my
fellow-students loitering about in their black gowns: many of whom, poor
lads, are now in their graves!’

The table was literally loaded with good cheer, and presented an epitome
of country abundance, in this season of overflowing larders. A
distinguished post was allotted to ‘ancient sirloin,’ as mine host
termed it: being, as he added, ‘the standard of old English hospitality,
and a joint of goodly presence, and full of expectation.’

[Illustration: The little beings were as happy about him as the mock
fairies about Falstaff]

When the cloth was removed, the butler brought in a huge silver vessel
of rare and curious workmanship, which he placed before the Squire. Its
appearance was hailed with acclamation; being the Wassail Bowl, so
renowned in Christmas festivity. The contents had been prepared by the
Squire himself.

The old gentleman’s whole countenance beamed with a serene look of
indwelling delight, as he stirred this mighty bowl. Having raised it to
his lips, with a hearty wish of a merry Christmas to all present, he
sent it brimming, around the board, for every one to follow his example,
according to the primitive style; pronouncing it ‘the ancient fountain
of good feeling, where all hearts meet together.’

There was much laughing and rallying, as the honest emblem of Christmas
joviality circulated, and was kissed rather coyly by the ladies. When it
reached Master Simon he raised it in both hands, and with the air of a
boon companion, struck up an old Wassail chanson:

                    The browne bowle,
                    The merry browne bowle.
                    As it goes round about-a,
                    Let the world say what it will,
                    And drink your fill all out-a.

                    The deep canne,
                    The merry deep canne,
                    As thou dost freely quaff-a,
                    Be as merry as a king,
                    And sound a lusty laugh-a.[A]


Footnote A:

  From “Poor Robin’s Almanack.”


The dinner-time passed away in this flow of innocent hilarity; and,
though the old hall may have resounded in its time with many a scene of
broader rout and revel, yet I doubt whether it ever witnessed more
honest and genuine enjoyment.

When the ladies had retired, the conversation, as usual, became still
more animated. The Squire told several long stories of early college
pranks and adventures.

I found the tide of wine and wassail fast gaining on the dry land of
sober judgment. The company grew merrier and louder as their jokes grew
duller. Master Simon was in as chirping a humour as a grasshopper filled
with dew; his old songs grew of a warmer complexion, and he began to
talk maudlin about the widow.

After the dinner-table was removed, the hall was given up to the younger
members of the family, who made its old walls ring with their merriment,
as they played at romping games. Master Simon, who was the leader of
their revels, and seemed on all occasions to fulfil the office of that
ancient potentate, the Lord of Misrule, was blinded in the midst of the
hall. The little beings were as busy about him as the mock fairies about
Falstaff; pinching him, plucking at the skirts of his coat, and tickling
him with straws.

When I returned to the drawing-room, I found the company seated around
the fire, listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a
high-backed oaken chair. From this venerable piece of furniture, with
which his shadowy figure and dark weazen face so admirably accorded, he
was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends
of the surrounding country, with which he had become acquainted in the
course of his antiquarian researches. He gave us several anecdotes of
the fancies of the neighbouring peasantry, concerning the effigy of the
crusader which lay on the tomb by the church altar. It was said to get
up from the tomb and walk the rounds of the churchyard in stormy nights,
particularly when it thundered. Some talked of gold and jewels buried in
the tomb, over which the spectre kept watch; and there was a story
current of a sexton in old times who endeavoured to break his way to the
coffin at night; but just as he reached it, received a violent blow from
the marble hand of the effigy, which stretched him senseless on the
pavement. From these and other anecdotes that followed, the crusader
appeared to be the favourite hero of ghost stories throughout the

Whilst we were all attention to the parson’s stories, our ears were
suddenly assailed by a burst of heterogeneous sounds from the hall, in
which was mingled something like the clang of rude minstrelsy, with the
uproar of many small voices and girlish laughter. The door suddenly flew
open, and a train came trooping into the room, that might almost have
been mistaken for the breaking up of the court of Fairy. That
indefatigable spirit, Master Simon, in the faithful discharge of his
duties as Lord of Misrule, had conceived the idea of a Christmas
mummery, or masking. The old housekeeper had been consulted; the antique
clothes-presses and wardrobes rummaged and made to yield up the relics
of finery that had not seen the light for several generations.

[Illustration: Master Simon led the van]

Master Simon led the van, as ‘ancient Christmas,’ quaintly apparelled in
a ruff, a short cloak, which had very much the aspect of one of the old
housekeeper’s petticoats, and a hat that might have served for a village
steeple, and must indubitably have figured in the days of the
Covenanters. From under this his nose curved boldly forth, flushed with
a frost-bitten bloom, that seemed the very trophy of a December blast.
He was accompanied by the blue-eyed romp, dished up as ‘Dame Mince-Pie,’
in the venerable magnificence of faded brocade, long stomacher, peaked
hat, and high-heeled shoes. The rest of the train had been metamorphosed
in various ways; the girls trussed up in the finery of the ancient
belles of the Bracebridge line, and the striplings bewhiskered with
burnt cork, and gravely clad in broad skirts, hanging sleeves, and
full-bottomed wigs, to represent characters celebrated in ancient

The irruption of this motley crew, with beat of drum, according to
ancient custom, was the consummation of uproar and merriment. Master
Simon covered himself with glory by the stateliness with which, as
Ancient Christmas, he walked a minuet with the peerless, though
giggling, Dame Mince-Pie. It was followed by a dance of all the
characters--a medley of quaint costumes.

The worthy Squire contemplated these fantastic sports, and the
resurrection of his old wardrobe, with the simple relish of childish

But enough of Christmas and its gambols; it is time for me to pause in
this garrulity. In writing to amuse, if I fail, the only evil is my own
disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of
evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy
heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through
the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human
nature, and make my reader more in good humour with his fellow-beings
and himself, surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in

[Illustration: Decoration]

                     Printed in the City of London
                         at the Edinburgh Press

                           Transcriber’s Note

For the benefit of those who cannot see it, beneath the illustration
with the caption “The dinner was served up in the Great Hall” is a
transcription of the poem in manuscript inside the illustration frame.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "An Old Fashioned Christmas Day" ***

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