In "A Few Words on Christmas" (originally published in The London Magazine in 1822), English essayist Charles Lamb reflects on the food, drink, and music associated with the "season of mirth and cold weather."
A Few Words on Christmas
by Charles Lamb
Close the shutters, and draw the curtains together, and pile fresh wood upon the hearth! Let us have, for once, an innocent auto de fé. Let the hoarded corks be brought forth, and branches of crackling laurel. Place the wine and fruit and the hot chestnuts upon the table. And now, good folks and children, bring your chairs round to the blazing fire. Put some of those rosy apples upon your plates. We'll drink one glass of bright sherry "to our absent friends and readers," and then let us talk a little about Christmas.
And what is Christmas?
Why, it is the happiest time of the year. It is the season of mirth and cold weather. It is the time when Christmas-boxes and jokes are given; when mistletoe, and red-berried laurel, and soups, and sliding, and school-boys, prevail; when the country is illuminated by fires and bright faces; and the town is radiant with laughing children. Oranges, as rich as the fruit of the Hesperides, shine out in huge golden heaps. Cakes, frosted over (as if to rival the glittering snow) come forth by thousands from their summer (caves) ovens: and on every stall at every corner of every street are the roasted apples, like incense fuming on Pagan altars.
And this night is Christmas Eve. Formerly it was a serious and holy vigil. Our forefathers observed it strictly till a certain hour, and then requited their own forbearance with cups of ale and Christmas candles, with placing the yule log on the fire, and roaring themselves thirsty till morning. Time has altered this. We are neither so good as our forefathers were—nor so bad. We go to bed sober; but we have forgotten their old devotions. Our conduct looks like a sort of compromise; so that we are not worse than our ancestors, we are satisfied not to be better: but let that pass. What we now call Christmas Eve--(there is something very delightful in old terms: they had always their birth in reason or sentiment) was formerly Maedrenack, or The Night of Mothers! How beautifully does this recall to one's heart that holy tale--that wonderful nativity, which the Eastern shepherds went by night to gaze at and adore--
(It was the winter wild,a prodigy, which, had it been invention only, would have contained much that was immaculate and sublime; but, twined as it is with man's hopes and fears, is invested with a grand and overwhelming interest.
When the heaven-born child
All meanly wrapp'd in the rude manger lay;)
But to-night is Christmas Eve, and so we will be merry. Instead of toast and ale, we will content ourselves with our sherry and chestnuts; and we must put up with coffee or fragrant tea, instead of having the old Wassail-bowl which formed part of the inspiration of our elder poets. We were once admitted to the mysteries of that fine invention, and we respect it accordingly. Does any one wish to know its merits? Let him try what he can produce, on our hint, and be grateful to us for ever. The "Wassail-bowl" is, indeed, a great composition. It is not carved by Benvenuto Cellini (the outside may--but it is not material), nor shaped by Michael Angelo from the marble quarries of Carrara; but it is a liquor fit for the lips of the Indian Bacchus, and worthy to celebrate his return from conquest. It is made--for, after all, we must descend to particulars--it is made of wine, with some water (but parce, precor, precor!) with spices of various sorts, and roasted apples, which float in triumph upon its top. The proportions of each are not important--in fact, they should be adapted to the taste of the drinkers. The only caution that seems necessary is to "spare the water." If the Compositor should live in the neighbourhood of Aldgate, this hint may be deemed advisable; though we mean no affront to either him or the pump.
One mark and sign of Christmas is the music; rude enough, indeed, but generally gay, and speaking eloquently of the season. Music, at festival times, is common to most countries. In Spain, the serenader twangs his guitar; in Italy, the musician allures rich notes from his Cremona; in Scotland, the bagpipe drones out its miserable noise; in Germany, there is the horn, and the pipe in Arcady. We too, in our turn, have our Christmas "Waits," who witch us at early morning, before cock-crow, with strains and welcomings which belong to night. They wake us so gently that the music seems to have commenced in our dreams, and we listen to it till we sleep again. Besides this, we have our songs, from the young and the old, jocose and fit for the time. What old gentleman of sixty has not his stock--his one, or two, or three frolicksome verses. He sings them for the young folks, and is secure of their applause and his own private satisfaction. His wife, indeed, perhaps says "Really, my dear Mr Williams, you should now give over these, &c."; but he is more resolute from opposition, and gambols through his "Flowery Meads of May," or "Beneath a shady bower," while the children hang on his thin, trembling, untuneable notes in delighted and delightful amaze.
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