By Daniel Parker
Snow is falling and your bulging stocking is being hung up above a roaring log fire. The turkey is burning in the oven as you eat your body weight in novelty chocolate. And now your weird, slightly sinister Uncle Frank is coming towards you brandishing mistletoe. This can mean only one thing. In the wise (and slightly altered) words of Noddy Holder: It’s Oxford Scholarly Editions Online Christmas!
Initially derided and dismissed as a Mummers’ play, critics have since revised their treatment of Ben Jonson’s 1616 Christmas Masque. It is now regarded as an important political and social satire on the anti-Christmas forces prevalent in Jacobean society. Jonson’s play promotes traditional Christmas festivities which was a position favoured by King James I but opposed by Puritans. King James I had delivered several public speeches in 1616 promoting traditional country life and pastimes. This Masque is seen as a rather biting criticism of the Puritans who were hostile to Christmas celebrations.
For many, Christmas is personified by mulled wine, mince pies, and The Muppet’s Christmas Carol. For Ben Jonson, it was a man dressed in strange clothes. Each to their own I suppose. The personified character of Christmas frames Ben Jonson’s masque as the first to enter the stage and the last to leave in the final scene, and is ubiquitous throughout the performance (much like the Coca-Cola Christmas advert in December). His appearance is not akin to a modern-day Santa Claus though; the character of Christmas is described by Jonson as being:
“attir’d in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high-crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white Shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse, and his Drum beaten before him.”
Which, quite frankly, puts my Christmas jumpers to shame.
Robert Herrick’s writing style was strongly influenced by Ben Jonson, a man Herrick admired so much that he became a Son of Ben later in his career. Herrick also shared Jonson’s love for traditional Christmas celebration, and channelled this passion into several poems dedicated to celebrating the Christmas season. In ‘Ceremonies for Christmasse’, Herrick speaks of the ancient tradition of bringing in and setting fire to the Yule Log on Christmas Eve to illuminate the house. Herrick’s description of the “merrie merrie boyes” bringing in “The Christmas Log to the firing” is one of the earliest references to the Yule Log tradition in English literature.
It is a common misconception that the Christmas Pie that Herrick alludes to in ‘Another Ceremonie‘ is a mince-pie similar to the pies he mentions in his other Christmas poems. Instead it is a pie made up of game birds – pheasant, chicken, pigeon, hare, conies – similar in construction to a modern Yorkshire pie. At the heart of this poem is a curious ancient tradition that Herrick describes as standing guard over the Christmas Pie in order to protect the feast from depredators on Christmas Eve. This tradition has since become obsolete. Or so you may think. My Mum still stands guard over our Christmas dinner in order to stop rapscallions like my brothers (ok fine, it’s me) stealing handfuls of pigs-in-blankets.
According to the Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO) notes on John Dryden, the libretto he provided for Henry Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur: ‘was the last Piece of Service, which I had the Honour to do, for my Gracious Master, King Charles the Second.’ There are parallels between Dryden’s libretto for King Arthur and Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Prospero and Merlin are both good magicians who use an “airy spirit” (Ariel in The Tempest, Philidel in King Arthur) to defeat a potential usurper (Alonzo/Oswald). However, one clear distinction between the two texts is that there is no evil wizard like Osmond in The Tempest.
It is Osmond who ‘strikes the ground with his Wand’ and makes the scene “change to a Prospect of Winter” in Song VII:
“Cupid sings. What ho, thou Genius of the Clime, what ho! / Ly’st thou asleep beneath those Hills of Snow? / Stretch out thy Lazy Limbs; Awake, awake, / And Winter from thy Furry Mantle shake.”
In this scene, Cupid attempts to shake Osmond’s winter from its “Hills of Snow” and bring about the start of spring. Osmond’s act of blanketing the English countryside in frozen “Beds of Everlasting Snow” in King Arthur is seen as evil; he is viewed as the Restoration equivalent of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (minus the Turkish Delight). However, come Christmas Day, I doubt anyone would begrudge Osmond’s intervention into nature if he conjures up a white Christmas across the United Kingdom!
Your Grandma’s chocolate Yule Log has been reduced to a modicum of crumbs on the rug and the last of the snow has fallen; our OSEO Christmas has sadly come to an end. If you’d like to uncover other festive, scholarly gifts then get your ice-skates on and see what else OSEO can offer you. Wishing you a very merry Christmas from everyone here at Oxford University Press!
Daniel Parker is a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press and a big fan of a festive chocolate orange.
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Image Credit: Christmas Light Display. Photo by Anthony92931. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.