Christmas in Dorsetshire
by John Symonds Udal
Imbued with the utilitarian spirit of our time, one is apt to overlook those strong feelings of genuine pleasure and innocent merriment with which our ancestors were wont to greet Christmas as it came upon them in its annual round. For many years now the ancient glories that used to attend the celebration of the great season of Christmas-tide in England have been on the wane. The advent of Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol, nearly forty years ago, bearing with it that beautiful lesson of charity - charity, in its true sense of love for, and sympathy with the sufferings of, humankind checked for a time the ebbing tide of its popularity. But in this matter-of-fact age it is greatly to be feared that only too many look upon Christmas but as a statutable holiday, and welcome it merely as a cessation from toil.
In olden times Dorset had its full share in the gaieties appertaining to this joyous and festive season, and still in out-of-the-way corners of the county many scattered remnants of its former glory survive.
The following quaint custom (a note of which I sent to "N. & Q.," 4th S. x. 494) has not yet quite died out in some parts of the county. A few days before Christmas (generally about St.Thomas's Day) the women, children, and old men in a parish would visit by turns the houses of their wealthier neighbours, and in return for, and in recognition of, their Christmas greetings and their general demand of "Please give me something to keep up a Christmas," would receive substantial pieces or hunks of bread and cheese,bread and meat, or small sums of money. The old and infirm of either sex were generally represented by their children or grandchildren, those only being refused the dole who did not belong to the parish.
It was customary in many farmhouses on Christmas Eve for a large block of wood (in fact, a very Yule log) to be brought into the kitchen,and an immense fire having been made up, the farm labourers would come in and sit round it, or is many as were able would crowd into the chimney corner, and drink beer and cider. This was what was usually called a Christmas "brown."
Playing "forfeits" was a very favourite amusement with Dorsetshire folk during the long Christmas evenings, and one form which the game took was that of a " puzzle," as it was sometimes called, the solution of which was to be arrived at by making persona in turn repeat a line or couplet of a jingle or a rhyme ; and if it were not correctly rendered a "forfeit" was declared. The following is an example : - One of the company, who knows the "puzzle" (all being seated round the fire), commences by saying "Ragged-and-Tough," and, this having gone the circuit of the company, he begins the second round with " Not Ragged-and-Tough, but Huckem-a-buff, first cousin to Ragged-and-Tough." This being duly honoured, he begins again with "Not Ragged-and-Tough, nor Huckem-a-buff, first cousin to Ragged-and-Tough, but Miss Grizzle, maiden aunt to Huckem-a-buff, first cousin to Ragged-and-Tough," and so on ; each person repeating the jingle, one after another, and going backwards through the list, a new character being introduced each round, so that by the time the end of the characters, some seven or eight in number, is reached, some one's memory is sure to become confused and a mistake be made in the repetition, whilst, amid general laughter, a u forfeit" is claimed.
There is another one, which I can give but imperfectly, for I can only remember up to "twelve," though I fancy there are "eighteen" or more ; and an old Dorsetshire lady from whom I have heard it has now (in her ninetieth year) forgotten it. I should be much beholden to any reader of "N. & Q." who, happening to know the continuation of it, would be kind enough to acquaint me with it. It is as follows, and each rhyme is to be repeated backwards as in the last :
"A gaping, wide-mouthed, waddling frog,
Two pudding-ends won't choke a dog;
Three monkeys tied to a log ;
Four mares stuck in a bog ;
Five puppy-dogs and our dog Ball
Loudly for their breakfast call ;
Six beetles on a wall,
Close to an old woman's apple-stall ;
Seven lobsters in a dish,
As good as any heart can wish ;
Eight cobblers, cobblers all,
Working with their tools and awl ;
Nine comets in the sky,
Some are low and some are high ;
Ten peacocks in the air,
I wonder how they all got there -
You don't know and I don't care;
Eleven ships sailing on the main,
Some bound for France and some for Spain,
I wish them all safe back again ;
Twelve hunters, hares, and hounds,
Hunting over other men's grounds."
It is to be noted that these two illustrations of forfeits that I have given are very similar in their backward repetition or refrain to "The House that Jack built," and it is quite possible that our old friend, now enshrined in every nursery book, may owe its origin to a game of "forfeits."
Chief, however, amongst the amusements and customs of this festive season as no doubt they were the most ancient were the "mummers" (or maskers), a party of youths who went from house to house and performed a play or drama, generally representing a fight between St. George, the patron saint of England, and a Mohammedan leader, commemorative of the Holy Wars. The actors were all decked out with painted paper and tinsel, in the character each was intended to assume, garnished with bows, coloured strips of paper, caps, sashes, buttons, swords, helmets, &c. The principal character in the Dorsetshire mummers was "Old Father Christmas," who frequently appeared mounted on a wooden horse covered with trappings of dark cloth. The representation took place in the servants' hall or kitchen of the mansion or farmhouse in which the mummers were permitted (a permission seldom denied) to act. The actors, ten or twelve in number, were grouped together at the back of the stage, so to speak, and each came forward as he was required to speak or to fight, and at the conclusion fell back upon the rest, leaving the stage clear for other disputants or combatants.
As soon as the play, which always concluded with a song, was over, and the actors had been regaled with such good cheer as the hospitable hearts of the Dorsetshire folk seldom refused, the mummers passed on to the next parish, where to a fresh and ever-delighted audience they went through a repetition of their performance ; and though if the night were wet and the wind cold they experienced rough usage at times, yet their welcome was made all the warmer at their next halting- place, so that none could doubt for a moment but that he came in for no small share (a share I wish to every reader of " N. & Q.") of the delights of a " Merry Christmas." Those readers of "N. & Q.'; who may desire to see the full text of a Dorsetshire mummers' play, I would refer to a paper I read before the Folk-lore Society last April, and which has been printed in the Folklore Record, vol. iii. part i.p. 87 ; also, for a list of characters, &c., in the same, see a short contribution I sent to the Christmas number of " N. & Q." in 1874 (5th S. ii. 505).
First published in Notes and Queries (series 6, Vol ii, July-Dec 1880)