The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Christmas with the Poets: Traditions and Superstitions

Now that it's December and Thanksgiving is long behind us, we're hopefully in the clear to indulge in Christmas songs. To get in the holiday spirit, I pulled out our copy of Christmas with the Poets, a selection of “songs, carols, and descriptive verses relating to the festival of Christmas, from the Anglo-Norman period to the present time,” edited by Henry Vizetelly and published in 1851. 


Along with the traditional carols celebrating the birth of Jesus and festivities of the season, the collection includes lesser-known songs and poems with their own weight of tradition. One section I found particularly interesting is aptly titled “Boar’s Head Carols.” The editor notes, “There is no more interesting, and, by the way, no more hacknied, feature connected with the celebration of Christmas in the olden time, than the custom of bringing in the Boar’s Head with minstrelsy.” Regal banquets served the boar’s head ceremoniously as the first course, a tradition which is said to have originated at Queen’s College, Oxford.


Another unusual selection of poems falls under “Superstitions regarding Christmas Day.” Vizetelly introduces two poems from the same Harley manuscript at the British Library with the note, “The following poems are, perhaps, more curious than interesting.” As Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, here is a superstitious warning for us:


If Christmas day on the Sunday be,

A troublous winter ye shall see,

        Mingled with waters strong ;

Good there shall be without fable,

For the summer shall be reasonable,

        With storms at times among.


Though this may sound somewhat ominous—and bringing up the notion of a “troublous” winter in New England is probably a dangerous thing to do—these are mild predictions compared to the superstitions that follow. I won’t get into the details, but the succeeding verses throughout the week involve increasingly harsh weather, shipwrecks, pestilence, sickness, and death.

Vizetelly’s collection of poems ends with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Death of the Old Year.” Throughout the poem, a personified “Old year” lies dying as the poem’s speaker reminisces on his fading friend. The final stanza reads:


His face is growing sharp and thin.

            Alack! Our friend is gone.

Close up his eyes : tie up his chin :

Step from the corpse, and let him in

            That standeth there alone,

                        And waiteth at the door.

                        There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend,

                        And a new face at the door, my friend,

                        A new face at the door.


Visit the library to read carols, poems, and songs from Christmas with the Poets and similar books in full, and best wishes for a festive final month of 2016 before the year comes to a close!





permalink | Published: Friday, 9 December, 2016, 12:00 AM