In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, it fell to my lot to write an article on Christmas, its customs and festivities. And, although I sought in vain for a chronological account of the festival, I discovered many interesting details of its observances dispersed in the works of various authors; and, while I found that some of its greater celebrations marked important epochs in our national history, I saw, also, that the successive celebrations of Christmas during nineteen centuries were important links in the chain of historical Christian evidences. I became enamoured of the subject, for, in addition to historical interest, there is the charm of its legendary lore, its picturesque customs, and popular games. It seemed to me that the origin and hallowed associations of Christmas, its ancient customs and festivities, and the important part it has played in history combine to make it a most fascinating subject. I resolved, therefore, to collect materials for a larger work on Christmas.
Henceforth, I became a snapper-up of everything relating to Christmastide, utilised every opportunity of searching libraries, bookstalls, and catalogues of books in different parts of the country, and, subsequently, as a Reader of the British Museum Library, had access to that vast storehouse of literary and historical treasures.
Soon after commencing the work, I realised that I had entered a very spacious field of research, and that, having to deal with the accumulated materials of nineteen centuries, a large amount of labour would be involved, and some years must elapse before, even if circumstances proved favourable, I could hope to see the end of my task. Still, I went on with the work, for I felt that a complete account of Christmas, ancient and modern, at home and abroad, would prove generally acceptable, for while the historical events and legendary lore would interest students and antiquaries, the holiday sports and popular celebrations would be no less attractive to general readers.
The love of story-telling seems to be ingrained in human nature. Travellers tell of vari-coloured races sitting round their watch fires reciting deeds of the past; and letters from colonists show how, even amidst forest-clearing, they have beguiled their evening hours by telling or reading stories as they sat in the glow of their camp fires. And in old England there is the same love of tales and stories. One of the chief delights of Christmastide is to sit in the united family circle and hear, tell, or read about the quaint habits and picturesque customs of Christmas in the olden time; and one of the purposes of CHRISTMAS is to furnish the retailer of Christmas wares with suitable things for re-filling his pack.
From the vast store of materials collected it is not possible to do more than make a selection. How far I have succeeded in setting forth the subject in a way suited to the diversity of tastes among readers I must leave to their judgment and indulgence; but I have this satisfaction, that the gems of literature it contains are very rich indeed; and I acknowledge my great indebtedness to numerous writers of different periods whose references to Christmas and its time-honoured customs are quoted.
I have to acknowledge the courtesy of Mr. Henry Jewitt, Mr. E. Wiseman, Messrs. Harper, and Messrs. Cassell & Co., in allowing their illustrations to appear in this work.
My aim is neither critical nor apologetic, but historical and pictorial: it is not to say what might or ought to have been, but to set forth from extant records what has actually taken place: to give an account of the origin and hallowed associations of Christmas, and to depict, by pen and pencil, the important historical events and interesting festivities of Christmastide during nineteen centuries. With materials collected from different parts of the world, and from writings both ancient and modern, I have endeavoured to give in the present work a chronological account of the celebrations and observances of Christmas from the birth of Christ to the end of the nineteenth century; but, in a few instances, the subject-matter has been allowed to take precedence of the chronological arrangement. Here will be found accounts of primitive celebrations of the Nativity, ecclesiastical decisions fixing the date of Christmas, the connection of Christmas with the festivals of the ancients, Christmas in times of persecution, early celebrations in Britain, stately Christmas meetings of the Saxon, Danish, and Norman kings of England; Christmas during the wars of the Roses, Royal Christmases under the Tudors, the Stuarts and the Kings and Queens of Modern England; Christmas at the Colleges and the Inns of Court; Entertainments of the nobility and gentry, and popular festivities; accounts of Christmas celebrations in different parts of Europe, in America and Canada, in the sultry lands of Africa and the ice-bound Arctic coasts, in India and China, at the Antipodes, in Australia and New Zealand, and in the Islands of the Pacific; in short, throughout the civilised world.
In looking at the celebrations of Christmas, at different periods and in different places, I have observed that, whatever views men hold respecting Christ, they all agree that His Advent is to be hailed with joy, and the nearer the forms of festivity have approximated to the teaching of Him who is celebrated the more real has been the joy of those who have taken part in the celebrations.
The descriptions of the festivities and customs of different periods are given, as far as possible, on the authority of contemporary authors, or writers who have special knowledge of those periods, and the most reliable authorities have been consulted for facts and dates, great care being taken to make the work as accurate and trustworthy as possible. I sincerely wish that all who read it may find as much pleasure in its perusal as I have had in its compilation.
WILLIAM FRANCIS DAWSON.