by Stephanie Cowell (W&M Contributor)
Some years before I became a novelist, I was a wandering English Christmas minstrel. I gathered legends and customs of Christmas in England from the medieval through the Victorian and put them together in a lively narrative. I added about twelve carols, from the obscure “There is no Rose of Such Virtue as is the Rose that Bore Jesu,” to “Deck the Halls” and handed out song sheets.
I was a professional singer then (high soprano) and of course I drew on my love of English social history.
I gave the program in the most interested places (and the audience sang with me, though no one knew “There is no Rose…”) In one private party at a jeweler’s shop, when we got to the “five gold rings” part of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the jeweler ran to his safe and danced through the room with a tray of precious rings. At another party, the host had designed a feast to go with the program, including a suckling pig with an apple in its mouth and a sad look on its little roasted face. I almost shrieked. I gave An English Christmas in a historical mansion lit only by candles and felt I had stepped into another century.
Misplaced among my papers is a copy of the script, but reaching back into my memory here are a few of the stories:
The real truth behind the carol “The Boar’s Head.” Somewhere in the twelfth century a student was walking on a road outside Oxford, reading a sacred book when suddenly a fierce boar rushed from the bushes to attack him. Having no weapon to defend himself, the quick-thinking student stuffed his book into the beast’s mouth, thus choking it. He then cut off its head and carried it back to college for dinner. This proves that learning is useful.
Good Queen Bess greatly encouraged the giving of New Year’s Day gifts to herself.
During the Puritan regime, Christmas feasting was forbidden. Some took it as a day of fasting and all suggested carols were very depressing, about death and hell etc.
A recipe for gilded peacock. Alas, the details are lost to my memory (I was never much of a cook) but a major newspaper printed part of my recipe and when they asked me what I was planning to make for my own family for Christmas, I said, “Something much simpler.”
Wishing you all good cheer and merry wassail this season!
About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com.