St. Lawrence’s Day is the last of the Dog-days; consequently, when a labourer has been spent with the heat of the rest, he may be said to have finished his work, and received his wages, which ought to be high in proportion to his expence of strength.
Among the various reprints of our old literature, which have appeared during the last twenty years, it is rather surprising that the curious poetical translation of the Popish Kingdom, by Barnaby Googe, has not found a place.I have never had the good fortune to look over the whole poem, but from the different extracts which have fallen in my way, the work, as illustrative of our ancient customs and superstitions, is highly interesting.
Many of the observances alluded to are no doubt attended with obscurity, and cannot readily be explained, not only from their long disuse, but from the circumstance possibly of their never having been adopted in this kingdom. The original author being a German, had the ceremonies of his own country more particularly in view. One of the customs mentioned in the work, connected with the Eve of St. Nicholas, has ever struck me as one most pleasing and attractive, and which, as tending to make young faces merrier, and young hearts lighter, it is a pity we have abandoned. It is thus described in the words of Googe.
” The mothers all their children on the Eeue doe cause to fast, And when they euery one at night in senselesse sleepe are cast, Both apples, nuttes, and peares they bring, and other things beside, As caps and shooes, and petticotes, which secretlie they hide ;
And in the morning found, they say, that this St. Nicholas brought : Thus tender mindes to worship saints and wicked things are taught.”
Hospinian, in his Origin of Christian Festivals, notices the same :
“It is the custom (says he), in many places, on the Eve of St. Nicholas, to convey secretly to children small gifts of various kinds, which they imagine are brought by the saint himself, who in his passage through the towns and villages, enters in at the closed windows and distributes them.”*
Although unknown with us, the custom is still retained in some parts of the Continent and in America to the present day. Mad, de Geniis, in her Memoirs, thus mentions its occurrence during her residence at Bremgarten in Switzerland :
” On St. Nicholas’s Day, on getting up, they all (the children) find little presents put in their shoes, which generally makes them waken before daylight.”
Mr. Blunt, in his Vestiges of Ancient Manners in Italy , informs us, that on New Year’s Eve the stockings of children are filled with cakes, comfits, etc., by a sprite or supernatural being, to whom the name of Belfana is given.
Of its celebration ‘in America, a friend has favoured me with the following account. The similarity between the Italian Belfana and the ideal Sandy Claus of the American children is curious. ” The custom alluded to in the verses of Barnaby Googe, is still kept up among the descendants of the old Dutch settlers, and those who have fallen insensibly into their habits, but they have transferred the observance from the Eve of St. Nicholas, who you know is the especial patron of little children, to that of the New Year. Long before the important night arrives, numerous conjectures and inquiries are made by the young urchins respecting the person and being of Sandy Claus (evidently a corruption of St. Nicholas), who, in the opinion of the majority, is represented as a little old negro, who descends the chimney at night, and distributes a variety of rewards with impartial justice, according to the degree of good behaviour in the candidates. But woe to the bad and the incorrigible; a bunch of rods, an old shoe, or some worthless article, is sure to be their portion. At length, upon the appointed night, each child, with a face beaming with hope and gaiety, as the last act before retiring to bed, hangs up a clean stocking near the chimney, which fails not to be filled, as soon as the little ones are fast asleep, by the parents or some good aunt or grandmother, with all sorts of bon bons, toys, picture-books, etc., and especially with the much-admired eatable of the season, the New Year cookie. As may be well imagined, day-light has scarcely appeared before all are alert, and even while it is yet dark, a bold boy is now and then found who will creep out of bed to feel if his stocking be well swelled or not. The treasures are emptied out and spread upon the bed-clothes with all the joy and exultation natural to childhood, and their good or bad fortune, with the little incidents connected with the ceremony, serves for the busy chat of the breakfast table, and for the following week or two. You will agree with me, I am persuaded, that this is a most pleasing custom, filling the heart of the child with delight, recalling to mind in the older members the joyous moments of their younger days, and affording the parents an opportunity of creating many an hour of happiness, in which their fond affection participates equally with their offspring.”
The New Year Cookie mentioned above is a particular sort of cake made at this season of the year, and is fancifully stamped and shaped, and distributed along with liqueurs to visitors on the first of January. It may possibly be the remains of an ancient Catholic custom common in the seventh century, and which was prohibited by a canon of the Council of Constantinople, held in 692, of preparing cakes at Christmas, to be eaten in honour of the Virgin’s lying in. It is still usual with our ladies, when confined, to distribute cakes, etc., to visitors. Cakes, however, may have been included in the Roman Sirena, or New Year’s Gifts ; and thus the custom, united with the observance in honour of the Virgin, may have descended to the
In these parts several old customs are still in use ; such as at Christmas great blocks of wood burnt in the hall for the neighbours, with cakes and ale and lamb’s-wool; carol-singers, morris-dancers, wassellers, etc.
On Plough-Monday they dress up a plough, which is carried about. Another ceremony is Heaving on Easter-Monday. At another time of the year Blazing, which is straw lighted at night on the tops of trees. The old bell-harp is likewise a favourite instrument with the country people.
I beg to communicate to you an ancient superstitious custom, still obtaining at Tretyre, in Herefordshire, upon Christmas Eve. They make a Cake, poke a stick through it, fasten it upon the horn of an ox, and say certain words, begging a good crop of corn for the master. The men and boys, attending the oxen, range themselves around. If the ox throws the cake behind, it belongs to the men ; if before, to the boys. They take with them a wooden bottle of cyder, and drink it, repeating the charm before-mentioned. I strongly suspect, from the ox and the cake, an allusion to some sacrifice to Ceres; and the Confarreatio, the Harvest-home, being a ceremonial appertaining to that Goddess ; but I have no means of referring to the new Edition of the “Antiquitates Vulgares,” or time to examine the custom archeologically.