Editor's Note: During the middle ages, it was common to dress up in outrageous costumes to celebrate holidays like Christmas. The players were called "mummers" and often staged simple plays.
In a related tradition, players putting on shows at various royal courts would don masks to put on plays, revealing their identities at the end of the performance. Such entertainments were often called "masques." In some cases, the masques attempted to portray serious subjects. In other cases, they were less formal and involved more buffoonery, bordering on "mummery."
King James I enjoyed masques. He especially enjoyed the masques that were written by Ben Jonson, a prolific and well-respected writer of the period. In January of 1616, James I enjoyed one of Jonson's masques so much that he requested a repeat performance. The masque on this page was a much shorter play performed on Christmas of that year.
At the time this masque was staged, the Puritans were already condemning Christmas and all things related to it as "Popery." Eventually this form of entertainment as well as its subject matter would be outlawed. But James himself did not sympathize with the Puritans' continuous condemnation of what he saw as "simple country pleasures."
Nor did Jonson. Not only was Jonson aware of the tensions involved; he made fun of them by having his personification of Christmas claim to be "as good a Protestant as any in my parish."
On entering, Christmas pretends that he has been delayed by the palace guard, even though he's quite harmless - another jab at the Puritans. Then Christmas introduces his "children," actors representing various aspects of the holiday as it was practiced in Elizabethan times. Foods and merriments are both represented. A joke is made about keeping people from "Fish street" and "Friday Street" from joining the performance, referring to the Catholic practice of "fasting from meat" on Fridays. Jonson isn't saying "No Catholics allowed in our company," as much as he is saying "No fasting allowed on Christmas."
One youngster is dressed as cupid. In case you were under any impression that this might develop into a serious play, it is soon "interrupted" by a "fishwife" in an obviously home-made Venus costume. The fishwife reveals herself to be the mother of the actor playing Cupid. She had hoped that sneaking in as Venus would give her a chance to witness her son's performance before the king. More jabs, dancing, and songs follow, with - presumably - much clowning that isn't reported in the script. Many of the allusions to the political and cultural climate of the day are lost on modern readers, but the whole thing could probably be performed today if you emphasized the comic aspects. Imagine, say, the fishwife as the title character from I Love Lucy. Imagine her dressing up in a home-made costume to sneak into a formal Christmas pageant so she could see "Little Rickey" saying his lines - then sticking around trying to fit in with the dancers and mouthing the words of the songs.
Because of the comic elements of this play, some of Jonson's contemporaries considered this to be "mummery" instead of a masque. Unfortunately, both traditions were broken by the Puritans' heavy hand. The mummer tradition didn't really regain its momentum until the 1800s, generally as a Christmas activity. By then, though, most of the folk plays and traditions of the mummers had been lost, and masques like this one were no longer common entertainment. Post-Puritan players are well aware that they're "re-enacting."
In the "Christmas Day" chapter of his Sketchbook story: "Old Christmas" (1819), American author Washington Irving describes a traditional Christmas mummery at an English country estate. It's doubtful that he actually witnessed such an event - Irving was primarily reporting on the way Christmas had been celebrated two centuries earlier - before the Puritan "cultural revolution." In fact, the 1616 masque on this page was one of the works he cited as an example. I'm glad he did, because I wouldn't have stumbled across it otherwise.
Kudos to Irving for trying so hard to draw his contemporaries' attention to nearly-forgotten holiday practices and Christmas spirit of a previous age. We do a little bit of that here on FamilyChristmasOnline.com. But, where we tend to look back 40, 60, or 80 years, Irving was looking across centuries.
Though it's hard to say how "successful" a modern staging of this masque would be today, it does serve as a "time capsule" for the kind of pageantry and goodhearted tomfoolery that, by all accounts, was widespread in its day. Enjoy! - Paul Race.
Ben Jonson's Masque of Christmas
As it was presented at Court, 1616 -
from Family Christmas OnlineTM
The Court being seated
Enter CHRISTMAS, with two or three of the guard, attired in round hose, long stockings, a close doublet, a high-crowned hat, with a brooch, a long, thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, his scarfs and garters tied cross, and his drum beaten before him.
Why, gentlemen, do you know what you do? ha! would you have kept me out? Christmas, old Christmas, Christmas of London, and Captain Christmas? Pray you, let me be brought before my lord chamberlain, I'll not be answered else: 'Tis merry in hall, when beards wag all: I have seen the time you have wish'd for me for a merry Christmas; and now you have me, they would not let me in: I must come another time! a good jest, as if I could come more than once a year! Why, I am no dangerous person, and so I told my friends of the guard. I am old Gregory Christmas still, and though I come out of Pope's-head alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish. The truth is, I have brought a Masque here, out o' the city, of my own making, and do present it by a set of my sons, that come out of the lanes of London, good dancing boys all. It was intended, I confess, for Curriers Hall; but because the weather has been open, and the Livery were not at leisure to see it till a frost came, that they cannot work, I thought it convenient, with some little alterations, and the groom of the revels' hand to 't, to fit it for a higher place; which I have done, and though I say it, another manner of device than your New-Year's-night. Bones o' bread, the king! ( seeing King James. ) Son Rowland! Son Clem! be ready there in a trice: quick, boys!
Enter his Sons and Daughters, (ten in number,) led in, in a string, by Cupid, who is attired in a flat cap, and a prentice's coat, with wings at his shoulders.
MISRULE, in a velvet cap, with a sprig, a short cloak, great yellow ruff, like a reveller, his torch-bearer bearing a rope, a cheese, and a basket.
CAROL, a long tawny coat, with a red cap, and a flute at his girdle, his torch-bearer carrying a song-book open.
MINCED-PIE, like a fine cook's wife, drest neat; her man carrying a pie, dish, and spoons.
GAMBOL, like a tumbler, with a hoop and bells; his torch-bearer armed with a colt-staff, and a binding cloth.
POST AND PAIR, with a pair-royal of aces in his hat; his garment all done over with pairs and purs; his squire carrying a box, cards, and counters.
NEW-YEAR'S-GIFT, in a blue coat, serving-man like, with an orange, and a sprig of rosemary gilt on his head, his hat full of brooches, with a collar of ginger-bread, his torch-bearer carrying a march-pane with a bottle of wine on either arm.
MUMMING, in a masquing pied suit, with a vizard, his torch-bearer carrying the box, and ringing it.
WASSEL, like a neat sempster and songster; her page bearing a brown bowl, drest with ribands, and rosemary before her.
OFFERING, in a short gown, with a porter's staff in his hand, a wyth born before him, and a bason, by his torch-bearer.
BABY-CAKE, drest like a boy, in a fine long coat, biggin-bib, muckender, and a little dagger; his usher bearing a great cake, with a bean and a pease.
They enter singing.
Now God preserve, as you do well deserve,
Your majesties all, two there;
Your highness small, with my good lords all,
And ladies, how do you do there?
Give me leave to ask, for I bring you a masque
From little, little, little London;
Which say the king likes, I have passed the pikes,
If not, old Christmas is undone.
Chris. Ho, peace! what's the matter there?
Gam. Here's one o' Friday-street would come in.
Chris. By no means, nor out of neither of the Fish-streets, admit not a man; they are not Christmas creatures: fish and fasting days, foh! Sons, said I well? look to it.
Gam. No body out o' Friday-street, nor the two Fish-streets there, do you hear?
Car. Shall John Butter o' Milk-street come in? Ask him.
Gam. Yes, he may slip in for a torch-bearer, so he melt not too fast, that he will last till the masque be done.
Chris. Right, son.
Our dance's freight is a matter of eight;
And two, the which are wenches:
In all they be ten, four cocks to a hen,
And will swim to the tune like tenches.
Each hath his knight for to carry his light,
Which some would say are torches
To bring them here, and to lead them there,
And home again to their own porches.
Now their intent,--
[Enter VENUS, a deaf tire-woman.]
Ven Now, all the lords bless me! where am I, trow? where is Cupid? "Serve the king!" they may serve the cobbler well enough, some of 'em, for any courtesy they have, I wisse; they have need o' mending: unrude people they are, your courtiers; here was thrust upon thrust indeed: was it ever so hard to get in before, trow?
Chris. How now? what's the matter?
Ven. A place, forsooth, I do want a place: I would have a good place, to see my child act in before the king and queen's majesties, God bless 'em! to-night.
Chris. Why, here is no place for you.
Ven. Right, forsooth, I am Cupid's mother, Cupid's own mother, forsooth; yes, forsooth: I dwell in Pudding-lane: ay, forsooth, he is prentice in Love-lane, with a bugle maker, that makes of your bobs, and bird-bolts for ladies.
Chris. Good lady Venus of Pudding-lane, you must go out for all this.
Ven. Yes, forsooth, I can sit anywhere, so I may see Cupid act: he is a pretty child, though I say it, that perhaps should not, you will say. I had him by my first husband; he was a smith, forsooth, we dwelt in Do-little-lane then: he came a month before his time, and that may make him somewhat imperfect; but I was a fishmonger's daughter.
Chris. No matter for your pedigree, your house: good Venus, will you depart?
Ven. Ay, forsooth, he'll say his part, I warrant him, as well as e'er a play-boy of 'em all: I could have had money enough for him, an I would have been tempted, and have let him out by the week to the king's players. Master Burbage has been about and about with me, and so has old master Hemings, too, they have need of him; where is he, trow, ha! I would fain see him--pray God they have given him some drink since he came.
Chris. Are you ready, boys? Strike up! nothing will drown this noise but a drum: a'peace, yet! I have not done. Sing,--
Now their intent is above to present--
Car. Why, here be half of the properties forgotten, father.
Offer Post and Pair wants his pur-chops and his pur-dogs.
Car. Have you ne'er a son at the groom porter's, to beg or borrow a pair of cards quickly?
Gam. It shall not need; here's your son Cheater without, has cards in his pocket.
Offer. Ods so! speak to the guards to let him in, under the name of a property.
Gam. And here's New-Year's-Gift has an orange and rosemary, but not a clove to stick in't.
New-Year. Why, let one go to the spicery.
Chris. Fy, fy, fy! it's naught, it's naught, boys.
Ven. Why, I have cloves, if it be cloves you want. I have cloves in my purse: I never go without one in my mouth.
Car. And Mumming has not his vizard, neither.
Chris. No matter! his own face shall serve, for a punishment, and 'tis bad enough; has Wassel her bowl, and Minced-pie her spoons?
Offer. Ay, ay: but Misrule doth not like his suit: he says the players have sent him one too little, on purpose to disgrace him.
Chris. Let him hold his peace, and his disgrace will be the less: what! shall we proclaim where we were furnish'd? Mum! mum! a'peace! be ready, good boys.
Now their intent is above to present,
With all the appurtenances,
A right Christmas, as of old it was,
To be gathered out of the dances.
Which they do bring, and afore the king,
The queen, and prince, as it were now
Drawn here by love; who over and above,
Doth draw himself in the geer too.
Here the drum and fife sound, and they march about once. In the second coming up, CHRISTMAS proceeds in his song:
Hum drum, sauce for a coney;
No more of your martial music;
Even for the sake o' the next new stake,
For there I do mean to use it.
And now to ye, who in place are to see
With roll and farthingale hooped:
I pray you know, though he want his bow,
By the wings, that this is Cupid.
He might go back for to cry, What you lack?
But that were not so witty:
His cap and coat are enough to note
That he is the love o' the city.
And he leads on, though he now be gone,
For that was only his-rule:
But now comes in, Tom of Bosoms-inn,
And he presenteth Mis-rule.
Which you may know, by the very show,
Albeit you never ask it:
For there you may see what his ensigns be,
The rope, the cheese, and the basket.
This Carol plays, and has been in his days
A chirping boy, and a kill-pot:
Kit Cobler it is, I'm a father of his,
And he dwells in a lane called Fill-pot.
But who is this? O, my daughter Cis,
Minced-pie; with her do not dally
On pain o' your life: she's an honest cook's wife,
And comes out of Scalding-alley.
Next in the trace, comes Gambol in place;
And, to make my tale the shorter,
My son Hercules, tane out of Distaff-lane,
But an active man, and a porter.
Now Post and Pair, old Christmas's heir,
Doth make and a gingling sally;
And wot you who, 'tis one of my two
Sons, card-makers in Pur-alley.
Next in a trice, with his box and his dice,
Mac-pipin my son, but younger,
Brings Mumming in; and the knave will win,
For he is a costermonger.
But New-Year's-Gift, of himself makes shift,
To tell you what his name is:
With orange on head, and his ginger-bread,
Clem Waspe of Honey-lane 'tis.
This, I tell you, is our jolly Wassel,
And for Twelfth-night more meet too:
She works by the ell, and her name is Nell,
And she dwells in Threadneedle-street too.
Then Offering, he, with his dish and his tree,
That in every great house keepeth,
Is by my son, young Little-worth, done,
And in Penny-rich street he sleepeth.
Last, Baby-cake that an end doth make
Of Christmas, merry, merry vein-a,
Is child Rowlan, and a straight young man,
Though he come out of Crooked-lane-a.
There should have been, and a dozen I ween,
But I could find but one more
Child of Christmas, and a Log it was,
When I them all had gone o'er.
I prayed him, in a time so trim,
That he would make one to prance it;
And I myself would have been the twelfth
O' but Log he was too heavy to dance it.
Now, Cupid, come you on.
You worthy wights, king, lords, and knights,
Or queen and ladies bright:
Cupid invites you to the sights
He shall present to-night.
Ven. 'Tis a good child, speak out; hold up your head, Love.
Cup. And which Cupid--and which Cupid--
Ven. Do not shake so, Robin; if thou be'st a-cold, I have some warm waters for thee here.
Chris. Come, you put Robin Cupid out with your water's and your fisling; will you be gone?
Ven. Ay, forsooth, he's a child, you must conceive, and must be used tenderly; he was never in such an assembly before, forsooth, but once at the Warmoll Quest, forsooth, where he said grace as prettily as any of the sheriff's hinch-boys, forsooth.
Chris. Will you peace, forsooth?
Cup. And which Cupid--and which Cupid--
Ven. Ay, that's a good boy, speak plain, Robin; how does his majesty like him, I pray? will he give eight-pence a day, think you? Speak out, Robin.
Chris. Nay, he is out enough. You may take him away, and begin your dance; this it is to have speeches.
Ven. You wrong the child, you do wrong the infant; I 'peal to his majesty.
Here they dance.
Chris. Well done, boys, my fine boys, my bully boys!
Nor do you think that their legs is all
The commendation of my sons,
For at the Artillery garden they shall
As well forsooth use their guns,
And march as fine as the Muses nine,
Along the streets of London;
And in their brave tires, to give their false fires,
Especially Tom my son.
Now if the lanes and the allies afford
Such an ac-ativity as this;
At Christmas next, if they keep their word,
Can the children of Cheapside miss?
Though, put the case, when they come in place,
They should not dance, but hop:
Their very gold lace, with their silk, would 'em grace,
Having so many knights o' the shop.
But were I so wise, I might seem to advise
So great a potentate as yourself;
They should, sir, I tell ye, spare't out of their belly,
And this way spend some of their pelf.
Ay, and come to the court, for to make you some sport,
At the least once every year,
As Christmas hath done, with his seventh or eighth son,
And his couple of daughters dear.
[And thus it ended.]
Ben Jonson's play: The Masque Of Christmas
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