By Deborah Swift
Tues 25 December 1666 (Christmas Day).
“Lay pretty long in bed, and then rose, leaving my wife desirous to sleep, having sat up till four this morning seeing her mayds make mince-pies. I to church, where our parson Mills made a good sermon. Then home, and dined well on some good ribbs of beef roasted and mince pies; only my wife, brother, and Barker, and plenty of good wine of my owne, and my heart full of true joy; and thanks to God Almighty for the goodness of my condition at this day.” Samuel Pepys
Poor Mrs Pepys, up until four baking! In Pepys’ day the Christmas season was a time to eat well in a season where food was scarce. It is difficult today, in our time of superstores selling strawberries in December, to imagine what a big impact this feast had when food was seasonally determined.
But what did people do after their dinner when there was no television or internet? Similar to today, the family might do what most families do, play a game. The game could be cards or dice – even small children gambled in this era, the parents giving them small change or tokens for play. A popular card game was Lanterloo which had come over from France most probably with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Variations of Loo are still played today, as is Cribbage which was created by the English poet Sir John Suckling in the early 17th Century.
Children might play a game of cratch cradle which we know today as cat’s cradle. Originally the ‘cratch cradle’ represented the manger, or cratch, where Christ was born. "From his cratch to his cross," was a well-known 17th Century phrase meaning from cradle to grave. In the pattern of the string, you can see how this cross-bracing effect looks like a manger.
For those looking for a drinking game, how about hijinks? Players had to roll a dice, and the lowest scoring player would have to take a drink or pay a forfeit. From this we get familiar phrase denoting someone in a high-spirited prank. Another game played in the tavern was John Bull or bullstones, where players would take it in turns tossing coins or stones onto a numbered grid of squares, in an effort to score more points than their neighbour. This was also played by children who would scratch the grid into the dirt to play on the street.
A more dangerous game was mumblety-peg which involved throwing a knife at a peg in the ground. The closest to the peg was the winner, but the loser had to extract the peg from the ground with his teeth (English slang - a peg = a tooth). Ouch!
Other active games included hoodman-blind, (blind-man’s-buff) and stool-ball which it is believed evolved into cricket. In stool-ball, you had to throw a hard leather ball stuffed with straw or grain at a milking stool. Another person defended it with a wooden bat. The milking stool traditionally had three legs, so you can see how perhaps the cricket ‘stumps’ evolved.
|John Lewis Krimmel (1786–1821) Blind Man's Buff, 1814.|
Was there an equivalent to our ‘charades’? Well charades were not recorded until the 18th Century, but there were always the Mummers. They would go house to house over the Christmas period with their comic plays, full of irreverence for the nobility, the clergy, and anyone in a position of power, for example the doctor. Theatres would also put on plays (though there is no recorded instance of a pantomime until 1717). The old tradition of the Lord of Misrule had died out with the rise of the Puritans in the early 17th century along with many other Christmas traditions. Even after the Restoration of Charles II, it was not re-introduced, as it was feared it was too rowdy and encouraged lewd and unruly behaviour.
On New Year’s Day though, you could become king and queen for the night. Straws or lots were drawn for the king and queen by the finding of a pea or bean baked in the Twelfth Night cake. The cake was cut so one of the men got the bean and one of the women the pea, and these two could rule over the revels until midnight, when Christmas was officially over.
Happy holidays readers – what games do you enjoy playing over the holiday period? As a family we love to play Quirkle and Ingenious as well as the more traditional Monopoly. And of course snuggling down with a good book is always a possibility!
Entertaining Mr Pepys
By Deborah Swift
Elizabeth 'Bird' Carpenter has a wonderful singing voice, and music is her chief passion. When her father persuades her to marry horse-dealer Christopher Knepp, she suspects she is marrying beneath her station, but nothing prepares her for the reality of life with Knepp. Her father has betrayed her trust, for Knepp cares only for his horses; he is a tyrant and a bully, and will allow Bird no life of her own.
When Knepp goes away, she grasps her chance and, encouraged by her maidservant Livvy, makes a secret visit to the theatre. Entranced by the music, the glitter and glamour of the surroundings, and the free and outspoken manner of the women on the stage, she falls in love with the theatre and is determined to forge a path of her own as an actress.
But life in the theatre was never going to be straightforward - for a jealous rival wants to spoil her plans, and worse, Knepp forbids it, and Bird must use all her wit and intelligence to change his mind.
Based on events depicted in the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys, Entertaining Mr Pepys brings London in the 17th Century to life. It includes the vibrant characters of the day such as the diarist himself and actress Nell Gwynne, and features a dazzling and gripping finale during the Great Fire of London.
The third in Deborah Swift's atmospheric trilogy, bringing to life the women in Pepys' Diary. Each novel features a different character and can be read as a stand-alone book.
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Entertaining Mr Pepys
Deborah Swift is the author of three previous historical novels for adults, The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily, and A Divided Inheritance, all published by Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, as well as the Highway Trilogy for teens (and anyone young at heart!). Her first novel was shortlisted for the Impress prize for new novelists.
She lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.