Thursday, 20 December 2012

Christmas, his masque


Since it is Christmas I thought something seasonal was called for. In December 1616 a short piece, written by Ben Jonson and called Christmas his masque, was performed at court. The text does not appear to have been published until the second volume of Jonson’s works was produced in 1640/1. The piece is highly political. In a speech earlier in 1616 King James I had called for a proper celebration of Christmas. Marcus (1986) considers the refusal of Londoners to keep such a proper Christmas to be an “open defiance of authority.”

Christmas, his masque is unusual in that it is too short to be a full masque, the characters are not dressed in masque costume such as that designed by Inigo Jones, but would appear, from the costume described in the text, to be supposedly London apprentices and shopkeepers, the very people James had demanded celebrate Christmas. In actuality of course the piece was performed by actors.

James I - detail from a portrait by de Critz,
wearing a high crowned hat with a brooch
Christmas himself is shown very differently from the modern personification being, “attir'd in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, (but probably not as ornate as that worn by James I)  a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white Shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse.” He has ten children with him, eight sons and two daughters, being personifications of seasonal attributes, and the clothing of each is described. Each child is accompanied by a servant, but while what the servants are carrying, the attributes of the personification, are described, their clothes are not.

The children are:-

Misrule, who is, “In a velvet Cap with a Sprig, a short Cloake, great yellow Ruffe like a Reveller.” Yellow starch for ruffs was very popular, but note that this is 1616, the same year as the trial of Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset who was accused of murdering her husband with the aid of a yellow starcher, Mrs. Anne Turner. Mrs Turner was hanged in her yellow ruff on the 16th November 1616, afterwards James banned yellow starch.(Ribeiro 1986)

Carol wears, “A long tawny Coat, with a red Cap”

Mince pie is a female being dressed, “Like a fine Cookes Wife, drest neat.”

Gambol, unsurprisingly is “Like a Tumbler, with a hoope and Bells; his Torch-bearer arm'd with a Cole-staffe, and a blinding cloth.”

Design by Inigo Jones for a masque costume
 representing a star
Post and Pair – this by the way is a card game- has “a paire-Royall of Aces in his Hat; his Garment all done over with Payres, and Purrs.”

 New Yeares Gift, alludes to the fact that gifts were usually given not at Christmas but at New Year. He wears “a blew Coat, serving-man like … his Hat full of Broaches, with a coller of Gingerbread.”

Mumming is “In a Masquing pied suite, with a Visor.”

Wassall is the second daughter, and is dressed “Like a neat Sempster, and Songster”

Offering wears “a short gowne, with a Porters staffe in his hand.”

Babie-cocke (cake) is the youngest and is “Drest like a Boy, in a fine long Coat, Biggin, Bib, Muckender, and a little Dagger.” So he is dressed like an unbreeched boy.  His servant carries the Christmas cake with the traditional bean and pea.

The children have been lead in byCupid, who is attir'd in a flat Cap, and a Prentises Coat, with wings at his shoulders.” Later in the masque he is described as a “Prentise in Love-lane with a Bugle-maker, that makes of your Bobs, and Bird-bolts for Ladies.” Cupid is traditionally depicted with a bow and arrow, bobs and bird-bolts are types of arrows, and a horn.  Cupid’s mother Venus also appears in the masque, described as “a deafe Tire-woman.”


Jonson, Ben, The works of Benjamin Jonson, the second volume. London: Richard Meighen, 1640.

Marcus, Leah S. The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Dress and morality. London: Batsford, 1986.

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