Christmas Customs in Bronte Country
The Brontes Christmas
Published by Sutton Publishing 1997
any of the old traditions which abounded at Christmas time in Yorkshire are steeped in the mists of time, and are no longer found anywhere else. Today, many are forgotten, but there are a few still in living memory, such as the Pretty Box, Vessel Maids and Wassail Bob.
All three of these are related customs, which have developed from one original. That original belongs to pre-Christian times, and was, in fact, in honour of the deity Dionysus. An effigy of the baby Dionysus was placed in a receptacle, and surrounded with pretty flowers. In the Brontes' Yorkshire, the custom flourished. During Advent, two girls called 'Vessel Maids' would carry round a box, or a double hoop of evergreens with three figures inside: the whole would be covered with a special white cloth which only came out for this purpose - a sacred cloth. The figures now represent the Holy Family.
The box was commonly called a Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box or a Milly Box. People would work very hard at making the decoration around the figures as attractive as possible, with fruits especially oranges, among the greenery. Various scholars have likened the custom to a pagan rite in honour of vegetation or a remnant from a medieval Christian crib custom. Others go far beyond and see it as a last vestige of the rites of the child-god Dionysus; and the Vessel Maids -or Vestal Virgins, of course.
The girls, sometimes with an entourage, would carry it from house to house, singing a carol, and asking a penny to see inside during Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It was considered most unlucky if the Vessel Maids did not call. So we might be forgiven for presuming that they were expected at the Bronte home, as elsewhere.
The custom adapted and changed; various carols were associated with it: 'The Joys of Mary', 'Here We Come a Wassailing' (noted by Leeds composer, Martin Shaw, whose forefathers had known the custom for several generations).
Sometimes there was only one figure, that acknowledged to be the infant Christ Child; sometimes he was accompanied by Mary, occasionally by Joseph too. The Milly Box, a corruption of 'My Lady's Box', usually contained only an image of the Virgin Mary, and the baby would appear on Christmas Day, with new decoration, sugar and spice being added to the other things.
No matter how sheltered from the 'excesses' of Christmas, the Bronte children must have heard the Waits. They were the official city watchmen whose job was to patrol the streets at night and keep the peace. However, as they invariably played musical instruments and/or sang, to show they were on duty, that peace cannot have been kept very quietly! At Christmas time, hey played and sang the familiar Christmas carols and songs, and were occasionally rewarded with a few coppers, a pie or a hot drink, it being the season of goodwill. Carols were also sung at the houses by the choirs of local churches.
Carols were also sung at the houses by the choirs of local churches. We've little information about the services held under the Revd Patrick Bronte, the father of the literary family. He had been brought up by an Irish lapsed Catholic father and a Cornish Methodist mother, and this combination seems to have turned him into something of a bigot. The children, after the death of their mother, were cared for by their aunt Branwell, a strict Wesleyan. Maybe, just maybe. Their father's little church sang out with Christmas hymns.
The following account of a typical Yorkshire vicarage Christmas is taken from the Leeds Christmas Book the Director of the Leeds City Museums, P. Brears.
Probably no Parish Church in England can boast of such a fine music tradition as that maintained at St Peter's in Kirkgate (Leeds). This largely due to the work of Dean Hook, the great reforming Leeds vicar.
When he came in 1837, the church was dilapidated, the surplices rags, and the service books in tatters. By 1841 he had changed everything beyond recognition, the church itself having been handsomely rebuilt with a new peal of bells and a newly built organ. The quality of the church music was similarly improved, the composer, Samuel Sebastian Wesley serving as organist, and Mr James Hill of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, Windsor leading the choir of 35 voices. Full choral services were now introduced for all weekday evenings, in addition to those for Sundays and Holidays.
Samuel Dyer was one of the choirboys at this time, and he has recorded :he festivities which Dean Hook organised for the choir at the vicarage at No. 6 Park Place.
`At Christmas we all dined, men and boys, at the Vicarage: grand for us boys. Plum pudding, Roast Beef, and the games of hunting for sixpences in hillocks of flour turned out of a basin, or bobbing for apples dangling from a string; after that, presents of knives and books . . . before breaking up we had rounds glees, and madrigals, " Old Thomas Day" and " Great Tom is Cast".
'For several nights about X'mastide, we trudged to the suburban seats to sing outside the mansions of the gentry who frequented the Parish Church, for which we reaped a rich harvest.'