The Twelve Days of Christmas

To celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, this year we are bringing you some of the most intriguing Christmas items from our collection. We hope you all have a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

On the first day of Christmas – we wish you a happy Christmas! A more traditional offering from a French published book of hours, 1509. These were devotional books containing prayers and psalms, popular in the Middle Ages.

Book of hours

On the second day of Christmas – enjoy Boxing Day! The tradition of the Christmas box either derived from the opening of alms boxes placed in churches so donations could be collected for the poor, or the practice of giving boxes of gifts to employees on the day after Christmas, which became known as Boxing day.

Mrs Brown's Christmas Box

On the third day of Christmas…have a smashing time! This is the Fortnum & Mason Christmas Catalogue, 1934. ‘Dishes Ready to Serve’ included boar’s head at 5 shillings a pound. If that isn’t to your taste you could try Christmas cakes with the ‘the fattest and richest fruits’ raised pies, special hams, fruits in brandy, paradise cake and chocolate bacchanalia!

Fortnum and Mason catalogue

On the fourth day of Christmas…fun and games. Gamages Xmas Bazaar (1938) showcased a selection of Christmas toys available to buy that year. Hobby horses, pushchairs, typewriters and train sets were all the rage at Gamages.

Gamages Xmas Bazaar

On the fifth day of Christmas…nostalgia. Here are some Christmas specialities from 1936. This graceful representation of King George VI’s Coronation Coach provides a novelty of topical interest. Filled with iced animal and kindergarten biscuits. Each model packed in an attractive carton. All for 1/6.

Christmas Specialities

On the sixth day of Christmas…still cracking on. Film merchandising is nothing new. Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White’ of 1937 may have influenced the toy selection in this brochure from Gamages Xmas Bazaar (1938). On offer inside these pages was a set of all eight characters (for 8 shillings and eleven pence) as well as Snow White jigsaws, games, crackers and books.

Gamages Xmas Bazaar

On the seventh day of Christmas… ‘a stellar Christmas’? The image is from Punch magazine 1954. We particularly like Father Christmas’ space helmet, which accommodates his beard!

Punch magazine

On the eighth day of Christmas, we wish you a Happy New Year! This passage is taken from Charles Dickens’ Christmas story The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (1844): ‘So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you! So may each year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share, in what our Great Creator formed them to enjoy.’ This image is of Trotty Veck, a character from the story.

The Chimes

On the ninth day of Christmas…continue with the festivities. This is ‘Bringing in the Boar’s Head’ by J. Gilbert, Illustrated London News, 22 December 1855, page 733. In past centuries, a boar’s head was the meat dish chiefly associated with the festive season. John Aubrey, writing in the 17th century, describes how in gentlemen’s houses at Christmas ‘the first diet that was brought to table was a boar’s head with a lemon in his mouth.’ The Boar’s Head ceremonies held at Queen’s College, Oxford and in London by the Butchers’ Company still preserve this custom.

Boar's Head

On the tenth day of Christmas…still merry.  This image is ‘The Wassail Bowl’, drawn by John Gilbert (Illustrated London News, 22 December 1860, page 579). The beverage of choice for the wassail bowl was lambswool – hot spiced ale with toasted apples bobbing on the surface. Carol singers often went door to door with an empty wassail bowl, in the hope of cadging a drink off wealthier neighbours, but this does not seem to be the case in this particular illustration!

Wassail Bowl

On the eleventh day of Christmas…last dance. Published by the Moore Brothers in the 1800s. The Moore Brothers were tea merchants based in King William Street, City of London, as indicated by the logo in the top right-hand corner.

12 day of xmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas…Christmas goes out in fine style! A festive party two hundred years ago with Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Wordsworth and Keats.

Keats 1815

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Peculiar personages from history

James Caulfield’s entertaining work: Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons, from the revolution in 1688 to the end of the reign of George II: Collected from the most authentic accounts extant, 1819, does not disappoint. It is filled with a number of curious characters including: Blind Granny, an old blind soak with the party trick of licking her blind eye with her tongue, Blind Jack, who earned a living entertaining Londoners playing the flageolet through his nostril, and Mary Toft, a woman who claimed she had given birth to rabbits.

Blind granny2

Described by Caulfield as a ‘miserable, wretched drunken object, who blind of one eye, used to annoy the passengers in the streets of London, while sober, with licking her blind eye with her tongue, which was of a most enormous length and thickness; indeed, it was of a such a prodigious size, that her mouth could not contain it, and she could never close her lips, or to use a common expression, keep her tongue within her teeth.’

“He [Blind Jack] conceived a notion that, by performing on the instrument in a different way to that generally practiced, he should render himself more noticed by the public, and be able to lay larger contributions on their pockets.

Blind Jack1

The manner of Blind Jack’s playing the flageolet was by way of obtruding the mouthpiece of the instrument up one of his nostrils, and, by long custom, he could produce as much wind as most others with lips into the pipe; but the continued contortion and gesticulation of his muscles and countenance, rendered him an object of derision and disgust, as much as that of charity and commiseration.”

Mary Toft

Mary Tofts pretended rabbit breeder2

England was bewildered in 1726 by Mary Toft’s claims to have given birth to rabbits. Her doctor, Mr Howard, a well-regarded man who had practised medicine for over thirty years, backed up her claims, saying that he had personally helped her deliver at least eighteen rabbits. When King George I heard of this he was so intrigued that he sent his anatomist Mr St. Andre to investigate, and he returned convinced that Mary Toft had indeed given birth to rabbits, and recommended that she be awarded a royal pension.

Sir Richard Manningham, Fellow of the Royal Society and of London’s College of Physicians was sent to investigate. Manningham soon got to the bottom of the matter and got a porter to confess to supplying Mary Toft’s sister-in-law with a rabbit. Still Mary Toft refused to confess to the fraud and it was only when Manningham threatened to perform painful surgery on her to investigate whether her body was different from other women that she admitted to the deception. Mary admitted that she had manually inserted dead rabbits into her vagina after a miscarriage, subsequently allowing them to be removed as if she had given birth to them. Manningham published his account An Exact Diary of what was observ’d during a Close Attendance upon Mary Toft, the pretended Rabbit-Breeder of Godalming in 1726.

full spread mary Toft

Cunicularii or the wise men of Godliman in consultation by William Hogarth, 1726, in ‘Mary Toft Rabbet Breeder, 1725-7’: Bay H 4.1 85

By Isabelle Chevallot, Assistant Librarian assisted by Lauren Davis, on work experience with the Lord Mayor’s Cultural Scheme.