The Revoluntionary College Project
Town's Relief

ABOVE - The circa- 1770 farmhouse known as Town's Relief, just outside of Chestertown, was the ancestral home of the Wroth family and still stands today (although its windows and porch were evidently altered in Victorian times). The scenes of an 18th-century Christmas that Peregrine Wroth describes in the accompanying essay likely occurred in the main house and nearby slave quarters at Town's Relief.

Peregrine Wroth

ABOVE - Peregrine Wroth

Red Swirl"The Yule Log”: Remembering Christmas in 18th-Century Kent County

By Peregrine Wroth
(Washington College Class of 1803)

Dr. Peregrine Wroth (1786-1879) was born on his father’s plantation, Town’s Relief, just outside Chestertown, and lived in Kent County throughout his long life. An early graduate of Washington College, he became a noted physician, served as professor of chemistry at his alma mater, and published poems and essays on various subjects.

Wroth composed the following essay shortly before the Civil War as a private reminiscence for his children. In it, he remembers the Christmas holiday as it was celebrated during his boyhood in Kent County at the end of the 18th century – not only by Wroth’s family and their neighbors, but also by their African-American slaves. Especially fascinating is Wroth’s description of customs and musical traditions that had been brought from Africa and melded with the European traditions of the season. And the latter part of his essay proves that complaints about the crassness and commercialism of “modern” Christmas are hardly unique to our own time.

“The Yule Log” is included in one of several handwritten volumes of Wroth’s reminiscences that were discovered by Professor Davy McCall and donated to the Washington College Archives by Wroth’s descendants. It was transcribed from the original manuscript by Peter W. Knox ’06.

The footnotes to the essay are Wroth’s own.

The Yule Log

This phrase awakens the sleeping memories of good, old times in my Fatherland; and the near approach of the Great Christian Festival recalls to mind the long-lost customs which were brought to this country by the first Emigrants from England, and which mingled with and crowned the pleasures of Christmas in the days of my Boyhood.

Though the sad retrospect affects me almost to tears, I can not throw it off, but memory clings to it with a fondness and yearning which can only be felt by those who lived at that time. The number of these is every year growing less and it cannot be long before the last link in the chain which connects that age with the present, will be broken, and disappear forever!

It was more than sixty1 years ago. The third generation is now rising into manhood since these things were! Customs, manners – all things are changed! The contracted dimensions of the modern fire-place, with the finely sculptured, marble jambs and mantels, had not been seen. The ornamented grate and radiator had not been invented; and even the old tin-plate stove for the consumption of wood was only seen in the shops of the carpenter, the tailor, and the shoemaker. The very existence of anthracite in the bowels of the Earth, where it had been hidden in long-lost ages by the Creator, had not been suspected! Parlour, dining room, and kitchen were furnished with broad and deep fire-places in which large piles of wood crackled and blazed, and cast a strong heat and light to every corner of the room.

These fires blazed with peculiar lustre at Christmas. Before the dawn of the day so long desired and longed for, the younger members of the family (I am speaking of the family in the country) were up and astir. The young children had searched and emptied their stockings, which had been hung up the night before, of the good things annually supplied by good old Cris Kinkle (St Nicholas – the Patron Saint of young children). The capacious bowl of Egg-Nog was brewed; the hickory Yule Log sparkled and blazed on the ample hearth; the servants large and small with their shining ebony faces and teeth of pearl, peeped through the windows and half-opened doors, and all was prepared to salute the rising-sun with the well-charged Christmas Gun.

As soon as he [the sun] appeared, the Ecchoes of the report were brought back from the surrounding woods, where the older servants – men and women -- came back from the Quarter2 dressed in their new suits of home-made kersey, leading the children who could walk, and carrying in their arms those who could not, and entered the Great House3 to receive their Christmas dram4 at the hands of their master. I well remember that the children in the arms would turn off the glass without a wry-face.

This annual ceremony (daily through Christmas week) being over, the servants retired to the Quarter where they were regaled with a plentiful breakfast. This being despatched, the Banjo, a musical instrument which they had brought with them from Africa, was introduced and the merry dance began with the well-remembered words

“Jack Butter in the fat

Hop, and git over dat.”

Here we will leave them awhile.

In the Great House, the Egg Nog was handed about, and all partook of the foaming beverage. After a breakfast of hot well-buttered Buckwheat cakes, rolls, and Biscuit, and sometimes with Johnny cake, and coffee, garnished with stuffed sausages, the family party began to assemble and dining room and Parlour were soon filled.

In the mean time the cooks were busy in preparing the Old Gobler for the spit, and the large Dinner pot, hanging over the fire, was filled with a delicious year-old ham and chines and other pork, with store of cabbage, potatos, turnips and other vegetables. Pot-pies of Goose or chicken were not forgotten, and ample provision had before been made of minced and pumpkin pies, plum-puddings and many other good things of that day.

While dinner was in preparation -- to be served up at 1 o’clock, never later -- the male members of the party, if the day was fine, whiled away the time by shooting at a target, or galloping round the neighbourhood, sipping their neighbours’ Eggnog and romping with their daughters. Universal hilarity reigned throughout the country; but I can assure you, my dear children, that Intoxication - in genteel circles -- was unknown. All was cheerful but sober – and a modest kiss was considered no breach of decorum! A sad countenance was no where seen; and if one had ventured to appear, it would soon have been laughed away.

Let us now pay another visit to the Quarter.

The Servants, who in those primitive days, thought no man in the country was so good or so grate a man as Master, and who never approached him without lifting the hat or scraping the ground with the toe of their shoes, had their full share of unrestrained mirth and jollity. In every family there was a “leader of all sports.” In my Father’s Quarter this leader was Cuffee – the only son of Aunt Dinah, my mother’s chief cook and confidential servant in the Kitchen. He would place a large log in the front yard of the Quarter and boring a hole in it with an auger, fill it with water and plug it with a black coal from the fire-place. In the intervals of the song and the dance he would spring from the door of the Quarter and striking a heavy blow with an axe on the hole in the log, jump high in the air and striking his feet together three times before reaching the ground utter a loud shout as an eccho to the report from the log almost as loud as that of a gun. He would then return to this comrades and give out a line of his unpremeditated song – to be answered by them in full chorus. The rhythm of their songs was such as that in Africa at this day, and was thence introduced into this country. I give a specimen --

Leader

“Work away, my brave boys.”

Chorus

“So – ho!”

Leader

“Husk up the man’s corn.”

Chorus

“So – ho!” (prolonged)

Not only at Christmas, but at the night husking matches in the different neighbourhoods, the leader would go on half the night, improvising his song and promising his comrades plenty of pork, pot pye, and cider when the heap of corn was husked. Cuffee was the leader generally at these nightly meetings, as he was admired for his poetic talent. And he would often exhibit feats of agility which would astonish the clowns and merry-andrews of the modern circus.

I give another specimen of a chorus (the song is forgotten) to one of his most admired efforts –

“Raccoon foot and ‘possum tail

New Town5 gals will never fail.”

Those days of homely sport6 and kind and cordial feelings, unadulterated by admixture with modern fashions, recur like a remembered dream! And I recall not only the plain but substantial fare and good cheer, the house and field sports of both masters and servants, but also the many evidences of the superior social enjoyment of those now forgotten days, the cordial greetings, the interchange of true home-bred feelings, the genuine, unsophisticated welcome given to guests, with a sad pleasure!

When a dance was got up, there were no French bows and grimaces; no French rigadoons and chassees; no French minuettes and Pirouettes; but the plain, honest jigs and hornpipes of Anglo-Saxon birth; no airs or politeness (falsely so called), no outside blandness intended to conceal the feelings of the heart; but true heart-felt and heart-reaching plainness of salutation which could not be misinterpreted!

That there is more Scientific culture at the present day, is not denied; but the culture is that of the head, not of the heart; a culture in which all cordial feeling is repudiated. Home, with all its thousand attractions, its swelling, gushing, perennial fountains of enjoyment, is not now the place where the young seek for pleasure, but the Oyster house and hotel! And the house-hold and home-bred sympathies which once clustered around the family hearth are now dried up and withered by the sirocco breath of a cold, all-absorbing selfishness! Who, with such memories thronging about him, would not mourn over the retrospect and long for the return of good old times?

In the projects and customs of the present day, the heart is not consulted. Self- interest has usurped the place once occupied by the Law of Kindness; and in all family and neighbourhood intercourse, tinsel and glitter and glare and outside show, reign supreme!

You perceive, my dear children, that I am earnest on this subject; and I do not hesitate to add my firm conviction that, in all that relates to the social conditions of the Past and the Present, the latter is not an improvement on the former. There is more learning now, but less true wisdom! More external polish of manners, but much less heartiness and sincerity; more wealth and infinitely less generosity and openhanded and openhearted liberality!

I could continue on in this strain for another sheet or more, but this may suffice to show my sincere testimony in favour of the good old time of long-buried generations!

 

1 This was written in 1858.

2 The house where the servants lived was so called.

3 The home of the master, so called by the servants.

4 The Christmas dram was by them called their Christmas.

5 Chester Town, then recently built, was, by all, known by the name of New Town.

6 Homely – home-like, plain, not ugly.

 


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