By Val Hewson
More on literary food. Here is the tale of Sheffield Literary Club’s Christmas dinners.
Whan thǣt hit bee Yeol? Yes, well may you pause. It means ‘when it’s Christmas’. Notice ‘Yeol’, which is more usually written as ‘Yule’. The phrase is taken from the menu for a Christmas feast organised by the Sheffield Literary Club in the early 1930s. ‘Feast’ is the operative word: this was no simple roast dinner.
The Literary Club started life as the ‘Sheffield Poetry Club’ in 1923 and, with the change of name perhaps recording wider interests, lasted until the 1960s. It was a largely female and middle-class group, with members having to pay an annual subscription of at least 5/-. The Club had high ideals. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1923 commented:
Here is an opportunity for Sheffielders to refute the ancient taunt that Sheffield is unliterary, that it is ‘at the very nadir of culture’.
The original prospectus promised that:
… poetical plays will be read by lovers of drama; recitals will be given by elocutionists, of the less known good poetry; papers, and discussion on them will cultivate the essay form and encourage debate; original verse-making will be encouraged by inviting the authors to read their works.
The Club’s literary tastes were conservative. In the early years members discussed Austen, Byron, Milton and Tennyson at meetings. They shunned the avant-garde. This all deserves a blog of its own (and one day I will write it) but for now let’s focus on Christmas.
As my colleague Mary Grover has observed, ‘nostalgia for a pre-industrial world was central to the Club’s original identity’.[i] Perhaps it was even nostalgia for a world which never existed. The 1923 prospectus promised a Christmas supper ‘at which all the beautiful English customs will be revived’ and Club papers show that there was an Old Customs committee. It was ‘Merrie England’ with a vengeance, reminiscent of the ideas beloved of Professor Welch and mocked by his subordinate Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis’ novel Lucky Jim (1954):
‘The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history. It’s only the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto…’ He paused and swayed …His head seemed to be swelling and growing lighter …Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954), Kindle edition, loc 4151.
The first Christmas supper in 1923 seems to have been modest enough but through the 1920s and 1930s the celebrations got more and more elaborate. The event was usually described as ‘ye soper æt Cristenmæsse of ye witenayemot and clubbe of lettres’ [the Christmas dinner of the literary club and its committee], and there were toasts, mummers, a gesteur, the Mayster of Ye Feste, Fader Cristenmæsse and more.
Here is the menu, with appropriate Shakespearean quotations, from around 1935:
Hu Thei Don in Cutlerstoune [Sheffield] Whan thǣt hit bee Yeol
(‘Dost thou understand thus much English?’)
Fortune speed us! Thus set we on.
‘He is pure air and fire.’
‘He’s of the colour of the nutmeg.’ And of the heat of ginger.’
‘Good sooth, she is the queen of curds and cream.’
‘Must I bite?’ ‘Yes, certainly.’
’Tis no matter for his swellings nor his turkey-cocks, God pless you, Aunchient Pistol! You scurvy, lousy knave, God pless you!’
Ye Heved of Ye Boore [The Boar’s Head]
‘Whose tushes never sheathed, he whetteth still.’
‘Why, I pray you, is not pig great? The pig or the great, or the mighty, or the huge, or the magnanimous, are all one reckonings, save the phrase is a little variations.’
Plume-poding [plum pudding]
‘Why then comes in the sweet o’ the year.’
‘I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see: Three pound of sugar; five pound of currants; rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on. I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates; none, that’s out of my notes; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many raisins o’ the sun.’
‘O that ever I was born!’
Sherries – Sack Ale – posset
‘Shall I have some water? Come Kate and wash!’
‘Desist, and drink.’
‘I could not find him at the Elephant,
Yet there he was!’
‘Ye Heved of Ye Boore’, ‘plume-poding’ and the rest were all part of a performance in which the members played a part. At the start,
Ye gests and clubbefelawen schal standen, eche behindan hys siege, and ye Mayster of ye Feste schal pronownce ye Bletsung … And all ye companinie schal seyen ‘AMEN, AMEN, and AMEN! … [The guests and club members will stand behind their chairs, and the Master of the Feast will give the blessing … and the company will say ‘Amen, Amen and Amen!’]
In time Fader Cristenmæsse arrives. The Uschere sing:
A jolly wassail Bowl,
A wassail of good ale
Well fare the butler’s soul
That setteth this for sale!
Our jolly wassail! Our jolly wassail!’
‘I have many towns and countries to visit and must start with Cutlerstoune,’ says Cristenmæsse, and goes on, no doubt to popular acclaim in Yorkshire:
Nay, but to cry truce with jesting, I do love the North
Hath not our greatest trouvère,
Your own poet of Somersby [Tennyson], written
‘That bright and fierce and fickle is the South
And dark and true and tender is the North.
Say to her I do but wanton in the South
But in the North long since my nest is made.’Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Princess: O Swallow.
The Feste finally ends after a short break ‘for a man somewhæt to strechen his shanken’ [for everyone to stretch their legs] and a Toast to ‘Absent Friends’.
Presumably it was the Old Customs committee that lovingly and happily researched, composed and argued over this. There is ritual, bell-ringing, singing, quotations from Shakespeare and other Greats, Latin tags and Elizabethan, Middle and Old and – surely! – cod English. ‘Clubbefelawen’? ‘Erthenobbes?’ [Club members and potatoes to you.]
As might be expected, World War II put a stop to all this, and the custom was never revived in post-war austerity. By then the general sentiment was for making the new world, rather than re-making the old. What did the Club members feel about the Festes? I like to think that some enjoyed the playacting, while others took the evening desperately seriously and still others groaned at the thought of it.
[i] Mary Grover, unpublished notes.