Traditionally, Christmas was a time when family, friends and neighbours would gather together, and in the days before radio, television and the internet, would create their own amusements.
Foremost among these in Victorian times was playing forfeits, which frequently involved word puzzles – for example, reciting a convoluted sentence or verse; a tongue-twister, or a rhyme such as The House that Jack Built, repeatedly without a mistake. Failure to do so would result in a forfeit being exacted.
Redeeming forfeits usually involved the individual in question being obliged to undertake a task which made them seem ridiculous, such as climbing up the chimney, or divulging the name of a secret sweetheart. A favourite one was to make the victim sing in one corner of the room, dance in another, laugh in the next, and cry in the other.
The Dorset poet William Barnes described a variation on the game Musical Chairs, which he knew as Snappen Tongs, in which those playing stood up in a room in which there were chairs for all but one of them, and when the tongs were ‘snapped’ they all ran to sit down – the chairless one then being made to pay a forfeit.
Cumulative songs, those with a simple verse structure modified by progressive addition so that each verse is longer than the previous one, were popular for playing forfeits. Barnes, who wrote articles about Dorset folklore, contributed this interesting local version of the cumulative Christmas song The Twelve Days of Christmas to the Dorset County Chronicle in 1882:
1. The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
The sprig of a Juniper Tree
2. The second day etc:
Two turtle doves, and 1
3. The third day etc:
Three French hens, and 2 – 1
4. The fourth day etc:
Four coloured birds, and 3 – 1
5. The fifth day etc:
Five gold rings, and 4 – 1
6. The sixth day etc:
Six geese a-laying, and 5 – 1
7. The seventh day etc:
Seven swans a-swimming, and 6 – 1
8. The eighth day etc:
Eight Hares a-running, and 7 – 1
9. The ninth day etc:
Nine bulls a-roaring, and 8 – 1
10. The tenth day etc:
Ten men a-mowing, and 9 – 1
11. The eleventh day, etc:
Eleven dancers a-dancing, and 10 – 1
12. The twelfth day, etc:
Twelve fiddlers a-fiddling, and 11 – 1
According to Barnes, when used in the game of forfeits the last verse should be recited (or presumably sung) ‘all in one breath’. He also remarked that ‘ten men a-mowing’ seemed to be rather unseasonal, and thought it might originally have been ‘ten men a-mumming’, which makes much more sense.
Also, for those of you who may wish to revive this lesser-known Dorset version of the popular yuletide song, Barnes gives a colourful local alternative for the first verse – ‘a peacock in a pear tree’! Merry Christmas!