The manner in which the beadle approaches his "good masters and mistresses," for a Christmas-box,—particularly in the villages near the British metropolis,—is, as we have before said, by the presentation of a copy of printed verses, ornamented with wood engravings. These broadsides are usually termed "Bellman's verses;" and we quite agree with Mr. Leigh Hunt in his opinion, that "good bellman's verses will not do at all. There have been," he remarks, "some such things of late ' most tolerable and not to be endured.' We have seen them witty,—which is a great mistake. Warton and Cowper unthinkingly set the way." "The very absurdity of the bellman's verses is only pleasant, nay, only bearable, when we suppose them written by some actual doggrel-poet, in good faith. Mere mediocrity hardly allows us to give our Christmas-box, or to believe it now-a-days in earnest; and the smartness of your cleverest worldly-wise men is felt to be wholly out of place. No, no! give us the good old decrepit bellman's verses, hobbling as their bringer, and taking themselves for something respectable, like his cocked-hat,—or give us none at all."
Upon the bellman's verses which were last year circulated by the beadles of Putney, Chiswick, and other parishes on the west side of London, it was recorded, that they were "first printed in the year 1735;"—and our curiosity induced us to inquire of the printer the number annually consumed. "We used, sir," said he, "not many years ago, to print ten thousand copies, and even more; but now I suppose we don't print above three thousand." Whether the trade of this particular dealer in bellman's verses has passed into other hands,—or whether the encouragement given to the circulation of these broadsides has declined,—the statement of an individual will not of course enable us to determine. But we are inclined to think that,—like other old Christmas customs, —the popularity of bellman's verses is passing away; and that, before many years have elapsed, penny magazines and unstamped newspapers will have completely superseded these relics of the rude, but sincere, piety of our ancestors.
The claims of dustmen to be remembered, upon " Boxing day," were formerly urged, without literary pretensions; but now, "the march of intellect" has rendered it necessary for them to issue their addresses in print. One of these, which lies before us, represents that "the United Association of Dustmen and Scavengers, of the Parish of , have the honor to pay their humble duty and respects to the good [Master or Mistress] of this house, and to solicit a Christmas mark of approbation of their unwearied exertions, which they flatter themselves conduce so eminently to the comfort and salubrity of the greatest metropolitan city of civilized Europe." Here, however, is another,—in which the spirit of St. Stephen's day is embittered by the rivalries of business; and the harmony of those two respectable bodies, the Scavengers and Dustmen, appears to have been disturbed. The dustmen, it will be seen, repudiate the scavengers,—and appeal to St. Stephen, on a separate interest.
"TO THE WORTHY INHABITANTS OF THE SOUTHAMPTON ESTATE.
"Ladies and Gentlemen,—At this season, when you are pleased to give to laboring men, employed in collecting your dust, a donation, called Christmas-box, advantage of which is often taken by persons assuming the name of Dustmen, obtaining, under false pretences, your bounty, we humbly submit to your consideration, to prevent such imposition, to bestow no gift on any not producing a brass figure of the following description—A Scotch Fifer, french horn, &c., between his legs.—James Dee and Jerry Cane.— Southampton Paving Act—on the bell.—Contractor—Thomas Salisbury. "No connexion with scavengers—Please not to return this bill to any one."
The principal Wait, also, leaves a notice of a more imposing description,—stating a regular appointment to the office, by warrant, and admission,—with all the ancient forms of the City and Liberty of Westminster; and bears a silver-badge and chain, with the arms of that city. We cannot dismiss the various modes of collecting Christmasboxes, without a few words upon the pieces of writing carried about by parish boys; and which, once, presented the only evidence that the schoolmaster was abroad. It appears formerly tohave been the practice, at this season, to hang up in our churches, the work of the most skilful penman in the parish, after it had been generally exhibited; the subject of which was the life of some saint, or other religious legend. Pepys thus mentions the custom :—" 26 December, 1665. Saw some fine writing work and flourishing of Mr. Hore, with one that I knew long ago, an acquaintance of Mr. Tomson's at Westminster, that is this man's clerk. It is the story of the several Archbishops of Canterbury, engrossed on vellum, to hang up in Canterbury cathedral, in tables, in lieu of the old ones, which are almost worn out."
To this usage—which was no doubt of monkish origin,—we are inclined to refer the specimens of caligraphy, upon gaudily ornamented sheets of paper, brought round, on St. Stephen's-day, by parish boys and charity school children, and displayed for admiration and reward. The walls of school-rooms, and of the houses of the children's parents, are afterwards decorated with these "Christmas pieces,"—in the same manner as were anciently the walls of churches.