“Well, that was a wondrous Christmas dinner, Holmes, was it not?” Dr Watson stretched out in his chair, patted his stomach, and considered indulging in a post-prandial cigar.
“Not a patch on a medieval Christmas feast, Watson. Had we been part of the court of King John, we would have had our boards sagging with 400 boars, 3,000 fowl, 100 pounds of almonds, 10,000 eels and washed it all down with 27 hogsheads of wine. Shared with hundreds of others, of course.”
“Oh, really?” This was, Watson soon realized, the absolute wrong thing to say.
“Yes.” Holmes leaned forward in his chair, warming to his subject. “And the Salter’s Company in the City once served a Christmas banquet with buttered eggs, peacock, pheasants with ambergris–that’s whale bile secretions, you know, excreted via the intestines–and pies made of carp’s tongues.”
Watson put his cigar back into its humidor. He wondered if his face were as green as it felt. “Do tell,” he said weakly.
“I should write a monograph on Christmas and its customs, Watson! So many misconceptions about it these days.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it a misconception where our souls are concerned, Holmes.”
Watson’s little joke blew past Holmes like smoke from a Christmas tree candle (which Mrs. Hudson had forbidden, due to the fire risk. The doctor had been a bit disappointed by that).
“There is no mention of the date of Christ’s birth in the Bible, Watson,” Holmes pontificated. “And, unlike the crucifixion, no hint as to even the time of year it occurred. Perhaps some astronomical data would reveal when the magi arrived, but even that was a year later, and not on the natal day, despite what nativity scenes would lead us–or, rather, many–to believe.”
Watson got up and went to the liquor cabinet. Pouring himself a two fingers of very fine scotch, he gave the gasogene a good squeeze. “Want a glass, Holmes?”
“No, thank you. December 25th was first settled upon as Christ’s birthdate in 221 by Sextus Julius Africanus–upon what merits, I must investigate. Julius I, Bishop of Rome was decreed that it be observed on that date in the middle of the 4th century.”
The scotch was lovely, Watson thought to himself. Just the faintest hint of peat.
“Scholars believe, however, that December 25th may have been chosen simply because it fell within a period of traditional Roman celebrations: Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, and the Kalends, or New Year.”
“Oh, come now, Holmes, why would anyone place a significant birthdate upon an existing holiday with such slim evidence? That would be like choosing a date based on one’s own birthdate, or one of a relative.”
“Perhaps my monograph researches shall uncover the reason, Watson. I must apply to the British Museum for a reading room pass after the new year.”
“Speaking of which, your birthday is nearly upon us, Holmes. Soon I won’t be just calling you ‘old man.'”
“May I remind you that you are, in fact, the elder of us,” the detective said, with some acerbity.
“So I am, so I am,” Watson agreed amiably.
They sat silently for a moment, Then Watson reached over to stoke the fire, and remembered something.
“Did I ever tell you about my Christmas in Wales, Holmes?”
“I thought your people were Scots, Watson.”
“Well, that’s my father, but my mother was a Davies. We went down to Aberavon, in Glamorganshire, once, to see my gran when I was about eight. It was Christmastime, and that was where I saw the Mari Lwyd.”
“Is that something to do with the Virgin Mary, Watson? Were your family Catholic?”
“Methodist, that side. At least by then. But the Mari Lwyd is a horse skull, Holmes.”
“A horse skull?” Holmes was immediately fascinated.
“A horse skull on a stick. Decorated with ribbons and carried around by a man covered with a sheet. It’s quite fearsome, Holmes.”
“Oh, I am sure.”
Watson didn’t think he sounded all that sincere. “At any rate,” he continued, The Mari Lwyd is accompanied by a group of men dressed in costume, and they go from door to door, reciting poetry and singing songs. The family of each house is supposed to do it back to them, and once they run out of responses, they serve the men cider, or ale, or whatever is on hand.”
“So, like wassailing, then.”
“Wassailing with a horse skull.” Watson said. Inside him, the eight year-old boy shuddered.
“I imagine I should win that battle of verse and song, my friend. The Mari Lwyd would pass us by, unfed.”
Watson felt a warm glow spread inside him that had nothing to do with whisky. “And so it would. Merry Christmas, Holmes.”
Sherlock Holmes smiled. “Merry Christmas, my friend.”
Well! That got fluffier than expected! Sometimes, characters take over, and you just have to let them. The Mari Lwyd is a real thing, by the way. Here’s a photo from the early 1900’s. It’s amazing, in that creepy way of ancient things.*
However, I do think that Holmes would be one of those people who loved to expound on the history of Christmas and its rituals, and I would not be surprised at all if he wrote a monograph upon the holiday, and its influence on crime through the ages. It might, therefore, be in Watson’s best interests to give him a gift that would, well, keep him quiet. A book for instance. Or an entire set of books, as you know the detective is a fast reader. Something like this beautiful set of Alexandre Dumas’ Celebrated Crimes, printed by H.S. Nichols in 1895.
If you are the sort who would rather immerse yourself in facts, rather than legend, then today’s prize is right up your street. And, like Holmes’s favorite gifts, it involves crime:
For a chance to win this lovely book, just answer this question:
It is often assumed that Watson is from Scotland, but is he? How might one deduce this? And are there clues that point elsewhere?
Once you have an answer, submit it to me via the blog comments, or PM me via the Well-Read Sherlockian Facebook page. Now I’ve got to finish the Christmas dinner. Just a crock pot roast–no funky tongues or eels here! Happy Christmas!
DAY ONE WINNER!
Congratulations to T. Rick Jones, winner of Day 1’s prize, the W. Clark Russell novel. As you all know, Watson was reading “one of Clark Russell’s fine sea stories” as a storm raged outside 221B in “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips” (FIVE). Up until about two minutes ago, I always wondered if there was a bit of an error in calling the author Clark Russell, instead of adding the first name or initial, or just calling him “Russell,” until I realized that we call the author of FIVE “Conan Doyle”–not a hyphenated name–without a thought. *smacks forehead*
*Follow this link for information on the Mari Lwyd: https://www.vintag.es/2019/12/mari-lwyd.html