This post was written by Nadia Nasr, former head of Special Collections and University Archives.
Last Wednesday Towson University Dining hosted an Old English Holiday Party. Seeing the publicity for this event reminded us about the Old English Christmas dinner that used to take place on campus, when Towson University was the Maryland State Normal School(MSNS). For this event Newell Hall was decorated for a dinner feast that I imagine was as decadent and magical as the Christmas feast at Hogwarts that I’ve seen in the Harry Potter films.
|Dining hall in Newell decorated for the Old English Christmas dinner.|
For about twenty years, from 1926 through the early 1940s, the Old English Christmas dinner was one of the social highlights of the year for Normal students, faculty, and staff. The tradition was initiated during the tenure of our sixth principal/president, Dr. Lida Lee Tall, who encouraged such social activities to promote camaraderie and provide the opportunity for students to hone their social skills outside the classroom.
To learn more about our bygone tradition of Christmas conviviality I spent some time searching through our student newspaper digital collection and found numerous accounts of the details and activities of the Christmas dinner. The Christmas dinner was modeled after the big feast that occurred during the two- to three-week holiday celebrations that took place in “Merrie Old England.”
In Medieval Times (the historical time period, not the themed restaurant attached to Arundel Mills Mall) a noble lord of a manor would often invite his tenants into his home to share a Christmas meal. The menu traditionally included wild boar and a peacock, among other meats served, accompanied by something called frumenty (a dish of wheat combined with almond or sweet milk and mixed with fat venison or fresh mutton) and finished off with a plum pudding (a sweet and savory dish made by combining boiled meat or mutton with bran bread-thickened broth, raisins, currants, prunes, cloves, mace, and ginger). Attendees of the feast observed holiday traditions such as the lighting of the Yule log, the singing of Christmas carols, and the production of a Christmas play. The merriment of the occasion was enhanced by the antics of court jesters.
|The Lord and Lady of the Manor with attendants.|
Here at MSNS the Tudor-Gothic styled architecture of Richmond and Newell Halls set the perfect scene for observing a Medieval Christmas. Two members of the Boarding Student Council served as king and queen and they were waited upon by a contingent of lords and ladies. All wore costumes: the men doublets and hose and the ladies sweeping gowns with peaked hats.
|Lighting the Yule log in Richmond|
The evening began with the lighting of the Yule log in the parlor fireplace of Richmond Hall and the singing of the Yule log song. Afterwards the party moved over to Newell Hall for the Christmas meal.
|The presentation of the boar’s head, peacock, and plum pudding|
The procession to the dining hall was led by the king and queen who were followed by their court and the remaining guests of the feast. Once all were seated at the tables the feast was begun with a presentation of the boar’s head (someone had fashioned one of papier-mâché for this event), the roasted peacock redressed in its feathers, and the flaming plum pudding.
When everyone had eaten their fill a Christmas play was presented, carols were sung around a Christmas tree, and then the Glee Club and part of the orchestra went caroling through the nearby Towson neighborhoods.
|In this Christmas play St. George slays the dragon while Father Christmas looks on|
The first Old English Christmas dinner took place on December 21, 1926. At first the dinner was held every year, and then every three years, until the early 1940s during World War II, when resources were limited and student enrollment had declined. Despite their best efforts to continue school traditions in order to mitigate the impact of wartime hardships on morale the Christmas dinner and other social events, such as College Play-Day, May Day, and June Week activities, had to be canceled.
In 1946, at the beginning of the post-war economic boom, Dr. Theresa Wiedefeld, who had succeeded Dr. Tall as president in 1938, invited student groups to revive what she called “the most colorful and inspiring of the college celebrations” which so enriched student life, including the Old English Christmas dinner. A committee was organized to plan the next Christmas dinner but they decided to defer its revival until the following year, citing a lack of the quantity and quality of materials necessary to live up to the grandeur of Christmas dinners past.
The decision to defer and the personal tastes of a new leader were the nail in the coffin of the Old English Christmas dinner. In 1947, Dr. Earl T. Hawkins succeeded Dr. Wiedefeld as president. The first Christmas celebration of his tenure took place on December 18, 1947, and consisted of a formal Christmas dinner in Newell Hall followed by a party and then a dance in Richmond Hall. Instead of a king and queen, Dr. Hawkins and Miss Sara Hawkins, an aunt, were the honored guests. Instead of a court of lords and ladies, Dr. and Miss Hawkins were accompanied by members of the dormitory student council and resident faculty members. Instead of Medieval garb attendees wore the formal attire in fashion at the time. The after dinner party was primarily a Christmas program that featured “Yuletide customs of other lands.” The evening was concluded with a dance for all students.
In recent years, English faculty member Florence Newman, and students in her Medieval British literature class would celebrate a Medieval Christmas dinner in the Towson Room, next door to the Special Collections suite here on the fifth floor of Cook Library. They prepared dishes from a traditional menu and dressed in costume. This year, however, there was no feast in the Towson Room because Dr. Newman has retired.
Today I had the opportunity to speak with Delmar Crim, Executive Chef of the West Village Commons here on campus, about the Old English Holiday Party that took place last week. The menu included savory lamb stew, chicken and prunes, a trifle, and a very popular make-your-own cream puffs bar. He shared that the event was inspired by his past work in a restaurant that hosted special themed dinners like the Old English Holiday Party. Upon learning about our tradition he expressed an interest in the details of the menu and exploring the opportunity to reconnect with something from our long ago history. I assured him I would be glad to share copies of the Towerlight articles that helped me pull together information for this blog posting.
If all goes well, perhaps we will be able to pick up where the committee left off in 1946 and bring to life again a tradition that was once such an important part of student life on campus.