‘Fake’ News: ‘Ye Merry Christmas in Ye Olden Time’
Great Barrington — There’s a lot of buzz these days about malevolent fake news. Made-up stories, written in good humor, are nothing new, and more than a century ago were quite harmless.
I recently found an account of a Christmas gathering in this community at the time of the American Revolution or just after. It appeared in a long-gone Great Barrington weekly newspaper, The Berkshire News, in the issue of Dec. 21, 1889. The Boston Globe reprinted the story the following week, in its issue of Jan. 1, 1890.
Berkshire News reporter Fred H. Curtiss (1853-1892) wrote the piece, unsigned in the News, credited in the Globe. It relates, in the introductory paragraphs, how he happened to find a very old letter. The letter itself employs the mangled spelling then in style with such nationally known humorists as Josh Billings.
The Berkshire News was a Democratic weekly published by the Douglas brothers, Malcolm (1856-1932) and Harry (1857-1937), from an office on Main Street opposite Railroad. The paper came out every Saturday morning from October 1889 to April 1895, when it merged with The Berkshire Courier. Malcolm Douglas went on to serve as registrar of deeds for South Berkshire. Harry Douglas became curator for Edward F. Searles’ Kellogg Terrace estate.
Just because he was a humorous writer doesn’t mean he was a happy one; Curtiss, alas, took his own life in 1892.
This reprint is abridged. You have to be patient with the spellings. By the time you reach the end, you should share my misgivings about its veracity — but it’s all meant in fun.
— Bernard A. Drew
Extracts from a Letter written in the 1780s
In the garret of an ancient farm house lying on the outskirts of this town, was recently found a treasure trove in the shape of an old letter which from its general appearance and wording may have been over a century old. It was found, we have been informed, in the depths of an old hair trunk, studded with a wealth of brass nails. One of those stout, solidly built trunks which defy the most reckless — or wreckless — of enthusiastic baggage smashers to reduce it to atoms. When the present occupants of the house took possession the trunk was in the garret, and the identity of the original owner is unknown.
The paper on which the letter is written is yellow with age, and the ink pale and barely legible. It relates to a Christmas of the last century, and is therefore appropriate to the present time…
[— F.H. Curtiss]
— On ye 29the Decbr 178-
… Ye Holidays are just upon ye Towne and ye Boyes, of wh I counte mine owne selfe as I have beene payntinge ye Towne a gorgeous Crymson and have whooped it uppe for all ye Plaice ws worthe. Divers recreations have we greatly enjoyed. We have bn to ye Singinge School, where with a Band, consisting of 1 Tuninge-Forke, 1 Kitt, & 1 Horse-Fiddle, we did singe and ye Master did pitch ye key and forsoothe we pitched ye Master out of doors because he was ii freshe and forbade ye gyrils & ye boyes to sit Togeather. Hys Jaglets was muche angered & has departed hence.
To mine eyes ye faireste of ye syngers is ye Patience Judkins of whom I am greatlie enamoured. It is a strange happeninge th I sholde be caste downe by a meere Mayde & sholde set to Groaninge & sighinge, & for that she will not have Me Sighe to her & will have none of me, strangelie preferinge a younge Puppe by ye name of Barebones. I made speech with Her at ye school & asked if I cd see Her home after ye school? She sayde if mine eyesight was goode & I walked to her neighborhoode I doubtlesse colde, as it was in full view from ye Highwaye.
On ye nighte before Christmasse I wente to a partie at ye hoame of Her Mother, Misstresse Judkins, Hopinge I might see my Fayre. It is ye Sabbathe daye’s Journie frome here, bt I wente with ye light hearte countinge on a pleasante eveninge trustinge ye idiot Barebones wd not be Invited. Do not thinke that Jealousie pervades Me. If ye do you will gette left. At leaste so I thought then. But now I am sensible of ye folly of my Suite & have taken to drynkinge & smoakinge, thinkinge to cure my minde, but all I have got is a head Ache, for followe to my Hearte Ache — A sorrie Payre! — This being Lowe Sundaye (wh my Hearte telleth me better than ye Allmanack), I passe ye hours in writinge to you…
Rt. Merrelie we passed ye eveninge, playhinge games with ye Gyrles, like ye Pusse in Shoes, Stage Coache & Poste Offyce, wherein we did roundlie kisse ye girles, who pretended to be sorelie vexed, yt thoase who did notte get kissed seemed far more Angrie than others. Once ye Judkins Mayde did call me into ye hall, there being a letter awaitinge me, ye Poste man ayde,m with iii pence to pay, went out I, and payde ye sweet Postage. Comeinge back like ye three times winner & mightily wyshinge I was all ye year a postalle clk, if I might cancel ye postage for ye Patience Judkins, for like ye postage stampes — wh are not yt invented — I was mightily stuck on ye Misse Judkins, as ye may knowe from the tenor of this letter…
[Miss Judgkins suggested party-goers hang their stockings by the fireplace. The letter writer, unfortunately, in his haste to dress for the gathering, had neglected to put on stockings.]
Not wyshinge to gette left, when all had retired, I hanged my trousers amid ye collection at ye fire place, 1st pinninge ye endes of ye legges , to holde ye giftes — & in ye myddle of ye nighte some eville disposed chump did breake into ye House & steale all ye Stockinges & my Trousers into ye bargaine. I arose at ye dawne, havinge slept butt poorlie, owinge to my couch beinge infested by ye winglesse insect, wh ye poete sayes gettes there all ye same. It was that or my Watch wh kept me awake, either ye Watch ticke or ye Bed ticke, I know now wh. …
[The frustrated suitor finally retrieved his pants from a tree limb outside the house. The disastrous party deteriorated into drinking. The writer returned to his own home in time for Christmas dinner. His blood still simmered that his rival Barebones seemed to be making headway with his hope-for girlfriend.]
It is my Purpose to marrie ye girle. Shall write her by nexte Poste tellinge her of my passionne — prainge Her to wedde — Wd Telephone her but that telephones have nott been thought of yet. I will bidde ye to my weddinge & aske yt ye sende me another pr. Ye trousers.
P.S. — Am grievouslie disappointed. She & Barebones wr wedde this morninge, hv just hearde. Do nott send ye trousers. I am too sicke at Heartt to weare any. Shall putt my heade in soake and wishe ye Devil had ye girles, for they are vayne creatures & no goode. My heart is broake & my name is McGinty.”