Today, I celebrate one of my favorite Christmas tales,”Lady Joy and the Earl.” It does not have the typical hero and heroine found in historical romances, for James Highcliffe, Earl of Hough, and Lady Jocelyn (Powell) Lathrop are middle aged. James and Jocelyn have known each other all their lives, for his family estate and hers march along together on one side. She was the pesky younger sister when James and her brother Emerson roamed the countryside as youths. However, by the time James was nineteen and Jocelyn, or “Joy” as her family calls her, was sixteen, they were in love. Unfortunately, when his father learned of the situation, Robert Highcliffe informed James he was betrothed to Lady Louisa Connick from the time of her birth. Joycelyn’s father then bargains her away to Lord Harrison Lathrop to pay his gaming debts. Lathrop, a viscount, wanted her substantial dowry and the connection to Lord Powell’s marquessate, but he never cared for her as a person.
When the story opens, James’s wife, Louisa, has been dead for some eighteen months, and Lathrop for a decade. Both James and Jocelyn have grown children and a boat load of misery to bring to the table. The question is whether their being forced to join their families together at his estate and the spirit of Christmas can finally place them where they always belonged: AS HUSBAND AND WIFE.
The story is set near Aberford, Yorkshire, in December 1815, some six months after the Battle of Waterloo. I chose Aberford because it was about halfway between London and Edinburgh on the Great North Road, and it was situated close to the town of Leeds. In the story, the hero, James Highcliffe, is attempting to demonstrate to Lady Jocelyn how they share many memories. He asks her to assist him in giving his family a real Christmas celebration, for his household has been in mourning for several years. They consider the “wassail bob,” “vessel maids,” and “Cristes Maesse.”
The service, known as “Christ’s Mass,” eventually became a description for celebrations of Jesus’ birth throughout the world. The word Christmas has its origin from the old English term Cristes Maesse, meaning “Christ’s Mass.” (Celebrating Holidays)
Traditional Customs and Ceremonies tells us, “The demise of this custom shows how easily common traditions can be lost. So popular was the custom that it had a place in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica:
“What is popularly known as wassailing was the custom of trimming with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary a bowl which was carried round the streets by young girls singing carols at Christmas and the New Year. This ancient custom still survives here and there, especially in Yorkshire, where the bowl is known as `the vessel cup,’ and is made of holly and evergreens, inside which are placed one or two dolls trimmed with ribbons. The cup is borne on a stick by children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols.”
“In the 1800s up to around 1920s, local children around the midlands and northern England, County Durham, Lancashire, and particularly Yorkshire, would enact a curious custom like a mix between carol singing and May Dolls. The custom had many names, often localised Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box or a Milly Box. When the custom was done varied. Visitation days recorded in accounts in Yorkshire emphasize this variation, for example, in Thorpe Hesley it began at Christmas Eve and went on for two to three days. Whereas, Hoyland Common practiced it only on Christmas day morning. In West Melton and Hemingfield, it was Boxing Day, and in Rawmarsh, it was New Year’s Day. Generally though the tradition would begin at Advent or more often St. Thomas’s Day, although in some areas it was November, suggesting there is nothing new in the early celebration of Christmas!
“How the custom was organized differed from place to place. Sometimes it was a private form of begging and at others organized by the church. The basic approach was as follows: two girls would be the ‘vessel maids’ and they carried a box, decorated with evergreens and often fruit and spices, covered in a white cloth. At the people’s homes, the girls would sing a carol and solicit the homeowner for some money, usually a penny, to reveal what was under the sheet. This was a scene of the Holy Family.
Clement Miles in his Christmas in Ritual and Tradition notes that:
“At Gilmorton, Leicestershire, a friend of the present writer remembers that the children used to carry round what they called a “Christmas Vase,” an open box without lid in which lay three dolls side by side, with oranges and sprigs of evergreen. Some people regarded these as images of the Virgin the Christ Child and Joseph.”
“Lady Joy and the Earl: A Regency Christmas Novella”
They have loved each other since childhood, but life has not been kind to either of them. James Highcliffe’s arranged marriage had been everything but loving, and Lady Joy’s late husband believed a woman’s spirit was meant to be broken. Therefore, convincing Lady Jocelyn Lathrop to abandon her freedom and consider marriage to him after twenty plus years apart may be more than the Earl of Hough can manage. Only the spirit of Christmas can bring these two together when secrets mean to keep them apart.
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This is how the use of these traditions play out in the story:
He had spotted her in the upper gardens on his return to Hough House, and at that moment, James was thankful young Lathrop had insisted on examining the new mill James and Lord Powell had built together across the river separating their lands. Mr. Locke, James’s steward, had agreed to provide the Lathrop brothers a tour after the young lord began asking questions on the operation.
Dismounting, James left Sultan to munch the grass along the hedgerow and entered the garden off the nature trail to cross to where she studied one of the fountains.
“Good day, Joy,” he called as he came near.
“Oh, Lord Hough.” She jumped as if he had frightened her.
“Woolgathering, my dear?” he said with a smile.
“Simply considering something Lady Hough and your aunt mentioned earlier.”
“And what might that be?” An odd shot of desire crawled up James’s spine. Every time he looked upon Jocelyn, a primal demand overcame his good sense, and it was all he could do not to catch her up in his embrace and kiss her senseless.
“They spoke of your wife’s illness and of her slow death,” she confessed.
James frowned. “They should not have bothered you with the particulars of Louisa’s decline.”
As was typical for Jocelyn, she ignored his warning tones. Instead, she said, “I was astonished to learn of Lady Louisa’s propensity to—”
“To what?” he demanded.
Jocelyn hesitated, her gaze landing hard upon his countenance. “I have spoken from form. Your relationship with the late Lady Hough is none of my concern.”
James swallowed the retort rushing to his lips. If he expected to learn what occurred in her marriage, he must be more forthright in discussing his. He made himself respond in even tones. “I have nothing to hide. Louisa and I never fit. Despite what some may tell you, at least, in the beginning, I came to like her; she is the mother of my children, and for that fact, I owe her my kind regard. That being said, my wife and I held little in common. We were of the nature of distant cousins, each holding on to a relationship forced upon us and attempting to make the best of what we had been handed. I said earlier ‘in the beginning’ when I spoke of my caring for my countess. As time passed, we drifted further apart. Our attempts to make the best of our situation vanished. We differed on every point. If Meredith fell in the mud and soiled her dress, I would find my daughter’s actions amusing, praising her for her strong imagination and willingness to fight the dragon as fiercely as did her brother, whereas Louisa would look on the incident and my reaction with abhorrence.”
“Lathrop would have also found Lady Meredith’s actions repugnant,” she disclosed. “Poor Michael knew his father’s strap more than one time for returning home with muddy boots.”
James attempted to disguise his interest in Lathrop’s high-handedness. “Then Michael favors you in more than just his features,” he said cautiously, watching for Jocelyn’s reaction. “I recall your crossing muddy fields, chasing after Emerson or simply enjoying the day, your skirt tail three inches deep in mud.”
She laughed lightly. “My poor maid. Always scrubbing my petticoats. And, yes, Michael favors my temperament.” She looked past his shoulder as if expecting to see someone behind him. “Where are my sons?”
“I pointed out the new mill your brother and I had built at the mouth of the river. Mr. Locke rode out with us this morning, and he agreed to provide Andrew and Michael a tour of the facility. I believe young Lathrop hopes to borrow some of his uncle’s ideas for the Kent estate.”
She sighed heavily. “I am pleased Andrew seeks both your and Emerson’s advice, but I wish he would occasionally place his responsibilities for his title aside and simply enjoy a few days of family. Both of my sons, but Andrew, in particular, have difficulty separating Harrison’s exacting ways from those of the rest of the world.”
James wished to know more, but he had learned not to push Jocelyn for answers. She related more details each time they spoke, and he must practice patience. Instead, he used the opportunity to put forward his plan to bring her family and his together. “Then perhaps we can join forces to indulge our families, for I have promised Sebastian and Meredith a proper Christmastide celebration. Louisa’s long illness and eventual demise kept my household dark for four years. My children requested we celebrate in the manner of their youth, and I mean to see it done. Sebastian has recently met his majority, and Meredith is already asking for a Season. Soon they will claim their own families. I would have them carry happy memories of Hough House with them when they are elsewhere, not the ones of their mother wishing her life away. Please say you will seriously consider being a part of my plan. Surely you wish the same for Andrew and Michael.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “What did you have in mind?”
“The typical things: holly and mistletoe and a yule log, plus Yorkshire pudding and a turkey, as well as the annual hunt. All the things we had growing up here.” He spread his arms wide. “Anything we care to imagine. Tell me, Joy, what are some of your favorite memories of Christmastide at Powell Manor?”
She sighed dreamily. “Spiced cider and charades and visiting neighbors and children singing carols and a proper Yorkshire Christmas pie and the Wassail bob and ‘Cristes Maesse.’ Oh, I am certain some of these are no longer practiced; after all, I have been gone away for two decades, but you understand, do you not?”
James laughed conspiratorially. “I doubt if the new vicar would approve of vessel maids calling upon households and asking each party to pay a penny to view her unwrapping one of the cloth-covered figures of the nativity. Although I do understand the tradition is still accepted over near Haworth, the good people of Leeds and the surrounding area long ago abandoned the practice, despite the good fortune it is said to bring to the households which participate.”
“But you hold no objections to the others?” she insisted.
James’s expression softened when he looked upon her. “My dearest Jocelyn, if you wished for Lathrop and Michael to view the Wassail bob, I would hire a whole troop of vessel maids to entertain them.” He wagged his eyebrows at her. “Nothing is too lavish for such honored guests.”
Her frown lines deepened. “Do not be foolish, James. What kind of mother parades vessel maids before her sons?”
“None that I know personally,” he teased. “Although, I did hear of a most outrageous mother when I was still at university. The chaps spoke of her often. Some opera dancer who married a baron. DeLong, I believe the name was.”
“You are outrageous, my lord.” She laughed prettily. It was a sound James had longed to hear since they had become reacquainted. Her laughter was a sound that reminded him of all the things he missed about her.
“Then you promise to aid me in my quest?” he implored.
“You truly wish my assistance?” she inquired.
“Naturally, my mother will volunteer, but, I fear, even with Aunt Mary’s assistance, Lady Hough cannot handle all the preparations. She contracted consumption some four years removed. Although she thankfully recovered, my mother still tires easily.”
“Why do we not each create a list of favorites and then compare them? Certainly, the young people will also have favorites. We should not ignore their suggestions.”
James caught her hand and placed it on his arm. “It is chilly, and I believe my mother will have ordered tea by now. Let us go in and consult with Lady Hough. She will be thrilled with your involvement. And, of course, your mother will arrive later today. We will make a jolly group, will we not?”