For clarity this strange Christmas, simply read, reflect and remember the good times
- Credit: Trevor Allen
As memory’s fire crackles, and we prepare to hang up stockings of hope no matter how many darn holes have been added since last time, I hear a host of rich local voices calling us through diaries, letters and books spanning well over 500 years.
Margaret Paston wrote many of the celebrated family epistles opening a window on the 15th century during one of the most turbulent periods in English history. Festivities in 1459 were put on hold after the death of Sir John Fastolf, an influential friend of the family who gave Caister Castle as his home address.
With her husband John in London, Margaret Paston took advice on proper etiquette from the doyenne of Norfolk mawthers, Lady Morley. A period of mourning was demanded but the household was anxious to make merry. Margaret wrote to her husband:
“Please you to know that I sent your eldest son to my Lady Morley to have knowledge what sports were used at her house at Christmas next following after the decease of my Lord, her husband..
“And she said that there were no disguising (acting) nor harping, luting or singing, nor any lewd sports, but just playing at the tables (backgammon) and chess and cards. Such sports she gave folk leave to play and no others.”
By the time Daniel Defoe came this way in 1724, on a Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, turkeys were prominent on the festive menu. He reported on Christmas dinners that walked to London as turkeys and geese were driven to the capital on foot:.
Our clergy are exceptionally busy at this time of year. Happily, two outstanding men of the cloth found time to light up the pages of Norfolk history with plenty of Christmas entries in their famous diaries.
Parson James Woodforde had the living at Weston Longville from 1776 until his death on New Year’s Day in 1803. His first Christmas in Norfolk was marked by a shilling apiece and a good meal for the poor of the parish; “Gave old Richard Bates an old black coat and waistcoat. I had a fine sirloin of beef roasted and plumb puddings. It was very dark at church this aft, I could scarce see ....”
Chilly going on Christmas Day, 1874, for the Rev Benjamin Armstrong, Vicar of East Dereham:” The thermometer being 15 degrees below freezing point, many were kept away from church through the cold. Several sudden deaths owing to severity of the weather. The bell tolls every day in the fog.”
Henry Rider Haggard and daughter Lilias formed one of the most prolific family forces in Norfolk literary history. Henry had peered down King Solomon’s Mines and listened to She who must be obeyed before he became a gentleman farmer in his native county.
In 1898 he compiled A Farmer’s Year as he worked land at Bedingham and Ditchingham. His Christmas Day record included: “In the afternoon I went to hear some carol singing in the neighbouring church of Broome. Afterwards a friend of mine, who lives there, gave me some curious facts illustrative of the decrease of population of that parish.
“It is his habit to make a present of meat at Christmas to every cottage inhabitant of Broome, and he informed me that the difference in its cost owing to the shrinkage of population between this year and last is something really remarkable.”
On Christmas Eve, 1939, as the country waited for unfettered dragons of war to breathe fire, Lilias Rider Haggard penned this poignant passage in her Norfolk Notebook after watching people on Norwich Market buying bunches of berried holly and little Christmas trees:
“Well,” said a stout and homely housewife, tucking her awkward and prickly burden under her arm, “There’s only one child at home this Christmas, and the Lord knows when I’ll get the others back again, but I sez to the old man we’ll have the tree and all, and if there’s not much to hang on it, we’ll have to do with hope for a trimmin’. They’ll like to think of us just as usual”.
Whatever the time frame and however strong the urge to dismiss the whole business as a barmy commercial frenzy, there must be room to sit down and accept three stirring ways of finding an uncluttered path to the sort of Christmas worth celebrating … reading, reflecting and remembering.
Skip's Aside: A few more snippets from local writers to set the right sort of mood on the last lap to Christmas:
“It is hard now to remember the first Christmas in the war, when shops were still filled with a peacetime stock and lit with peacetime extravagance; and then, at the hour of blackout, the whole illumination was extinguished, as if the curtains had suddenly dropped on the transformation scene in a pantomime, the house lights were put out and the audience was left to grope its way home in the darkness.”
– Jonathan Mardle, EDP, Christmas, 1949
“The young lady who served me in the bank this morning said she had bought and wrapped up all her Christmas presents by the end of August. What a blissful state to be in, I thought. But I knew I couldn’t do it. Harrowing though it all is in December I prefer to cram my present-buying into these last few hectic days. Relief when it is all over is immeasurable, the excitement restored.”
– Edward Storey, The Winter Fens, 1993
“Christmas Eve. A small gift for the postman – they have a rota – on whose endless kindnesses the logistics of this remote farmhouse turn. My towering holly hedge is snowily tipped with old man’s beard but the lower boughs are a glowing mass of orange and dark green fruit and foliage. Blackbirds hustle out as I cut branches to hang over the pictures and fireplace.”
– Ronald Blythe, Word from Wormingford, 1997
“Mysterious it has seemed, going out on Christmas morning in moon-and-star-light, seeing farmhouses twinkling like stars in the landscape, and village windows already shining. The church would look like an old horn lantern in the field. The porch was lit, but we could not see the lamp as we approached, only the glow from it upon the toothed Norman doorway.”
– Adrian Bell, A Suffolk Harvest, 1958
“In the endless struggle to keep alive, we have far too little time for the things that really matter. But at this season, whatever our private preoccupations, however black and cloud-banked the international sky, we know a blessed relaxation. Work can wait, worries be postponed, quarrels forgotten. Today belongs to peace, to joy and kindliness, to goodwill and giving.”
– Elizabeth Harland, The Diary of a Country Housewife, Christmas Day, 1950