OPINION: Voices from festive past a nice reminder to Christmas present

 Strictly come Gliding across the ice of time to tune in to Christmas voices from the past

Strictly come Gliding across the ice of time to tune in to Christmas voices from the past - Credit: Trevor Allen

The endless joys of reading, writing and ruminating can share their warmest glow on the blessed road to Christmas Eve.

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 voices, many proud local ones among them, calling me through diaries, letters and books spanning well over 500 years.

Margaret Paston wrote a number of the celebrated family epistles opening a fascinating window on the 15th century during one of the most turbulent periods in English history. Festivities in 1549 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 sent your eldest son to Lady Morley to have knowledge what sports were used at her house at Christmas next following 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 he 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. ”They have of late also invented a new method of carriage, being carts formed on purpose with four storeys a stage to put the creatures one above the other.”

A century later when radical William Cobbett included Norfolk on his tour of the English countryside on horseback – his famous Rural Rides - his Christmas Eve chronicle for 1821 saluted: “This county of excellent farmers and hearty, open and spirited men”,

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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 celebrated 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. Very dark in church this aft .I could scarce see … “.

Chilly going on Christmas Day in 1874 for the Rev Benjamin Armstrong, Vicar of East Dereham in Victorian times. “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 tools every day in the fog.”

Henry Rider Haggard and daughter Lilias formed one of the most prolific family forces in local 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 in Bedingham and Ditchingham.

His Christmas Day record included: “In the afternoon I went to hear some carol singing in the neighbouring church at Broome. Afterwards a friend of mine who lives there gave me some curious facts illustrative of the decrease of population of the 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.”

This drift from the land underlined crises in the farming industry and there could be no hiding from grim realities, even on Christmas Day.

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. Bit 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.”

Boy John joins festive chorus

Norfolk comedian Sidney Grapes wrote the much-loved Boy John dialect letters to the EDP. After extending season’s greetings on Christmas Eve in 1946, he highlighted Granfar’s disillusionment with the post-war world.

“He mob about everything nowadays .He go down the pub every night, he come back mobbin’about the beer. He say he’s right glad when he’s had enuf on it.”

Aunt Agatha’s customary philosophical gem at the end still comes through as a voice of reason as we put sentiment ahead of cynicism, wonder in front of weariness nd glee well beyond gloom; “PS- Aunt Agatha she say: If you dorn’t git orl you want, think of the things you dorn’t want, and dorn’t git.”

Sidney Grapes as Boy John

Sidney Grapes as Boy John - Credit: Submitted

A few more local voices from the past:

“It is hard now to remember the first Christmas in the war when the shops were still filled with a peacetime stock and lit with peacetime extravagance; the, at the hour of black-out, 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).

“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 stood 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, Suffolk Harvest, 1958).

“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 bustle out as I cut branches to hang over the pictures and fireplace.” (Ronald Blythe, Word From Wormingford, 1997).

“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 those last few hectic days. The relief when it is all over is immeasurable, the excitement restored.” (Edward Storey, The Winter Fens, 1993).

“Tonight once more our bells are ringing Christmas in. They have not rung so for seven long years, During the War it was forbidden and last year the men did not seem up to it .I think everybody will be pleased.” (Canon Reginald Bignold, The Carlton Colville Chronicles Christmas Eve, 1920).

“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).

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