When festive seasons were more fruitful

It seems that Christmas gets earlier each year, with decorations and cards in shops at the end of October. But is it all part of the festive build-up or would we be better reverting to traditions of yesteryear?

Imagine the look on a child's face if they were handed an orange as a Christmas present this year - there is certainly a good chance the thank you letter would be brief.

But in 1924, according to log books housed at the Norfolk Record Office, children at St Nicholas School, in King's Lynn, were given an orange, apple, nuts, sweets and a balloon each on the last day of term - and, by all accounts, they were delighted.

It is just one of a collection of documents recounting the traditions of Christmas past that have been gathered by archivists as part of a recent talk in King's Lynn.

Lucy Wright, archivist, said: "When we were researching for the talk we were looking for Norfolk Christmas traditions but there does not seem to be any specific to the county.

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"We had a lot of ideas about what we might find, but it wasn't like that at all. There were no overly religious tones - certainly in early Christmas cards which were mainly looking forward to spring.

"Christmas started to become more of a celebration for children in the 1860s and 1870s. We could not find anything about giving gifts in Norfolk before hand. It was also far more about the 12 days and afterwards than the build up of today."

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The earliest references to presents being given on or around the winter solstice comes from ancient Rome during the feast of Kalends.

High-ranking officials were expected to give gifts to the emperor since the winter solstice celebrated the birth of the Sun God, to whom the emperor was directly related.

Another early source of gift-giving comes from St Nicholas, who was remembered for his charitable giving.

Often on his feast day parents would leave small gifts of chocolate or fruit for their children.

In Norfolk in 1640, the records of Alice Le Strange, who lived in one of the big houses in Hunstanton showed that celebrations took place in December. A "little ham" was brought to give to the morris dancers while performers from Cambridge and Norwich were also employed.

Other records include calendars from the 14th century, accounts from church wardens, letters, diary entries and parish magazines.

Record office staff are planning a similar talk in Norwich, but those interested will have to wait until next Christmas to hear it.

They are currently celebrating after hearing that the service has not only retained its status as a three-star archive service (the highest category), but has also been announced as the highest performing archive centre in the country in the National Archives' 2007 assessment programme for local authority services in England and Wales.

Its score of 84pc is an improvement on last year's 79pc, when it was just 1pc behind the first-placed archive service.

This year, it achieved three-star ratings in each of the five assessment categories and, in each and overall, was well above the averages for archive services in the eastern counties and nationally.

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