Category Archives: Christmas Musings

THE SNOWMAN – A Ghost Story for Christmas Part 3

Saturday December 24th 1814

Sir Thomas was as good as his word and arrived at the Rectory early the next morning. He was shown into the Rector’s study where he found Dr Grainger and his son polishing the church plate.

“So was any of it damaged?”

“The chalice was bent sir, but I have been able to straighten it out enough to use tomorrow, though it will need to be sent to a silversmith. The worse damage was to the flagon, the lid has come off.”

Sir Thomas patted his future son-in-law on the shoulder.

“My great grandmother gave the plate to the church nearly a hundred years ago, and I will happily pay for the repairs, after all the damage was caused in a very good cause.” He patted James again, “in fact the best of causes.” He then sat down in one of the chairs by the fire and turned to the Rector.

“Is there any news of that blaggard Scott?”

“No, Sir Thomas, I had the constable carry out a search in the village but nothing was found, thought in this weather there are several barns and outbuildings it was difficult to get to last night, they will search again today.”

“Well he made no attempt to return to the Manor to fetch his things, and I have got the groundsmen searching the park. Do you think he is still here?”

“He hasn’t left on the turnpike either, neither of the toll keepers saw a single rider yesterday.” He picked up a newspaper, “This was the paper you gave me the other day. There is an item in it which may be significant, a robbery in London, did you notice it?”

“Only vaguely, what is it?”

The Rector put on his glasses and began to read.

‘Mysterious Robbery. A most strange occurrence has been reported at the house of Beddoes and Smyth, East India Merchants, Henrietta Street. Mr John Smyth, junior partner, returned to the house on the 15th inst having been the previous month in Paris, visiting several merchant houses in that city which is now open following the much longed for peace. He was much surprised to find his partner, Mr David Beddoes absent, and his clerk unaware of his current location. According to the clerk Mr Beddoes had left the office at the end of November, intending to visit relations in the country, and had not returned, not having the address of these relations he had been unable to contact him. Mr Smyth now entered their joint office, which was locked and to which he and Mr Beddoes had the only keys. All seemed in order, but on opening the strongbox, banknotes to the value of £110 were found to be missing. Whilst Mr Beddoes could have taken them, Mr Smyth was concerned and, on communicating with his bank, discovered that one of the notes had been cashed in Bristol at the beginning of this month. As the firm has no business in that city, Mr Smyth communicated the facts as he knew them to the Magistrates at Bow Street. A search is now under way for Mr David Beddoes.’

“Beddoes, do you think it is anything to do with our Miss Beddoes?”

“Well they did say their cousin was called David. Why don’t we ask them?”

“Good idea.” Sir Thomas paused and then said, “Where did you say the banknote was passed?” Dr Grainger, picked up the paper, “Bristol”, he said.

“That’s strange.” Replied Sir Thomas, “I am sure I saw something from Bristol in Mr Scott’s bags when he arrived.” He thought for a moment, then said.

“James, will you ride to the Manor and bring back Mr Scott’s bags, whilst your father and I go and see Miss Beddoes and her sister.”

James had just set off, Sir Thomas smiling to see him go.

“I think he will be looking for excuses to ride to the Manor all the time now.”

Dr Grainger bent to pick up the newspaper then said suddenly “DB”

“DB?” said Sir Thomas puzzled.

“Yes the buttons, the buttons that appeared on the snowman, they had a monogram on them. I cleaned one, it’s here somewhere.”

He turned over various papers on his table, eventually pulling out one.

“I cannot see it now, but here is a tracing I did of the button. Look at the pattern doesn’t it look like an interlaced D & B.”

“I see, we had better bring that too, see if the Miss Beddoes can identify it.”

Wrapped up in their coats they walked across the green, they stopped by the snowman.

“Those are the buttons I was talking about.” Dr Grainger pointed, then gasped.

“What is it?” asked Sir Thomas.

“The buttons, there were eight and I removed one. There are eight now, where did the other one come from.”

Sir Thomas bent and looked at the buttons, then he gasped.

“Look at the bottom one, it is clean. It is as though the one you took and cleaned has come back.”

“Magic, just like Miss Fanny said.” The Rector paused, then said, “Good Lord. Michael Scott, I wonder.”

“What is it?”

“Your daughter said she had read the name Michael Scott in a story by Sir Walter Scott, I wonder if your guest had read the same book.”

“You mean it was an alias?”

“Perhaps, but no more now.”

They had arrived at the cottage where the Miss Beddoes lived, they were welcomed effusively and shown into the tiny, warm parlour. They had to wait until the maid had brought tea before they were able to ask them about their cousin. When they read the article they were shocked.

“What can have happened to cousin David? He is always so careful”

“Have you ever met his partner, Mr Smyth?” asked Sir Thomas.

“Yes, David brought him here last summer. They had been going somewhere on business. Mr Smyth is a delightful young man, he is Scotch and he read Marmion so beautifully. He said we should hear it in a Scottish accent as that is how Sir Walter had written it.”

Miss Henrietta handed the Rector a second cup of tea, he looked at the cup and said.

“This is very fine china.”

“Oh yes,” Miss Henrietta replied. “Cousin David gave it to us.”

“He had it specially made. He sent all the way to China.” Added her sister.

“And two years later the set arrived.”

“It has a special mark, made of his initials.”

Both Sir Thomas and the Rector recognised the design, it was the one on the buttons, now decorating the snowman. It was as they walked back across the green that Sir Thomas suddenly said.

“The hat! You said that Mr Scott was very upset about the hat?”

“Yes, he seemed to think that Miss Frances had done something devious.”

“Well do you remember what Miss Beddoes said at the party, when she said she had thought she had seen her cousin with Mr Scott. She said he was wearing an old hat trimmed with white lace.”

He pointed at the snowman’s head, crowned with the old tricorn.

“An old hat trimmed with white lace.” Said the Rector, he turned to look at the pond.

“I think it ought to be dragged when it thaws.” Said Sir Thomas quietly.

“Until then I don’t think we should say anything of our suspicions.”

Sir Thomas nodded.

As they returned to the Rectory, James was at the Manor house. Charlotte met him with a broad smile.

“James, mama has just told me the most amazing thing. It is about Stanton Lacy.”

“Yes my love, will you like living in the Rectory there.”

“I would live anywhere with you, but it is not the Rectory where I think we will be living but at Stanton House.”

“Stanton House?”

“Yes, Stanton House, you see it is mine, all of Stanton Lacy is mine, or will be when we marry.”

James sat down on a hall chair shocked.

“You see it belonged to my grandmother, she left it to me, to come to me, on my marriage.”

James suddenly smiled.

“You realise that our parents have been planning everything, the living for me, the manor for you.”

It was some time before they went to find Lady Scott.

Michael Scott’s bags were already packed, but the sky was getting dark as James prepared to return to his father. Before he did so the head gamekeeper arrived with news that someone had been seen in the far coverts.

“Do you think it is that villain?” Lady Scott asked.

“Well it is certainly not poachers,” he grinned, “The best poachers in the village are helping us search.”

Charlotte suddenly clutched James’s arm.

“Will you be safe getting back to the village, and will father be safe coming back here?”

“Well, he certainly will have a grudge against the young master.” The gamekeeper smiled approvingly at James. “Can I suggest that Bob Smith rides with him when he returns.”

“Bob Smith?” said Charlotte.

“Head groom, also used to be Corporal in the Militia and went ten rounds with Black William.”

“An old soldier and a prizefighter, a perfect companion in the circumstances.” Said Lady Scott.

The sun was getting low in the sky as they rode into the village, all was peaceful, they had seen no sign of Michael Scott. When Sir Thomas and the Rector looked through his belongings there was no further clue, though a bill clearly indicated that he, or someone called Frank Gifford, had been in Bristol in early December.

“I don’t think there is anything more we can do.” Said the Rector, “We will keep a watch out for Michael Scott, and on Monday write to Bow Street.”

Sir Thomas rode home, accompanied by Bob Smith, and the Rectory family settled down for the evening. Later the singers came round, and they stood in the window to listen to them, after they finished ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen’ the Rector sent them round to the kitchen where they were well filled with spiced ale before heading home.

They were still singing the same carol as they left the Rectory, the Rector watched as they walked along the road and around the green, clearly the villagers also feared the snowman. He suddenly realised they were repeating the same verse.

Fear not, then said the Angel,

Let nothing you affright,

This day is born a Saviour,

Of virtue, power, and might,

So frequently to vanquish all

The friends of Satan quite.


At that point the moon came out from behind the cloud, it was nearly full and very bright. The snowman had gone, looking around he saw it, on the far end of the green, standing at the end of the drive that led to the manor. That night he checked the locks on the doors twice.


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THE SNOWMAN – A Ghost Story for Christmas Part 2

Friday December 23rd 1814

The Rev Edward Grainger was eating a boiled egg and sipping tea, the Squire’s copy of the Morning Chronicle was open on the table.

“How curious,” he said, lifting his head he realised that all his family had finished breakfast and left the table. He rapidly finished his tea, discovering that it was now ice cold. He knew his wife, would probably be involved in planning the dinner for Sunday, he followed the old traditions of the village and gave dinner to six poor men and six poor women at Christmas.

He guessed his children had already left the house so he put on his coat and walked towards the green, as he left his gate he saw that there were several people standing around the snowman. As he approached Charles, his younger son ran across to him.

“Come and look father, the snowman, it must be magic.”

He walked up, the snowman stood there as it had done yesterday. He saw his elder son with the girls from the manor, all sensibly wrapped up in thick cloaks with fur muffs, accompanied by Miss Grey their governess.

“James, what is this about a magic snowman then?”

“It’s not magic, it is just very strange. Yesterday the head was facing towards the Rectory, now it is looking across the green towards the park.”

“Perhaps the men knocked it when they moved the tree branches,” The Rector looked around at the disturbed snow, showing traces of where the branches had been moved and cut up the day before.

“But the branches had all been removed by the time we had finished.”

“And what about the buttons?” added Charles. The Rector looked closer at the snowman, down the front were a row of large brass buttons. “They were pebbles yesterday.”

“And they won’t come out.” Added Frances, the youngest of the three girls, “I think it is our cousin, perhaps he really is a wizard.”

The Rector touched the buttons, they were covered with a layer of ice. Only the bottom one could be prised loose, he looked at it, it was very muddy and discoloured but he thought he could make out a monogram.

“I am afraid there is no magic here my dear.” He smiled at Miss Grey. “They are covered in ice and frozen onto the snowman. Also look how dirty they are, I think they must have been on an old coat or something similar that had been lost in the pond. They were probably dragged out yesterday by the branches, someone found them last night and thought they would look good on the snowman. They have got initials on them, I will take this and get it cleaned, my wife may well recognise it.” He paused and looked at Frances. “But what was that about Mr Scott.”

The girl blushed bright red and buried her face in her muff, her elder sister replied for her.

“Fanny thinks Mr Scott is a wizard because there is a wizard called Michael Scot in one of Sir Walter Scott’s stories.”

“I don’t think so my dear.” Said the Rector kindly, “there may have been wizards in Scotland hundreds of years ago, but not in Berkshire today.”

“But he is still a horrid man.” Said Frances defiantly. Eager to change the subject the Rector turned to Charlotte.

“You young ladies must be feeling very cold, why don’t you go to the Rectory and get warm.”

“But isn’t mama getting ready for the dinner on Sunday, the one for the poor people?” Said Charles.

“Then we can help.” Said Charlotte, turning towards the Rectory.

“Parson’s wife in training.” Said Mary to Frances, as they followed their sister. Dr Grainger could see that both Charlotte and James were blushing. As the young men turned to follow the girls he said.

“James, will you come with me to the church, I want you to help me see that everything is ready for Sunday.”

An early nineteenth century decorated church

Slightly reluctantly he followed his father across the frozen green. The church door was open and inside Caleb Smith was standing by a ladder, holding up a branch of holly to his son, who was putting the greenery along the ledge that ran along the bottom of the gallery.

“Still putting up the greenery then.” Said the Rector with a smile.

“T’is the old way sir. I know you don’t care for it but I hope you won’t be stopping it.”

“Oh no, Caleb, I have no wish to stop it. You can keep putting up the decorations as long as you are sexton.” Then, as he turned to walk up towards the communion table, he said quietly to his son, “Though, when he is gone, I doubt there will be anybody who will wish to continue with the tradition. In a few years there will be no more Christmas decorations in the parish.”

“I don’t know.” Replied his son, “I rather like it, and I know Charlotte – Miss Scott likes it as well.”

“Then when you have your own parish, you can decorate your own church.” Said his father with a smile.

“But that will be many years in the future, I know how hard it is to get a living, to get to the point where I can support myself.” He followed his father into the small vestry, where they took the communion plate from a strongbox.

“This will need polishing before tomorrow, we will take it back to the Rectory.” James said, stepping back towards the door. His father stopped him.

“You will be ordained next year, and as soon as you feel that you are capable of taking over a parish then the living of Stanton Lacy is yours.”

“But isn’t that one of your livings, father.”

“No, I am nominally the Rector, but have been holding it for you for the past seven years. The living is in the gift of Sir Thomas and this has been done with his full consent. Both he and I want you to be the Rector of Stanton Lacy.”

“But,” James sat on the tiny wooden chair, his father smiled down at him. He looked stunned, before he could recover himself his father launched another broadside.

“And of course there is Miss Scott.”

“Charlotte, what do you mean?”

“Well, you will shock the entire parish if you tell me you don’t love and want to marry her.”

“The entire parish thinks I want to marry her, everybody, her parents?”

“Of course, especially her parents.”

James was now so pale his father thought he might faint.

“Well, do you love her, do you want to marry her?”

“Of course I do, but I never thought I could, she is a baronet’s daughter. What will her father say if I asked for her?”

“He will probably say yes, but ask you not to get married for a few years, not until you are settled.”

“Oh,” James paused, “What should I do then?”

“Go and talk to Miss Scott now, tell her all I have told you, then I suggest you return to the Manor House with her and talk to her father. I am sure you will find it easier than you think.”

They left the church by the side door and had reached the churchyard gate when they heard a scream. Across the green they saw several people around the snowman, their bright red cloaks showing that some of the girls from the Manor were there, as was a man on horseback. James ran fast across the frozen ground, his father following as fast as he could.

As he approached James could see that the man on horseback was Michael Scott, he was threatening Mary and Frances with his crop, there was no sign of Charlotte. Charles was standing in front of the girls, trying to protect them.

“I will ask again, where did you get the damn hat?” he pointed at the snowman, the Rector saw that it now boasted a battered tricorn hat, the colour had probably once been blue, with light coloured lace along the top edges.

“I just found it by the pond,” sobbed Frances, “And Charles put it on the snowman.”

“Don’t lie, you knew what you are doing, he gave it to you, didn’t he? Tell the truth?” Scott lashed down at the two girls.

“Stop that.” Shouted James, and swung at him with the bag he was carrying. The heavy communion plate hit his arm and he swung sideways, dropping his riding crop. His horse stepped a few paces to one side, Charles bent down and picked up his fallen crop and struck the side of his horse. It neighed and cantered a few paces away from the group. As Mr Scott regained control he turned the horse back to see Dr Grainger and James standing in front of the children.

“Leave here and never return.” The Rector shouted, then he turned his back on the rider and looked at the two girls.

“Are either of you hurt?”

“No sir.” Replied Mary, who was still holding her sister. “He struck at us and missed, then Fanny screamed and James came running.” She smiled at him. He was looking at the bag, aghast.

“Father, I think I have dented the cup. I am afraid I have damaged the communion plate.”

“Don’t worry, everyone even the archbishop would praise you for what you did. But now, let’s get into the Rectory. The girls mustn’t stand outside any longer.”

As they walked up the path the door opened and Mrs Grainger and Charlotte ran out, Miss Grey a few paces behind them. Charlotte wrapped her arms round her sisters and Mrs Grainger wrapped hers round her sons. From the look Charlotte gave James, it was clear that she would have much preferred wrapping her arms round him.

A few minutes later, sitting in the warm parlour, the girls sipping hot drinks Dr Grainger looked at his sons and said.

“The girls cannot walk back across the park now, it is not only getting dark but they are too shocked to do so. James, will you ride to the manor and let Sir Thomas know what has happened and ask him to send the carriage.”

The boys went to harness the horse and, a few minutes later James was riding as fast as he dare on the frozen ground. It wasn’t long before he strode through the front door of the Manor House, only to be greeted by a frightened Lady Scott.

“What has happened? My girls, are they all right?”

“Everybody is all right, they are all at the Rectory.”

At that point Sir Thomas entered, asking exactly the same questions. Now James was able to tell his story, only to be interrupted twice, first by Sir Thomas shouting an order to his servants to bar the house to Michael Scott, then to order the carriage. After James had finished his story he was embraced by Lady Scott whilst Sir Thomas shook him firmly by the hand.

There was no possibility of the carriage going to collect the girls without Lady Scott so Sir Thomas and James waited in the hall whilst she got her cloak and bonnet. Sir Thomas smiled at James.

“I must thank you again for protecting my daughters.”

“I was happy I was able to do so.” He paused, took a deep breath and added. “I would like to continue to protect them, particularly Charlotte.”

Sir Thomas tried to look stern, and failed. “I suppose I should ask you what your prospects are, but I suppose I know that better than you.”

“You mean Stanton Lacy?”

“Yes, when did you learn about it? I know your father hadn’t told you yesterday.”

“He told me this afternoon, just before he told me that everybody knew that Charlotte and I were in love, and suggested that I should talk to you”

“What did you say to that?”

“Nothing, because that was when we heard Fanny scream so I left my father and ran to protect them.”

“Now how can I refuse my consent to the man who left his own father in those circumstances to help my daughters.” He smiled, “I would prefer if you had a long engagement, as Charlotte is very young, but with three women involved I don’t think you and I will have any choice in the matter.”

James looked dazed, he hadn’t expected it to be so easy.

“Three women?”

“Your mother and my wife, they have been planning Charlotte’s and your wedding for years, and I am sure that Charlotte will want to have her say as well. All you should do is sit back and say, ‘Yes Dear’, I have found that is always the best idea.”

“What’s a good idea?” Asked his wife who had just returned to the hall. Sir Thomas handed his wife into the carriage before replying.

“Oh, James had just asked permission to marry Charlotte.”

James, sitting opposite, was amazed at her reaction, she sprang to her feet, just as the carriage bumped on a frozen rut, and fell half across her husband. He burst out laughing.

“There’s no need to react so violently. It’s all right, I refused of course.”

“Refused, how could you,” she burst out, “when that is what Elizabeth and I have been planning for years.” Then she saw her husband’s laughing face and sat back, smiling at James.

As soon as they arrived Lady Scott ran into the Rectory and went straight into the parlour. Mary, Frances and Charles were seated at a table by the fire, playing spillikins. Miss Grey was quietly reading.

“Where is Charlotte?” she demanded.

“She is with Mrs Grainger, they are looking at the clothing that will be going to the Alms House for Christmas.”

“Parson’s wife in training.” Said Mary, her mother smiled and said, “Quite right.”

Mary looked stunned as Charlotte entered to be embraced by her mother, then everybody entered and there were explanations, congratulations, mulled wine and happiness, in the midst of all this everybody seemed to have forgotten the reason that the carriage had been sent to pick up the girls.

Sir Thomas remembered as all his womenfolk were climbing into the carriage. He bent down to the Rector and said.

“I want to talk about this, I will come tomorrow, will that be all right?”

“Of course,” his friend replied.

As the carriage drove away he looked across the green. He was certain now, the snowman had moved, it was half way across the green. He felt very cold, and it was not from the hard frost.


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Christmas Musings – What Shall we have for Christmas

In just about every media outlet at the moment you will come across adverts or advice on Christmas food. Alternatives for Christmas dinner, or advertisements for what are considered traditional foods, for example one cut-price supermarket was listing offers on Beef, Goose and Turkey. But, as an historian, I was naturally curious to see if I could discover how long such foods have been associated with the season.

To the Victorians, the ancient Christmas dish was wild boar. This was mostly due to the Boar’s Head Carol, the best known version of this was printed in 1521 by the magnificently named Wynken de Worde (possibly the earliest case of nominative determinism).

The boar’s head in hand bring I,

Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.

I pray you, my masters, be merry

Quot estis in convivio


The boar’s head, as I understand,

Is the rarest dish in all this land,

Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland

Let us servire cantico.

Wild Boar rapidly disappeared from Medieval England, careful woodland management removed their habitat, whilst their appearance on the royal Christmas dinner table didn’t do them much good either, in 1251 Henry III had 300 for Christmas Dinner, whilst two years later his wife had seventy at her own private celebrations. In reality whatever meat was most expensive or luxurious was chosen.


A hand drawn Christmas card by the Arts & Crafts artist and Archaeologist Heywood Sumner. It takes a wonderful mind to put references on your Christmas cards!

Three hundred years later, in the sixteenth century, the delightful poet farmer, Thomas Tusser described good agricultural practice in rhyming couplets, in 1573 he published his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry. This describes his ideal Christmas.

 Good bread and good drinke, a good fier in the hall,

brawne, pudding and souse, and good mustard withall.

Beefe, mutton, and porke, shred pies of the best,

pig, veale, goose and capon, and turkey well drest ;

Cheese, apples and nuts, joly Carols to heare,

as then in the countrie is counted good cheare.

Essentially all the food now considered traditional for Christmas is listed here, cold meat, roast meat, pies nuts and fruit. Vegetables were rarely mentioned and only ever considered as adjuncts to meat.

As well as these dishes, there were widespread local dishes, associated with Christmas. Perhaps the oddest was found on the New Forest.

Ingredients for a Christmas Pie, by Thomas Bewick

There is a sport in which many Forest youths used to indulge; they still do, but nothing like to the same extent as they used; it is Squirrel-hunting, the hunters employing one of two weapons, the “squail” and the “snogg”, both of which lethal implements are Forest productions, as are their names.

The “squail” is a stick, twelve to fifteen inches in length, slightly bendable, with a head of hard wood. The “snogg” is thicker, and wears a cap consisting of a lump of lead.

Foresters wield these home-made weapons in an extraordinarily deadly manner; they will fetch down a squirrel from the top branches of a tree nine times out of ten.

Not so very long ago there was a custom for the squirrel hunters of each village to, meet at Christmas eve at the local inn and regale themselves with squirrel-pie, the products of their squails and snoggs, but, like many an old-time fashion, this has now fallen into desuetude, and the sport of squirrel-hunting, though it still exists, has ceased to be an organised concomitant to Christmas celebrations in the Forest.

Sport and Sportsmen of the New Forest, C R Acton 1936


Having grown up on the New Forest I can say that squirrel pie is no longer a local Christmas dish, we had to make do with turkey like everybody else.



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Christmas Musings – How wonderful the evergreen!

Rhapsodised Fanny Price, the one Jane Austen heroine who was seriously interested in gardening rather than just gardens. Though I am not going to talk about her here (though I might when I come to talk about Christmas presents) rather I want to consider Christmas decorations.

In the past, everyone agrees and in this I think that everyone is right, Christmas decorations consisted of evergreen vegetation. A helpful list was supplied by Robert Herrick in the seventeenth century, in a poem concerning the taking down of the decorations;

DOWN with the rosemary, and so

Down with the bays and mistletoe ;

Down with the holly, ivy, all,

Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall

Possibly the use of evergreen vegetation was of pre-Christian origin but sadly there is no actual evidence for this. Classical writers say that mistletoe was venerated by the Druids, but make no mention of any particular season. However what is clear is that by the middle ages evergreen shrubs had become closely associated with Christmas. In the magical poem Gawain and the Green Knight, when the knight appeared at the Christmas celebrations at Camelot;

he held in one hand a holly branch, that is greatest in green when groves are bare.

The use of evergreen vegetation continued at Christmas after the Reformation, and the decorated hall was a favourite image for nineteenth century writers on the ‘old fashioned Christmas’. As the eighteenth century progressed decorations also disappeared, but gradually. Fashionable society seemed to have no interest in Christmas decorations, and by the end of the century only tokens might be found.

These fashionable ladies have just used holly in flower arrangements, a tiny token of the season.

In more rural areas decorations continued, in this welcoming Inn there is holly in the window, and a bunch of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. Mistletoe, in the form of a Mistletoe or Kissing Bough, often features in images of this period. The term ‘Mistletoe Bough’ seems to have gone out of favour in the nineteenth century after it was used as the title of a popular, and rather gruesome, Victorian Song.

The popular tradition of kissing under the mistletoe continued, or evolved, in the eighteenth century and commentators seemed to associate it with servants and the lower classes. There were numerous illustrations of what were invariably called ‘Christmas gambols’, held in the servants hall. These ranged from the comparatively decorous,

To the decidedly indecorous ( though on must admit that Rowlandson was an early advocate of the ‘free the nipple’ campaign, if his other drawings are anything to go by).

As the revival of Christmas began in the nineteenth century evergreens were welcomed back into the houses of the fashionable, other decoration in wood and glass soon followed, frequently made in Germany, and by the end of the century most of the decorations we know had been invented.

And even the pagan mistletoe, of the disreputable Christmas Gambols, was brought up from the servant’s hall and rehabilitated.

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Christmas Musings – The Curious Omission from the Christmas Card

My brother has just posted a challenge on his blog, If you were making a Christmas card… in which he asks us to consider the question, ‘What picture would I use to front up my cards?’

Now, those of you who have read any of my blogs will guess I would pick something old and apparently slightly off topic, then read my explanation as to why it perfectly fitted the request. So I am going to do something different, something old certainly, and very much not a traditional Christmas card image. It is an eighteenth century souvenir from a visit to Germany, a sketch of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna.


Which will leave some of you wondering why I would describe a famous image of the Madonna and Child as a non-traditional Christmas card image. Well, read on and see what you think.

Throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century there had been a tradition of sending letters to friends and family at Christmas. After the introduction of the penny post in 1840 more and more letters were sent and the writing of Christmas letters began to be seen by some as a chore. One such man was Henry Cole, a brilliant civil servant and administrator, in 1843 he decided to create an easy alternative to the Christmas letter, and invented the Christmas card. Produced for personal use some were offered for sale to the public (they were not a success).


The first Christmas card, celebrating partying and charity.

Despite the initial cold reaction Christmas cards soon took off, and by the end of the century were being produced in the thousand. However seasonal images were very rare, most seem to be cards designed for other purposes, with a seasonal message attached.


Two pairs of Victorian Christmas cards, at least one has ivy on it – though combined with non-seasonal bramble!


A home-made Christmas card of 1898, showing Bournemouth pier!


The twentieth century brought more seasonal images, such as the ivy and mistletoe on this First World War silk card, made in France for soldiers to send home to their families.


Though some First World War cards commemorated the regiments and areas of action, and can be compared with the corporate Christmas cards of today, only the message has any seasonal connotation.


 Another home-made card, this time from Mesopotamia


But what is the curious omission from these cards? Well, any mention of the birth of Christ for a start, or indeed any religious symbolism at all. This was very rarely depicted on cards in the nineteenth century, and only became widespread, though never common, in the twentieth.

So that is why I would consider my picture of the Madonna and Child as a non-traditional image for a Christmas card.






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Christmas Musings – The Christmas Tree, When, why and why not?

Over the past couple of days several blogs I follow have mentioned Christmas Trees (Christmas trees from around the world , 5 Sacred Symbols of Christmas and Quotes and trees) and even though some members of my family have some less than fortunate memories associated with them Tooling around, they are certainly a suitable subject for my blog so I thought I would talk about them now.

Just about everybody who mentions Christmas Trees talks about them as being a Victorian introduction to Britain, and credits Prince Albert with the introduction, since they originated in Germany. Of those three statements two are completely wrong, and one is more or less right. The one that is more or less right is that they originated in Germany, certainly they originated in what is now Germany but when they first appeared Germany was divided into many separate, independent and frequently warring states. The Christmas tree was associated with the protestant churches, so was not to be found in any Roman Catholic states, and only found in a few of the Protestant ones. It didn’t become widespread in Germany until after the unification of the country at the end of the nineteenth century. 

Kissing Bough, engraved by Joan Hassell in 1947

In England one of the last, lingering Christmas decorations that survived into the late eighteenth century was the Mistletoe Bough, or Kissing Bough. These were made of holly and mistletoe and could be very elaborate, decorated with fruit, coloured ribbons and candles. They had disappeared from fashionable houses, at least above stairs, but continued to be found in the servants quarters and more rural areas. However the forgotten heroine of Christmas, Queen Charlotte, liked the decoration, she used a Germanic version incorporating yew and, every Christmas, hung it in one of the main rooms at Kew Palace or Windsor Castle.

The Queen that introduced the Christmas Tree

Queen Charlotte by Josiah Wedgwood

Then in 1800 the queen held a party for the children of the principle families at Windsor, this time she didn’t have a Yew Bough, rather she had a small tree in a pot. Dr John Watkins, one of Queen Charlotte’s biographers, who was at the party, describes the tree

From the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles. After the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted.

One possible reason for the introduction of the tree was practicality. A Mistletoe Bough had to hang from the ceiling, and that could cause problems, there aren’t many places where there are suitable fastenings. Quite possibly there was nowhere for the bough to be hung in the room chosen for the children’s party, so a tree was chosen by default. If that is the case then the whole tradition of the Christmas tree in Britain may be down to the lack of a hook in the ceiling of a room in Windsor castle!

A Georgian Christmas tree, an American illustration from 1836

After this references to Christmas Trees occur occasionally for the next three decades, always in Royal Palaces or Grand Houses. In 1802, Lord Kenyon bought ‘candles for the tree’ in his London home, in 1804 the Earl of Bristol, had ‘a Christmas tree’ for his children at Ickworth Lodge, Suffolk and in 1807 the prime minister, set up a Christmas tree at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire

Princess Victoria enjoyed a Christmas tree throughout her childhood, and they became commoner in wealthy and aristocratic households throughout the 1820’s and 30’s as the celebration of Christmas was revived in Britain. Then, from 1840 onwards illustrated magazines began to publish pictures of the Royal Family with their Christmas tree and from this the popularity of the trees spread throughout to all classes.


One question that never seems to be asked, and is important when thinking about the history of Christmas Trees, is why they never occurred in Britain before the end of the eighteenth century. If you read the books of the early folklorists and collectors of traditions you will soon discover the variety of traditions that were to be found at Christmas all over the British isles, but no one decorated a small tree. In fact I am not surprised, for one simple reason – what would have been decorated?

A Christmas tree needs to be an evergreen, but what evergreen trees were widely available in England before the late eighteenth century, very few mainly Yew, Holly, Juniper and Bay. There were no native pines or any other coniferous trees. Scots pine had once been native, but had died out millennia ago, the only pine trees to be found were rare individuals in large gardens, planted as exotics. Then came the agricultural revolution. Crop yields increased, livestock production soared and the spectre of famine vanished from mainland Britain, people still went hungry but this was because of problems with the distribution of food, not its scarcity. As well as foodstuffs the agricultural revolution also looked at timber production, land that wasn’t suitable for growing food was often seen as suitable for growing timber. Much of this land couldn’t support the native deciduous trees but was suitable for pine trees not just the Scots Pine but many other varieties that plant hunters were sending back to Britain from around the world.

The Chosen Tree – A garden selecting a tree in a Gentleman’s grounds

In 1800 the newly introduced pine trees were rare and valuable, only a person with access to the freshly planted plantations could have a Christmas tree. By 1850 young pine trees were more readily available and Christmas trees could be enjoyed by all.


So we enjoy Christmas trees because of the agricultural revolution, an perhaps the lack of a hook in a ceiling in Windsor Castle.



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Christmas Musings – Sing the ancient Christmas Carol

A few nights ago the Christmas Lights were turned on in the neighbouring town, the weather was wet and horrible, and there were the usual comments on how different the weather is not to how it was in the past. This is, of course, completely wrong. Bad weather disrupting Christmas Celebrations is hardly new, in the nearby village of Stinsford in 1819 the weather on Christmas Eve was so bad that the singers were unable to visit the Manor House, though they did manage to make it the following day and, after singing for the occupants, enjoy a supper of beef and beer.

This group of singers would probably have included Thomas Hardy senior, the father of the novelist, who was to immortalise the Stinsford singers as the Mellstock Choir in Under the Greenwood Tree. These singers, mostly men but sometimes including a few women, were to be found all over England and Wales, preserved the tradition of Christmas Carols through the long eighteenth century.

For carols, now an integral part of Christmas, almost vanished. In Brand’s Popular Antiquities of 1795 one writer says that his part of the county was so remote and unsophisticated that , ‘They still kept up the Christmas Carol’. The carols were sung by singers going around, usually on Christmas Eve, occasionally in houses or pubs, but not in churches! Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was controversy in the Church of England as to whether music and singing was permissible. These traditional carols, mostly themes of feasting and drinking, were hardly likely to be acceptable. For example the original Welsh version of ‘Deck the Halls’ is hardly suitable for church.


Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom,

Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom,

Oh! how blessed are the blisses,

Words of love, and mutual kisses.


There were exceptions, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen and While Shepherds Watched are perhaps the best known of these traditional carols. However whilst the Church of England was divided on church music, the non-conformist churches were generally much more accepting, and produced some wonderful carols.

As well as founding Methodism, Charles Wesley was the most prolific, and most popular, song writer the world has ever known. He wrote many carols, but the best known has a rather curious history.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing began as a hymn by Charles Wesley Hark how all the wrekin rings in 1739. This was revised and rewritten (much to the irritation of Charles) and by the mid nineteenth century it had more or less achieved the form we know it by today. The tune began as a cantata by Mendelssohn in praise of the German printing industry, part of the 400th anniversary celebrations of Gutenberg’s invention of printing. He didn’t think that the tune would be suitable for sacred music. After Mendelssohn’s death William Cummings, professor at the Royal Academy of Music, and a Mendelssohn enthusiast, carried out minor revisions to the latest version of the words of Hark the Herald Angels Sing and major revisions to Mendelssohn’s tune, to create the carol we know today.

Incidentally, why do so many people just refer to carols by the composers of the music, not the authors of the words. Many people are surprised when I say that the poem Goblin Market is the second most popular poem by Christina Rossetti, not realising that she wrote In the Bleak Mid-winter. Incidentally she was also the model for one of the finest, in my opinion, depictions of the Annunciation. Ecce Ancilla Domini by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Well, we have travelled some way from the carol singers calling at Stinsford Manor that wild Christmas in 1829. But the singers hardly travelled at all, over the years, even though the carols changed, they continued to go round the village singing each Christmas. Today the many-great grandsons and granddaughters of the singers will continue the long tradition, though they are more likely to end at the church hall for tea and mince pies than beef and beer.

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Christmas Musings – So let us Begin

Over the next few weeks I intend to give some of my thoughts about Christmas, from an historian’s point of view. The history behind how we celebrate Christmas is strange, complex and perhaps surprising. For example whilst the Christmas tree first appeared in Britain in the nineteenth century, there were very good reasons why it could not have appeared before, indeed it would have been virtually impossible for anyone to have decorated a Christmas tree in England before 1750 – but that will come later as …

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the churches preparation for Christmas. So as it is the beginning I would like to consider two things that get trotted out every year (usually by people who don’t like Christmas and want to find an excuse for not liking it).


The first is that Christmas is now much too commercial, is just an excuse for eating, drinking and spending too much. Well, it always has been. I cannot find a period when Christmas was celebrated that didn’t involve feasting and drinking. Indeed it was the festivities associated with the season that offended the Puritans when they banned the celebration of Christmas in the 1650’s, the fact that someone might be feasting when they thought they should be fasting was anathema to them. Similarly when the great revival of Christmas began in the early nineteenth century it was the secular aspect of feasting and generally having a good time that was revived first, and condemned since who wants to overeat in mid-winter!

A Tudor Christmas

 So feasting and parties have always been associated with Christmas, and this brings me onto my second – that Christmas was a pagan festival that was stolen by Christians. This is usually said, either by those people who don’t like Christmas, or by atheists who think that the acceptance of this statement will either belittle or disprove Christianity.

In one respect the statement is absolutely right, there was a pre-existing mid-winter festival that the celebration of Christmas was fitted on to. But this was the Catholic churches policy, summed up in the letter from Pope Gregory to Bishop Mellitus, who was going to join Augustine’s mission to the English.

Since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on another feast of the church, celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds.

And more than that, it is pretty clear that the concept of adapting aspects of an older religion to a new one has been going on for millennia, probably since religion first ‘came down from the gods’ as a classical author once put it. The Romans were famous for it, when they found a shrine to a god they didn’t know they did a quick check to see what that god did, then said, ‘Yes, we call that god Mars or Venus.’ Hence the great temple in Bath was dedicated to Sulis-Minerva, a combination of the local British goddess Sulis, who was identified with the classical Minerva.

So that when St Augustin came to Kent he would have found the Saxons lifting their mead-horns to Thor or Woden, at their Yule feasts. A few hundred years earlier their ancestors would have been celebrating Saturnalia and before that, I have no doubt, feasting and drinking to whichever god or goddess was worshipped at mid-winter by the Iron Age inhabitants of Cantium. And so on backwards into the distant past, one thing we archaeologists can agree on about ancient religion (and there is very little we can agree on) is that it changed over time. The rituals changed and almost certainly the deities changed, but I suspect that the tradition of feasting at important religious festivals has always existed and, probably, the mid-winter feast has been celebrated as long as people have been settled in Britain.

So eat and drink in honour of your deity, and my your god bless you.




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