History Group Talk December 2011


Dr. Todd Gray was once again welcomed to our meeting when he gave an illustrated talk on ‘Christmas in Devon’. 

He began by saying how much he enjoyed coming to Widecombe History Group and invited us to a special meeting to be held at the Devon Records Office, Sowton, Exeter, on Saturday 17th March 2012, when the Friends of Devon Achieves are holding an Open Day.  The Strong room will be open for tours, there will be lectures, and information on access to documents. He also suggested that we book a table at the event to exhibit our publications etc.  

Christmas Cards were first published in the mid 19th century and he showed illustrations of some of the early ones and how they had developed to what we have today.  In the WWI some injured soldiers made cards for the nurses who were caring for them and Christmas cards have evolved from that.  Some showed very local scenes, i.e. he showed one of the main street in Exeter. In WWI Christmas cards really came into their own and many scrapbooks were produced by the soldiers, some of which contained wonderful handmade cards.

 It was the Victorians who re-invented Christmas, in many instances the cards depicted the view of Christmas from a child’s eye.  However, it was not all joyful particularly for the poor.  They would often go to the 'Big House' to kowtow to the 'Boss' and beg for money for food.  They were so beholding to the Master of the House and would be obliged to serve him well for the rest of the year if he was generous.

St. Nicholas, Old Father Tyme, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, call him what you will, was regularly depicted on cards and also the Yuletide scene of families gathered around a table or the open hearth, all showing a cosy Christmas scene.  It was however, not so for many families.  Looking at the early 1700’s we find groups of people ‘Mummers’ acting out scenes like St. George slaying a Turkish Knight, in other words the hero overcoming the villains, all in fancy dress.  Young men dressed as woman, often using their grandmothers ‘bloomers’.  This is the beginning of pantomime as we know it today and created a scene of entertainment for the mass audience.  The local Manor House would be visited by these groups in the hope that they would be given hot chocolate and a bun or some other morsel of food. 

Illustrations of pantomimes as early as 1870 held in Plymouth were shown and so began this type of entertainment in theatres and village halls.  In Newfoundland the tradition of ‘Mummers’ plays continues to this day based on the 1840s.  In the 1650s when there was a great deal of animosity between the Roman Catholics and Anglican faiths, Christmas was virtually banned.  However, in Devon we find Christmas was still being celebrated and the Ashen  Faggot (a large bundle of ash sticks bound together with as many as twenty willow or hazel bindings) would be burnt in the open hearth.  As each binding burnt through everyone present would have a drink and so merriment increased as the evening progressed. 

Todd told us of a document dated 1665 referring to Sydenham where figs, dates, spices, almonds and venison were all part of Christmas festivities. 

Todd then looked at the depictions of Christmas and what it means, that can be found in our Churches.  The average person who goes into Church, admires the stained glass windows, marvels at the wood carvings and the stone work, but fails to look more deeply at the small details depicted on these items.  Todd did this for us, as he showed illustrations of the minute details that the artists had incorporated in their work.  Victorian stained glass, often considered to be inferior, is in fact full of inspiration.  Next time when visiting a church look more carefully for the finer details shown in the stained glass.  He showed illustrations of the features on the faces of the people, and in the background of many scenes quite minute interpretations i.e. of the nativity with animals and scenes, in some instances no more than a couple of inches high that the average person might not notice.  Similarly , these images can be found in plaster work and wood carvings.

From the 1980s and 1990s a new way of celebrating Christmas was started, with people decorating the outside of their houses with numerous electric lights, models in the garden, all illuminated, many raising money for charities. 

Today most people live in their own houses with electricity, water and food, where years ago the rich were the only ones able to afford such luxuries and the poor had little or nothing to call their own.  Most of our memories of Christmas are of when  we were children.  We tend to say that 'Christmas isn't like it used to be'.  Past generations I am sure have always said the same. 

Tradition is very hard to describe, as each generation has its own way of celebrating the festive season.

The way we celebrate Christmas has altered and still continues to evolve.  What we call a traditional Christmas today, is far removed from Christmases past, and they will no doubt alter, in the years to come

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