From mur­der tri­als to feed­ing the poor, and from pe­ti­tions call­ing to ban fes­tiv­i­ties to com­plaints of bad singing; LAURA DALE ex­plores past Devon Christ­mases

Devon Life - - Festive A-z -

Mod­ern-day Christ­mas tra­di­tions in­clude a dec­o­rated tree, Christ­mas pud­ding, carol singing, the oc­ca­sional fes­tive drink and the giv­ing of gifts; but what made up an his­tor­i­cal Christ­mas?

Thanks to his­to­rian Todd Gray, and the metic­u­lous re­search of other hobby his­to­ri­ans, we are able to take a look back through the cen­turies at Christ­mas tra­di­tions and events spe­cific to our green and pleas­ant county.

The first Royal fam­ily to spend Christ­mas in Ex­eter were King Ed­ward I, Queen Eleanor and their three daugh­ters. On De­cem­ber 23 1285 they at­tended mass at Ex­eter Cathe­dral; but they were not in the City for the hol­i­days. The King had trav­elled to Ex­eter at the re­quest of the Bishop to in­ves­ti­gate the bloody mur­der of a cler­gy­man in 1283.

A group of men, who were em­ployed by the Mayor, at­tacked Wal­ter Lech­lade with knives, swords and axes, deal­ing two fa­tal blows to the head. Lech­lade had been at the cen­tre of a me­dieval power strug­gle. The trial be­gan on Christ­mas Eve and re­sulted in the hang­ing of the Mayor and four co­con­spir­a­tors. The ac­tual killers es­caped through South Gate, which had been un­guarded. A for­ti­fied wall com­plete with gate houses was built around the en­tire Cathe­dral precinct, cre­at­ing Cathe­dral Close. For hun­dreds of years, across the county, it has been the prac­tise to pro­vide Christ­mas meals for the vul­ner­a­ble and less for­tu­nate. In about 1610 John Wil­loughby from Combe in Git­tisham, East Devon, pro­vided a se­ries of meals over six days dur­ing the Christ­mas pe­riod for his ten­ants

and work­ers. In the years be­fore the Great Re­forms of the 1830s, the or­di­nary Devon vil­lager was re­liant upon the wealthy to pro­vide a Christ­mas meal from which he would “ren­der obe­di­ence to his betters un­til Christ­mas came around again”. In the years fol­low­ing the Great Re­forms, the stan­dard of liv­ing had risen to al­low work­ers to pro­vide a meal for them­selves in their own homes. But this did not put an end to the char­i­ta­ble Christ­mas prac­tise, and in 1888 in Tav­i­s­tock, 220 wives and the chil­dren of the navvies (labour­ers em­ployed in the ex­ca­va­tion and

‘Bad singing was re­ported at Bide­ford in 1866 and a Ger­man brass band was dis­ap­proved of at Sid­mouth in 1865’

con­struc­tion of a road, rail­way or canal) were given a Christ­mas tea to­gether with gifts and en­ter­tain­ment.

A year later, and for the 21st year, Ex­eter crafts­man Harry Hems, hosted a feast of beef, mut­ton, pork and goose for some 60 “bro­ken down cit­i­zens and their wives” in his stu­dio on Long­brook Street and on Box­ing Day he and his fam­ily en­ter­tained chil­dren from a lo­cal or­phan­age.

But the fes­tive spirit was not al­ways preva­lent. In the 1640s and 1650s Par­lia­ment went to great lengths to stop any fes­tive cel­e­bra­tions. In 1644 Oliver Cromwell en­forced an Act of Par­lia­ment ban­ning Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions (Christ­mas was re­garded by Pu­ri­tans as a waste­ful fes­ti­val which threat­ened core Chris­tian be­liefs). Christ­mas ac­tiv­i­ties were banned and it was la­belled as pro­mot­ing drunk­en­ness and promis­cu­ity.

Bad singing was re­ported at Bide­ford in 1866 and a Ger­man brass band was dis­ap­proved of at Sid­mouth in 1865. In Dart­mouth in 1876, a group of drunken sailors sang vul­gar songs and made rude jokes re­sult­ing in com­plaints from res­i­dents.

For­tu­nately, the politi­cians and nim­bys seem to have been largely ig­nored and many peo­ple con­tin­ued to cel­e­brate Christ­mas, if nec­es­sary in se­cret.

In 1911 bunches of holly were at­tached to the mast­heads of the war­ships at Devon­port, whilst in Torquay the hos­pi­tal had red, white and blue dec­o­ra­tions in the Coro­na­tion Ward. It was around this time that Mum­mers per­formed plays in pub­lic houses. They wore ex­otic clothes and many ac­counts show there was a Fa­ther Christ­mas, a hero (gen­er­ally St Ge­orge), and a vil­lain (orig­i­nally a Turk­ish knight). It wasn’t un­til Vic­to­rian times that hav­ing a tree in the house be­came part of the Christ­mas tra­di­tion. It was the Queen’s Ger­man par­ents who were fa­mil­iar with the cus­tom, which was widely prac­tised in their Rhineland home.

Dur­ing the Se­cond World War, around 1943, Ger­man pris­on­ers of war (POWS) be­came a com­mon sight on Ex­eter’s streets. Many of them were em­ployed by lo­cal farm­ers to work the land.

On Christ­mas Eve at the Elim Church, one of the POWS asked the min­is­ter if he and his friends could per­form a carol. Brian Slem­ming re­calls: “Fa­ther, of course agreed, and the men/ boys left their seats walked to the front and sang Silent Night Holy Night in Ger­man. To me the sight is as clear now as it was at the time. The group of men held the con­gre­ga­tion spell­bound. Be­fore they fin­ished, sobs could be heard around the church. And at the end, truly, there was not a dry eye in the church. It was a mo­ment when Christ­mas spirit ruled.” Spe­cial thanks to Todd Gray, au­thor of Christ­mas in Devon and to David Corn­forth at Ex­eter Mem­o­ries.

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