Thoughts at Christmas
Rather than preach a conventional sermon on this Sunday before Christmas, I have chosen extracts from three books, describing Christmases of the past. For many of us, the joys of Christmas centre on nostalgia.
James Woodforde was born in Somerset in 1740. In 1776 he took up the living of a Norfolk parish, Weston Longeville. He remained there, a country parson, until his death twenty seven years later. He kept a diary, which is my first choice of book.
“25 December 1793. We breakfasted, dined etc. again at home, this being Christmas Day. I walked to Church this morning, read prayers, administered the holy sacrament, gave an offering of 2/6d. The singers sang the Christmas anthem, and very well, between the Litany and Communion. The following poor people dined at my house or had their dinner sent them plus 1s each. – Widow Case, my clerk Tom Thurston, Christopher Dunnell, John Peachman, Tom Carr and Nathaniel Heavers. Nat. Heavers and Tom Carr had their dinners sent them being ill. Gave to the above people in all 6s. Dinner today boiled rabbit and onion sauce, sirloin of beef roasted, plum puddings and mince pies.”
And then the entry for Monday 22 December 1800
“We breakfasted, dined etc. at home. Yesterday being Sunday and St. Thomas’s Day the poor deferred going after their Christmas Gifts till this morning. I had at my house fifty-five, gave only to 53, the other two not living in the parish. Gave in the whole this morning at 6d each, £1.6.6. Dinner today boiled beef & a roast chicken. I was but poorly today after dinner, giddy etc. Sitting too long at one time I think. The poor behaved today extremely well indeed, though times were hard for them – they all appeared patient and submissive. Mr. Press Custance sent us a pheasant this evening.”
The Country Parson two hundred years ago knew Christmas as a time for sharing, and for remembering particularly those in need.
Charles Dickens wrote in memorable prose, not least about Christmases, which he quite obviously relished. One of my favourite characters is Mr. Pickwick. In the following extract, Mr. Pickwick is at his friend’s farm, Mr. Wardle. The Christmas feast is also a wedding feast.
On such festive occasions the old and the young mingle, and the old tell tales of the past, which the young tolerate, but perhaps do not follow. We all recognise the scenario.
“‘Fill Mr. Pickwick’s glass’
The Fat Boy filled Mr. Pickwick’s glass, and then retired behind his master’s chair, from whence he watched the play of the knives and forks, and progress of the choice morsels from the dishes to the mouths of the company, with a kind of dark and gloomy joy that was most impressive.
‘God bless you, old fellow!’ said Mr. Pickwick.
‘Same to you, my boy’ said Mr. Wardle; and they pledged each other heartily.
‘Mrs. Wardle’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘we old folks must have a glass of wine together, in honour of this joyful event.’
The old lady was in a state of great grandeur just then, for she was sitting at the top of the table in a brocaded gown, with her newly-married grand-daughter on one side, and Mr. Pickwick on the other, to do the carving. Mr. Pickwick had not spoken in a very loud tone, but she understood him at once, and drank off a full glass of wine to his long life and happiness; after which the worthy old soul launched into a minute and particular account of her own wedding, with a dissertation on the fashion of wearing high-heeled shoes, and some particulars concerning the life and adventures of the beautiful Lady Tollinglower, deceased: at all of which the old lady herself laughed very heartily indeed, and so did the young ladies too, for they were wondering among themselves what on earth grandma was talking about.
When they laughed, the old lady laughed ten times more heartily, and said these always had been considered capital stories; which caused them all to laugh again and put the old lady into the very best of humours. Then the cake was cut, and the young ladies saved pieces to put under their pillows to dream of their future husbands on; and a great deal of blushing and merriment was thereby occasioned.”
And Dickens account of the Cratchits Christmas dinner from “The Christmas Carol”.
“Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (which she had prepared in a pan on the stove beforehand) hissing hot. Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner of the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons in their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs. Cratchit looking slowly along the carving knife, prepared to plunge it into the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose around the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there was ever such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple sauce and mashed potatoes, it was sufficient dinner for the whole family. …everyone had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular were steeped in sage and onion up to the eye-brows.
But now the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room……
Hello! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding!
In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck in the top.”
So if James Woodforde reminds us of a Christmas that is about sharing, Charles Dickens describes feasting and laughter, good company and family ties.
But what of carol singing? Laurie Lee in “Cider with Rosie” recalls
“The week before Christmas, when snow seemed to lie thickest, was the moment for carol singing; and when I think back to those nights it is to the crunch of snow and the lights of the lanterns on it. Carol singing in my village was a special tithe for the boys, girls had little to do with it. Like hay-making, blackberrying, stone-clearing, and wishing-people-a-happy-Easter, it was one of our seasonal perks.
By instinct we knew just when to begin it; a day too soon and we should have been unwelcome, a day too late and we should have received lean looks from people whose bounty was already exhausted. When the true moment came, exactly balanced, we recognised it and were ready.
So as soon as the wood had been stacked in the oven to dry for the morning fire, we put on our scarves and went out through the streets, calling loudly between our hands, till the various boys who knew the signal ran out from their houses to join us.
One by one they came stumbling over the snow, swinging their lanterns around their heads, shouting and coughing horribly.
‘Coming carol barking, then?’
We were the Church Choir, so no answer was necessary. For a year we had praised the Lord out of key, and as a reward for this service – on top of the Outing – we had the right to visit all the big houses, to sing our carols and collect our tribute.
To work them all in meant a five mile foot journey over wild and generally snowed up country. So the first thing we did was to plan our route; a formality, for the route never changed. All the same we blew on our fingers and argued; and then we chose our Leader. This was not binding, for we all fancied ourselves as Leaders, and he who started the night in that position usually trailed home with a bloody nose.
Eight of us set out that night. There was Sixpence the Tanner, who had never sung in his life (he just worked his mouth in church); the brothers Horace and Boney who were always fighting everybody, and always getting the worst of it; Clergy Green, the preaching maniac; Walt the bully and my two brothers. As we went down the lane other boys, from other villages, were already about the hills, bawling ‘Kingwenslush’, and shouting through keyholes ‘Knock on the knocker! Ring at the bell! Give us a penny for singing so well!’ They weren’t an approved charity as we were, the Choir. But competition was in the air.
Our first call as usual was the house of the Squire, and we trouped nervously down his drive. For light we had candles in marmalade jars suspended on loops of string, and they threw pale gleams on the towering snowdrifts that stood on each side of the drive. A blizzard was blowing, but we were well wrapped up with Army puttees on our legs, woollen hats on our heads, and several scarves round our ears. As we approached the Big House across the white, silent lawns, we too grew respectfully silent. The lake nearby was stiff and black, the waterfall frozen and still. We arranged ourselves shuffling around the big front door, knocked and announced the Choir.
A maid bore the tidings of our arrival into the echoing distances of the house, and while we waited we cleared our throats noisily. Then she came back, and the door was left ajar for us, and we were bidden to begin. We brought no music, the carols were in our heads. ‘Let’s give ’em Wild Shepherds,’ said Jack. We began in confusion, plunging into a wreckage of keys, of different words and tempo; but we gathered our strength; he who sang loudest took the rest of us with him, and the carol took shape if not sweetness.
….suddenly, on the stairs, we saw the old Squire himself standing and listening with his head on one side.
He didn’t move until we’d finished; then slowly he tottered towards us, dropped two coins in our box with a trembling hand, scratched his name in the book we carried, gave us each a long look with his moist blind eyes, then turned away in silence.”
Christmas is of food and gifts, carol singing and Christmas cards. But the true Christmas is more than that.
Christmas is a story of birth, of hope renewed. A nativity in a stable which quite literally changed the world is the core of the Christmas celebration. Merry Christmas, everybody.
C.J. Rosling 19 December 1997
Hucklow 21 December 1997
Chesterfield 15 December 2002