Sunday Sermon – 23 December 2018

Christmas in Hucklow

Last year, in the equivalent service to this, I read extracts from Christmases past. From a village parson’s diary of Christmases celebrated in the eighteenth century in rural Norfolk; of Charles Dickens writing in the nineteenth century of fictional Christmas celebrations enjoyed by Mr. Pickwick and friends, as well as a description of the Cratchets’ Christmas dinner; and from Laurie Lee, writing in autobiographical style of a boyhood village Christmastide in the early part of the 20th century.

This afternoon, can I come a little nearer home? in fact right home to Hucklow itself. The ministry of the Reverend Henry Webb-Ellis in Hucklow extended from 1876 to 1885, when ill-health forced him to resign. In 1877, the second Christmas of his ministry, on Christmas Day, in this building, a party was held. A reporter from the High Peak News described it as follows.

“The annual festive gathering of the congregation worshipping in the Old Chapel Great Hucklow, took place as usual on Christmas Day. Although the severity of the weather interfered with the attendance of friends from a distance, it was unanimously pronounced to be the best Christmas party held in the Chapel for many a year. The schoolroom was very prettily decorated with pictures, evergreens, coloured paper, lanterns, mottoes etc. At 4 o’clock the children of the Sunday and night schools (I’m unsure who the children of the night school could be) sat down to tea, giving place to their elders about half an hour afterwards.”

As ever, children don’t dally when it comes to party food! Possibly the elders took their food more leisurely, but to continue,

“Tea partaken of, all flocked into the chapel, when the proceedings commenced with the singing by the choir of “Hail delightful sacred morn”. The minister, Revd. H. Webb Ellis, then gave a hearty greeting and Christmas welcome to all. After the choir had given a “Christmas hallelujah” other recitations from the children followed, succeeded by the Christmas carol, “While shepherds watched”. And now came the children’s drama of “A few old friends”, those old familiar periods of childhood. Little Bo-peep, Jack the Giant Killer, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Beauty and the Beast, the Children in the Wood, Fatima and sister Ann, (who was Fatima and sister Ann?) together with Old King Cole and his fiddlers three.”

The drama, incidentally, had been introduced with a poem specially written for the occasion by the Revd. Webb Ellis. I will not repeat it all, but the final verse went,

“Bring willing ears then and pure loving hearts,
While our small actors play their little parts,
If now and then they should an error make,
Regard it not, for Christ’s sweet sake.
“To err is human; to forgive divine”
Well: if no greater lapses should be thine
In that great act we are all called to play,
Who in life’s “Tempest” make our poor essay.”

Obviously the Revd. Webb Ellis anticipated that, in the true tradition of Sunday School performances, not every child may be word perfect, nor immune from stage fright. However, perhaps his fears were unjustified, for the newspaper report concluded,

“This drama, a novel feature, seemed to give equal delight to actors and audience. At half past 9 o’clock all made the best of their way homewards through thick falling snow.”

A Christmas to be remembered. Not only a party, but snow on Christmas Day. No taxis, coaches, cars, tractors, or four wheel drive land rovers in 1877. Like King Wenceslas and page, the party leavers must have tramped home on foot through the thick, falling snow!

And now to move on nearly a hundred years, to 1972. A year well within living memory. Arthur Vallance, by now six months into his resident ministry in Hucklow, wrote in the Hucklow Calendar about that Christmas, saying

“Among the happy memories of Christmas 1972 are (those of) the village children’s party at Nightingale House, by which time the epidemic of mumps seemed to have done its worst, the carol singing round Great Hucklow and Grindlow (we were sorry not to include Windmill this time) on the 23rd – on a beautiful moonlight and starlight night too – and especially perhaps the Nativity Play in Chapel on the previous Sunday, for which we thank the boys and girls from Chesterfield.

It was also announced that we intended to revive the Old Chapel Sunday School in the New Year. Great Hucklow is a small village and when we settled here last June we did not think of adding to the facilities for the religious education of the village children; but it now looks as if the time has come.”

And time comes for us all. The kindly, well-loved Arthur Vallance has passed on. Elspeth, his widow, celebrates Christmas in the mid-summer of New Zealand, where she now lives. And this ancient Chapel looks on as another Christmas is celebrated. Different perhaps in form from those of yester-year, but yet the same in its essential features. The Christmas story does not change. Carols, glad tidings of joy, children’s laughter, gifts given and received, and a renewal of hope.

Two thousand years ago a babe was born, and I do not doubt, as he grew, his childish, boisterous laughter filled the home in which he dwelt.

A hundred and twenty years ago, children’s excited voices rang through this Chapel as the thick snow fell outside.

Twenty-six years ago on a starlit night, with the moon lighting their way, a greatly loved pastor led the way as carollers tramped the lanes and sang out in joy.

Joy, laughter, excitement, reminiscence, nostalgia are ingredients of the Christmas celebrations. But so are hope and optimism for a future, which we pray will encompass the best of the past as we stride into a new year. May it long be so.

Who knows, perhaps we may once more have snow on Christmas Day!

Merry Christmas, everybody, and a prosperous, optimistic, New Year.

C.J. Rosling 14 December 1998

Hucklow 20 December 1998

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