Talk Report: 2017-12-13

Report on Christmas Customs talk by Brian Wright

Christmas customs past and present were described by Brian Wright in a topical and fascinating talk given to Wells U3A on Wednesday December 13th. We were lead through the long history of the West’s favourite festival, from early pagan celebrations to the innovations and excesses of our own times.

In Roman times Saturnalia was the festival which celebrated mid-Winter; there were bonfires and feasting, garlands about the house, dressing up and – famously - the master changing place for the day with a slave. Further north the mid-winter solstice was celebrated as Yuletide, with much eating and drinking as the Yule log burned.

The early Christian church did not celebrate Christmas but after about three hundred years people began to celebrate the birth of Christ. No one knew the day when Jesus was born so it seemed sensible to choose the same time of the year as the classical Saturnalia and the pagan Yuletide. This is when the sun, representing the death and re-birth of Christ, starts to climb back from the darkness of mid-winter.

We have all sing ‘the twelve days of Christmas’ perhaps unaware that it was King Alfred who insured that Christmas was a twelve-day holiday in England. He once withdrew his army from fighting the Danes over the Christmas period and proclaimed by law that for those specific days only necessary work should be done. The role reversal of Saturnalia continues in some forms to this day: army and naval officers serve the men their festive meal on Christmas Day and since medieval times there have been Boy Bishops who for just one day take over their Lord’s place.

With mumming and carol singing, garlands and feasting, Christmas developed and continued through the centuries to lighten up the dark days of winter. This was however interrupted in seventeenth century England when the Puritans disapproved of what they regarded as gluttony and licentious behaviour. Feasting was frowned upon and greenery removed from churches. During the severe years of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth Christmas was actually “banned.”

All returned to normal when Charles II returned to the throne and celebrations over the Christmas period continued merrily until the late eighteenth century. This was when the happy patterns of traditional country life were shattered by the turmoil arising from the industrial revolution. Folk flocked to the cities and towns for work in factories where there were no paid holidays, no generous employers. Christmas almost faded away as a national holiday.

Enter Charles Dickens. He wrote “Christmas would not be Christmas but for the happy interchange of good wishes” and with his massively popular book A Christmas Carol first published in 1843 he more or less re-invented the idea, fun and festivities of Christmastime. The book also reminded people about the poverty of many and helped to reinvigorated charitable acts; food was once again donated to workhouses and the poor. Valentine cards had been used for some years but, also in 1843, Henry Cole sent the first Christmas card. In 1848 Prince Albert had a Christmas tree at Windsor and this at once became the fashionable thing for middle class families. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore, an American academic, had written the poem The night before Christmas for his children, never thinking that it would become a classic. Saint Nicholas, an obscure 4th century saint from Turkey, has morphed over the years into the benign figure described in this poem - a white bearded Santa Claus who rides a sleigh pulled through the sky by reindeers. We were told how innovations continue in our own time: decorative ‘Santa’s keys’ are now sold so that the old gentleman can enter the front door of houses that have no chimney!

The talk ended with eight members volunteering to take part in a mumming play. Probably evolving from the mediaeval mystery plays, mummers’ plays became popular in the eighteenth century. There were over a thousand different plays, based on twelve traditional plots. This one comes from Marshfield near Bristol and is still performed annually on Boxing Day by the ‘Marshfield paper boys’. Father Christmas, Little Man John, King William, Doctor Phoenix, Saucy Jack, Tenpenny Nit and Old Father Beelzebub all read their parts with animation and were applauded before Brian was enthusiastically thanked for a lively and informative morning.