Tales of Christmas past

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With records going back 900 years, and with eight strongrooms with eight to nine miles of shelving, our friends at Lancashire Archives have unearthed some fascinating Christmas records from down the ages. Lancashire County Council senior archivist Vicci McCann reports.

After a few drinks and mince pies on Christmas Eve you go to bed far later than you intended, perhaps a little tired and emotional. Or, like four Jamaican airmen on Christmas Eve 1947, who ‘at 2am this date… came to this office [Burnley Police Station] and stated they had no accommodation, they travelled from Bolton to spend Christmas Eve in Burnley.’ They were allowed to sleep in the cells for the night as they were stationed at Watton, Coningsby, Colwyn Bay and Bicester.

A search of our online catalogue, LANCAT at www.lancashire.gov.uk/archives, with the word ‘Christmas’ will result in a long list of documents including the earliest mention of Christmas in the catalogue. In 1303 when a piece of land called Quassam was given by John of Egacre to Gilbert of Scarisbrek. The agreement was made ‘at Ormischurche on Christmas Day in the year of grace 1303’. There are other documents where land or property is exchanged on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and it was one of the English Quarter days when rents were payable to landlords by their tenants. A grant of land dating from around 1315 by Thomas, son of Roger the chief carpenter of Wygan, to Adam, son of Robert the carpenter of Wygan who is married to Mariota, Thomas’s sister required that Adam should render yearly to Thomas and his heirs, on Christmas Day, a barbed 
arrow of iron.

l The Christmas tree is generally held to have been introduced to this country by Prince Albert in the 1840s and certainly Colonel Towneley, of Towneley Hall, Burnley, writing from St Petersburg to his niece ‘Pug’ in 1851, states that ‘there have been a acgreat many Christmas trees given here and I believe some very pretty ones – for the Germans were the first to commence the custom and there are many families settled here’.

l In a Quarter Sessions Court petition a deposition from December 1631 concerns the theft of a turkey from John Greenhalgh esq., of Ashworth, who when confronting the thieves had a dead turkey thrown at his head. We also have some fantastically detailed household accounts in the archives which allow us a glimpse behind the scenes in the homes of some of Lancashire’s wealthier families. The account book for the 
Petre family, at Dunkenhalgh, details provisions bought for feasts on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day between 1616 and 1621. The delicacies enjoyed over the years included Flookes, freshwater fish, veal, cocks, beef feet, rabbits, mallards, pease, plovers, red shanks, teals, larks, eggs and an awful lot of suet.

l Mince pies are loved or loathed and Thomas Whiteside, studying in Rome in 1884, sends a very nostalgic letter home where he writes, “Mary of course will be hard at work as usual with her mince pies and I can picture to myself her greasing those little pie tins so strongly impressed upon my imagination…for mince pies then were my abomination and I would as soon have met a cinder in munching my currant loaf as a piece of candied peel.” Colonel Charles Towneley writing again from St Petersburg in 1851 stated that it was, “so long since I have seen a mince pie I should hardly know one again if I saw it.” Mrs Owen’s recipe book from the 18th century contains a recipe for ‘How to make shred meat for minch pyes’ including a leg of mutton and a ‘neats tongue’.

l After dinner there would be no Queen’s Speech for the parishioners of St Thomas’s, in Burnley, instead according to a surviving advert, at 3pm they mustered for an annual festive treat which included a Magic Lantern Show entitled ‘Drunk as a Brute’.

l On Christmas Day in 1914 on the Western Front, British and German troops at many places along the front line observed an unofficial truce. This strange interlude in the war is reflected in the diary of Joshua Kelsall. Sergeant Kelsall, from Preston, was in the trenches near Ypres on Christmas Eve 1914, serving in the Rifle Brigade. “There was little sleep”, his diary records, “as the carol singers of both sides made the most awful din.”

l So with carols in mind, and in the best tradition, we will finish with a song as we have a very early version of ‘A Hymn Proper for Christmas Day’ or ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ from circa 1750 with a non-traditional final verse, but you will have to visit Lancashire Archives to find out what that is.

All the above records and many more can be viewed at Lancashire Archives, Bow Lane, Preston, PR1 2RE. Visit our web site at www.lancashire.gov.uk/archives for more details on how to access Lancashire’s written heritage.