CHRISTMAS PAST

by

The Christian festival of  Christmas began to be widely celebrated in the Middle Ages and many traditions established at that time have been carried forward into today’s festivities.  Some could, perhaps, be even older with roots in the celebration of the winter solstice, such as using evergreens as decorations.  Across the country, in the 17th century much drunkenness and other misbehaviour became associated with Christmas time.  In the increasingly puritanical climate of the Commonwealth, the Puritan rulers in 1647 banned Christmas, regarding it as a Catholic invention.  This ban was widely unpopular and its effectiveness questionable.

In 1660 following the restoration of the monarchy the ban ended.  The old English traditions of feasting merriment, dancing, carol singing and decorating homes and churches with evergreens joyously resumed. All the elements of the modern Christmas festive season were brought together and popularised thanks to Queen Victoria and Albert and Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.

The modern Christmas brought the introduction of the retail bonanza, which today starts in October. On the 25 December 1888, Mid Sussex Times published an article describing the ‘treasures for the delectation of the public’ available in Lindfield’s shops.  the following are a few extracts.

Masters’ (site of the Coop) had ‘an admirable display of fruit and biscuits’ together with ‘charming drapery and a capital assortment of china and earthenware’.  Similarly, Durrant’s (Lindfield Eye Care) ‘thoroughly enters into the spirit of the season with a show of Christmas cheer both liquid and solid’ also the shop’s showroom under the New Assembly Room (site of Medical Centre) ‘boasts of a rare collection of novelties, including, baskets, aprons, wraps, cushions, screens, pottery, lace goods.  Nearby, Miss Simmons’ shop (Tufnells Home) was ‘replete with a capital assortment of children’s toys ornaments, fancy articles, stationery and favourite new booklets’.

Holman’s (95/97 High Street) ‘stock of geese, turkeys, duck and game is sufficiently large and varied to satisfy all who want a good roast’, also ‘fruit and nuts as a dessert’.  Across the street, Henry Simmons’ shop ‘looks after those fond of nuts, bon-bons and the narcotic weed while general grocery is not forgotten’.  Humphreys and Charman’s (74 High Street) bakeries were both praised, and the latter’s ‘cakes iced and plain and confectionary, will be sure to make the public part with their bawbees’ (an old Scottish low value coin).  In a similar vein, Wearn’s shop (Somers) provided ‘a trinity of temptations in the shape of toys, Christmas fruit and hosiery’.  Box’s butchers (Cottenhams) had a ‘capital show of beef, mutton, pork, veal, lamb, turkeys and geese’.  Food a plenty was available.

Feasting, for those with money, has been at the centre of the celebration and today the turkey has become the most popular meat for the festive meal.  turkeys were introduced into this country from the Americas in the mid-1500s.  Early references to turkeys in Lindfield at Christmas time include, in December 1660, William Older being brought before the courts ‘for the felonious taking of one turkey hen’ belonging to ‘Walter Brett, gentleman of Lindfield’.  Three decades later, in March 1691, Sarah Edsaw, a widow living in Lindfield, entered into a lease for various lands in the parish belonging to Walter Burrell at an ‘annual rent of £50, and at Christmas two fat geese and two fat turkeys’.  For centuries goose was the favoured meat.

For many in the parish such meats were beyond their means, but a little seasonal cheer was brought to even the poorest.  Inmates at the village poor house as an addition to their usual meals of gruel and pottage, were treated to plum pudding on Christmas Day 1782.  Over the centuries for many mid-winter was a difficult time and charity featured strongly.  The Mid Sussex Times on 19 December 1882 reported that in Lindfield the winter weather was ‘throwing many of the labouring poor out of work’ resulting in many needing assistance from the Poor Relief Fund, and at the first distribution of soup there were ‘ready purchasers for soup at a penny per quart throughout the day’.

Christmas time was recognised as a time for giving and charitable deeds, as portrayed in Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’.  It is also a time for carols, with old carols such as ‘The Holly and the Ivey’ traditionally having been sung in the street long before being taken into the church. The Lindfield Waits Benevolent Society founded in December 1894, kept the old tradition alive singing carols ‘grievously early on ye morning of ye Xmas all through ye village in aide of ye Firemen’s Widows and Orphans Fund’.  This was an annual event by the Lindfield Fire Brigade;  the illustration is their 1912 poster.

Christmas festivities were austere during the Great War years, due to hardship and shortages of food, goods and of course menfolk away fighting the war.  Increasing number of casualties and fear of bad news was ever present.  However, Lindfield ladies devoted their time to charity and good causes.  The focus each autumn was ensuring men in the military were not forgotten by the village.  Money was raised for Christmas puddings, gifts and comforts such as knitted woollen scarves, mittens and socks.  In 1917 the Women’s Institute made or collected 92 gifts of soldier’s comforts for the Royal Sussex Regiment.  Similarly, the WI was very active in making children’s soft toys as their availability had ceased.

Two decades later and once more Britain was at war and Christmas festivities curtailed.  The Women’s Institute organised that every Lindfield man and woman serving in the forces would receive a gift parcel together with a Christmas card produced by Helena Hall.  In 1942, the men’s gift comprised writing paper, pencil, a Penguin story book, shaving stick, razor blades, a new 2/6d piece, a game, pack of cards, woolly socks or scarf with hood end and a printed letter from the vicar.  To give Christmas cheer to local children, the Canadian soldiers arranged Christmas parties in King Edward Hall, as a thank you for being made welcome in the village.

Children’s treats have always been a seasonal feature, earlier instances being a show entitled ‘Entertainment for children’ at the New Assembly Room, Lindfield (Medical Centre site) on 30th December 1884, comprising a ‘Celebrated Company of Marionettes’ and ‘A Musical Medley by Two Clown’.  On a less grand scale in 1895, the Sunday School organised a children’s party at Lindfield School.  The Mid Sussex Times reported ‘In addition to an excellent tea, a Christmas tree was provided, and each juvenile received something in the shape of a present’.

Needless to say, entertainment was not solely the preserve of children, adults participated in all sorts of fun.  Such as on Boxing Day 1901, ‘a grand match’ of the ‘noble game (football) was played on the Common between Lindfield Veterans and Hayward’s Heath Old Crocks.  A good crowd watched the ‘capital fun’.

Since being established in Lindfield, the churches have delivered the story of the nativity and the birth of Jesus, albeit the form of the services have changed over time.  Special services and carols are now a feature of the Christmas festive today.  Perhaps the true reason for the festivities is too easily overlooked among the increasing commercialism.

 

Published in Lindfield Life Dec 2019

 

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