The Celebration of Christmas

By Terry John Calendar

Terry John - Bluestone HistorianHi I’m Terry. I am a local author, illustrator and educational officer with a passion for Pembrokeshire History. Every Thursday I host a free guided walk around the Bluestone resort as it is an area rich with history! In these Blogs you will be able to learn more about the traditions of the county of Pembrokeshire and more about the area that Bluestone calls home.  

Christmas is almost upon us and in homes across the land there will be a welter of activity as cards are written, presents are wrapped and food is prepared. It wasn’t any different for our ancestors. In fact, it may have been even more hectic for them as, especially in rural Pembrokeshire.

Christmas Day ushered in the beginning of a three week period of holidays and celebrations during which all farm work was suspended. In some areas, the Christmas Season was regarded as more important than Christmas Day and in place of the usual farm tasks, there were prolonged festivities.

Celebrations usually began with the ceremonial entry of the plough into the farmhouse. It was placed beneath the table on which meals were eaten.

It was very important each meal time to wet the plough with ale before drinking any toasts, as this showed clearly that, though the plough would not be needed for some time, it was not forgotten. It may even have been a way of ensuring a good harvest in the future.

As Christmas was such a special time of year, all quarrels were supposed to be settled amicably and all debts were to be paid off. Poor people went from door to door asking for Christmas charity and were given gifts of food or money.

In Tenby, Christmas Eve was celebrated by large crowds of people who thronged the streets, blowing cow horns and holding aloft blazing torches which, according to a report written in 1857, ‘flowed about in a manner that threatened at times the whole town - a fire-engine being then as now unknown in Tenby’.

The crowds also sang lustily and shouted aloud verses, beginning with ‘Christmas comes but once a year.’ The church bells rang out and the windows of every house were decorated with ‘ a variety of quaint devices, formed of leaves of evergreens, mainly box, myrtle or holly, with its red berries’.

You might also spot the postman, decked out with ribbons, making his way from house to house to ask for the customary Christmas box.

At four o’clock on the afternoon of Christmas Day, a procession of young men would be formed and the leaders would knock upon the door of the rector’s home to escort him to the church. As they entered the porch, the revellers would douse the torches, and leave them stacked against the walls.

The service consisted of prayers and carols, some of which were specially written each year by local poets. These new verses varied in length. Some were extremely long and we can only hope that the congregation weren’t too dozy from all the beer they had drunk.

The church itself was illuminated by two or three hundred coloured candles which were placed on the communion table, on the pulpit and in the windows and at the pew ends. When the service was over, the torches were re-lit and the procession was reformed to escort the rector back to his house.

Most people would attend the plygain service, which was held on Christmas morning, at any time between 3 am and six o’clock. It wasn’t unusual to stay awake all night on Christmas Eve, passing the hours until the time of the service in making treacle toffee, decorating the house with holly and mistletoe or singing and dancing to the playing of harps.

As many rural churches depended on candle power for illumination, services were rarely held in the hours of darkness. The plygain service was an exception, so members of the congregation brought along their own candles.

It was possible to buy extra thick candles with large wicks that would withstand sudden gusts of winds or the draughts that blew in through the church door. They usually cost two pence each, or four pence for bigger ones.

In some parishes, there was also a tradition of elaborately decorating a large candle with ribbons, sprigs of holly and coloured glass. This was the Yule Candle and the lighting of it would be a high point of the service. Symbolically, it represented the birth of Jesus, the Light of the World and it would be treated with reverence.

In the larger farms of Pembrokeshire, Christmas dinner was a lavish affair, with roast goose, beef and various puddings. A show of hospitality was also important, so the inhabitants of nearby farms and cottages would also be invited.

During the whole of the festive period, groups of young men wandered from farm to farm, singing and playing musical instruments. At each home they would be invited to sit around the table, where they would be plied with copious amounts of beer kept warm in small brass pans by the householder.

There were also celebrations on Boxing Day, though these were of a nastier sort. Gangs of men and boys roamed the streets carrying sprigs of prickly holly. Any young servant girl they encountered would be thrashed on her bare arms, the short sleeved jacket of her profession making her an easy target.

Nobody knows the origins of this unpleasant custom, though it is said to have its roots in the martyrdom of St Stephen, who was killed on 26th December. The tradition quickly vanished once a regular police force had been established in Tenby.

A familiar sight on the streets of Tenby, both before and after Christmas, were the troops mummers. Usually in groups of three, they were dressed in costumes that suggested St George, Father Christmas, Barbary pirates, doctors, Beelzebub and even Oliver Cromwell.

At each house into which they gained admittance, they would act out a rhyming storey that related the arrival of St George in the town to fight off the pirates who threatened it. 

St George would take up a dramatic pose and announce:

Here comes I, St George, the valiant man,

With naked sword and spear in hand,

Who fought the dragon and,

Brought him to slaughter

And for this won the King of England’s daughter.

What man or mortal will dare to stand

Before me with my sword in hand;

I’ll slay him and cut him as small as flies

And send him to Jamaica to make mince pies.

 

The other characters would answer in verse, a mock fight would ensue and when all ended happily with the defeat of the villain, the mummers sang their final rhyme:

 

Ladies and gentlemen

Our story is ended

Our money box is recommended,

Five or six shillings will do us no harm,

Silver, copper, or gold if you can.

Categories:History

Tags:Christmas

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