Let's begin with some rustic old verses by Thomas Tusser entitled 'Christmas Husbandly Fare':
'Get Ivye and hull, woman deck up thyne house: and take this same brawne, for to seeth and to souse.
Provide us good chere, for thou knowst the old guise: olde customs, that good be, let no man despise.
At Christmas be merry, and thanke God of all: and feast thy pore neighbours, the great with the small.
Yea al the yere long, have an eie to the poore: and God shall send luck, to kepe open thy doore.
Good husband and huswife, now chiefly be glad,
things handsome to have, as they ought to be had.
They both do provide, against Christmas do come,
to welcom their neighbours, good chere to have some.
Good bread and good drinke, a good fire in the hall,
brawne, pudding, and souse, and good mustarde withal.
Biefe, mutton, and Porke, and good Pies of the best,
pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest.
Chese, apples, and nuttes, and good Caroles to heare,
as then, in the country is counted good chere.
What cost to good husband, is any of this?
Good householde provision onely it is:
Of other the like, I do leave out a meny,
that costeth the husband never a peny.'
In Scottish Gaelic, Du'gan means the darkness of a loch, and Du'gan a' gheamhraidh, the darkest time in winter.
'There is a beauty in the trees peculiar to winter, when their fair delicate slender tracery unveiled by leaves and showing clearly against the sky rises bending with a lofty arch or sweeps gracefully drooping. The crossing and interlacing of the limbs, the smaller boughs and tender twigs make an exquisitely fine network which has something of the severe beauty of sculpture, while the tree in summer in its full pride and splendour and colour of foliage represents the loveliness of painting. The deciduous trees which seem to me most graceful and elegant in winter are birches, limes, beeches.' Francis Kilvert, Diary 1870-1879
The burning characteristics and qualities of various types of wood:
Logs to burn! Logs to burn! Logs to save the coal a turn.
Here's a word to make you wise when you hear the woodman's cries.
Beechwood fires burn bright and clear, hornbeam blazes too,
If the logs are kept a year to season through and through.
So beech logs for Christmastime and yew logs heat well,
But 'Scotch' logs it is a crime for anyone to sell.
Though pine is good and so is yew for warmth through wintry days,
But poplar and willow too, take long to dry or blaze.
Larch logs of pine wood smell but the sparks will fly.
Birch logs burn too fast, alder scarce at all.
Chestnut logs are good to last if cut well in the fall.
Holly logs will burn like wax, you should burn them green.
Elm logs burn like smouldering flax, no flame is seen.
Pear logs and apple logs, they will scent your room,
Cherry logs across the dogs smell like flowers in bloom.
But ash logs, all smooth and grey, burn them green or old.
Buy up all that come your way, they're worth their weight in gold.
'Still, they did manage to make a little festival of it. Every year the farmer killed an ox for the purpose and gave each of his men a joint of beef, which duly appeared on the Christmas dinner table together with plum pudding-not Christmas pudding, but suet duff with a good sprinkling of raisins. Ivy and other evergreens were hung from the ceiling and over the pictures; a bottle of homemade wine was uncorked, a good fire was made up, and, with doors and windows closed against the keen, wintry weather, they all settled down by their own firesides for a kind of super-Sunday...There were still bands of mummers in some of the larger villages, and village choirs went carol singing about the countryside; but none of these came to the hamlet, for they knew the collection to be expected there would not make it worth their while. A few families, sitting by their own firesides, would sing carols and songs; that, and more and better food and a better fire than usual, made up their Christmas cheer.'
Flora Thompson, Lark Rise To Candleford
Here are some excellent books along the line of old Christmas customs, stories and history: The Country Diary Christmas Book (my favourite); A Country House Christmas; A Fenland Christmas; Christmas In Shakespeare's England; Charles Dickens' Christmas Stories; Old Christmas by Washington Irving.
'The Children of Green Knowe', by Lucy M. Boston, from 1954, is a charming and cosy story set at Christmas that really isn't just for children (if you still have a little bit of child still in you, that is), in fact I only just read it myself for the first time about three years ago and recommend it.
'What if my grandmother is a witch,' thought Tolly as he waited in the hall at Green Knowe. He had come across the flooded fens in a boat to reach the old house that stood like an ark in the middle of the flood water. He'd come to spend Christmas with her in this strange lonely place. Queer flowers filled the vases and a bird's nest perched on the head of one of the carved oak cherubs who laughed down at him...Tolly's room was up under the eaves of the house, above the Knight's Hall, like a tent under the shape of the roof. It was full of old things, a rocking horse, a painted chest without a key and a doll's house exactly like Green Knowe...'
Once I came across a book called 'Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark and Forgotten Christmas', which was full of strange and sometimes shocking visions from Christmases long past, in old postcards and illustrations. Some of the images were funny, and some very morbid. Why did Victorians like to send cards with a poor dead bird on the front? There was a big emphasis on naughty children, some being thrown into a sack or beaten, or being chased by a terrifying devil-like creature, and some of the pictures would surely scare out the wickedness in the naughty wee ones!
Then there were the advertisements using Santa to promote them. One was for Ayer's Cherry Pectoral medicine in the 1880's, advertised showing children looking happy after taking the medicine. It was later discovered that it contained at least 20 percent ethyl alcohol and heroin!
Here is an amusing description of a Christmas music service, from 'Old Christmas' by Washington Irving:
'The orchestra was in a small gallery, and presented a most whimsical grouping of heads, piled one above the other, among which I particularly noticed that of the village tailor, a pale fellow with a retreating forehead and chin, who played on the clarionet, and seemed to have blown his face to a point; and there was another, a short pursy man, stooping and labouring at a bass viol, so as to show nothing but the top of a round bald head, like the egg of an ostrich. There were two or three pretty faces among the female singers, to which the keen air of a frosty morning had given a bright rosy tint; but the gentlemen choristers had obviously been chosen, like old Cremona fiddles, more for tone than looks; and as several had to sing from the same book, there were clusterings of odd physiognomies, not unlike those groups of cherubs we sometimes see on country tombstones.
The usual services of the choir were managed tolerably well, the vocal parts generally lagging a little behind the instrumental, and some loitering fiddler now and then making up for lost time by travelling over a passage with prodigious celerity, and clearing more bars than the keenest foxhunter to be in at the death. But the great trial was an anthem that had been prepared and arranged by Master Simon, and on which he had founded great expectation. Unluckily there was a blunder at the very outset; the musicians became flurried; Master Simon was in a fever, everything went on lamely and irregularly until they came to a chorus beginning "Now let us sing with one accord," which seemed to be a signal for parting company: all became discord and confusion; each shifted for himself, and got to the end as well, or rather as soon, as he could, excepting one old chorister in a pair of horn spectacles bestriding and pinching a long sonorous nose; who, happening to stand a little apart, and being wrapped up in his own melody, kept on a quavering course, wriggling his head, ogling his book, and winding up all by a nasal solo of at least three bars' duration. '
For various reasons, I find that Christmas stories set in the present to be greatly lacking in atmosphere, they just fail to capture the right mood or feeling for me. In my mind, at least, I tend to create a kind of romantic mixture of elements from Medieval and Victorian England (in the decorations and mood), with the 1970s of childhood thrown in, which may sound unusual, but it's the way I like it; you'll never find any bland modernistic minimalism from me.
The Box Of Delights is one of the best stories to watch at Christmas, and if you've never seen it, here is the beginning, it's great; Kay Harker (who I mentioned earlier in 'The Midnight Folk') is coming home from school for Christmas and encounters some rather shifty-looking coves on the train:
Christmas should always be as happy as possible, and peaceful, with good home cooked food and the right atmosphere, though it can be tinged with sadness for those no longer with us. A jolly time had by all is what we should all strive for in some way, and when times are bad, at least make a little effort to have a special day, doing whatever you can to make it nice.
I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas!