How Did You Spend Christmas?
Archives can reveal details about how our ancestors lived and customs and practices they took for granted which can look very strange to modern eyes! Lost ways of life can be found in all kinds of sources, the most personal of which, diaries and letters, can give an intimate portrait of individual’s daily lives as well as shedding light on their wider community. They provide a window through which we can relate to those who have gone before.
With this in mind I thought I would explore how some Wiltshire residents of the past spent their Christmas and New Year.
Francis Kilvert and Edith Olivier both have well known published diaries but the Wiltshire Record Society have also published personal diaries of everyday folk held in our collections. There is much recognisable to us in their festive moments; celebrating new beginnings, giving gifts, spending time with family, the traditional seasonal illness, country walks etc.
William Henry Tucker was born in Trowbridge in 1814 and in later life became a successful clothier. The diary (WRS Vol.62) as a whole offers a candid insight into the life of Tucker and his community during the years 1825-50.
1827 25 Dec: Went to W. Plummer’s and had a Christmas supper. Exhibited my watch to the company, and made numerous enquiries respecting my anticipated settlement in the counting house.
1827 31 Dec: This day commences a most important era. At ten o’clock I made my first entry... into Mr John Stancombe’s counting house.
1829 31 Dec The weather was extremely severe about this time. Having an afternoon’s holiday, about three o’clock my brother and myself set off towards the canal by way of Islington: we ran upon the ice... on our way home we over Mr.- a fashionable shoemaker... who told us many lies of his wonderful feats in skating. On passing down the Courts I encountered a young lady who had for some time occupied no inconsiderable share of my thoughts.
1832 25 Dec supped at E.Hs (future wife, Emily Hendy, daughter of Grocer, William Hendy – married in Oct 1935 when both aged 21)
1834 26 Dec Took a walk amid the blackness of the night through the Hennicks,... and in allusion to future prospects I made a rather pointed enquiry touching a somewhat important subject, which was satisfactorily answered by the person to whom it was addressed.
1835 25 Dec An old fashioned frosty Christmas. At Dad’s all day.
1836 25 Dec – Xmas day comes on Sunday. In the evening a tremendous snowstorm came on, which lasted all night and covered the country to a depth unknown for many years past, playing the dickens with coaches, mails. etc. etc.
1838 25 Dec – mild Christmas Day. Took a walk in Studley fields by the inn.
1838 31 Dec Finished stocktaking. Mr Hall died. Had our Christmas party and watched the year out.
1 Jan 1839 Grand fete at factory. Was not present, being in Bath occupied in my final purchases of books. Spent most of the day with Matthew Newth.
1844 25 Dec Dined, tead and supped at W.H.’s Went to church twice.
1846 1 Jan This year begins in suspense on three very important points – How will the crisis in the railway market terminate? Is R. Peel coming forward as a Corn Law repealer? Is -.
1854 he wrote of ‘comforts of the Christmas fireside, surrounded by intelligent and well-conducted children’ (despite his previous depressions over the birth of numerous girls!).
1847 31 Dec. Bill of Health: E., Lucy, Alfred and Emma have had the influenza but are partially recovered. The rest of us are well.
Francis Kilvert was a clergyman, born in Hardenhuish Lane, near Chippenham and who worked as a rural curate helping his father (rector of Langley Burrell) and as curate in the Welsh Marches, Radnorshire, and Herefordshire. His diaries, reflecting on rural life, were published 50 years following his death.
1870 Dec. 25 “sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the dies of the tub like chevaux de fise, not particularly comforting for naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire…”
1870 Dec 27 “After dinner drove into Chippenham with Perch and bought a pair of skates at Benk’s for 17/6. Across the fields to the Draycot water and the young Awdry ladies chaffed me about my new skates. I had not been on skates since I was here last, 5 years ago, and was very awkward for the first ten minutes, but the knack soon came again… I had the honour of being knocked down by Lord Royston, who was coming round suddenly on the outside edge.
1871 Jan 1 My Mother, Perch [his elder brother] and I sat up last night to watch the old year out and the New Year in.
1874 New Years Eve Edwin Law told me of an infallible receipt for warming cold and wet feet on a journey. Pour half a glass of brandy into each boot.
Edith Olivier, writer and part of circle of well-known artists, writers and composers including Rex Whistler, Cecil Beaton and Siegfried Sassoon.
1927 25 Dec ‘Deluges descending all day… Have marvellous presents. Books from Mrs Morrison (who also sent me an old English purse bag with £1 in it!)
1927 31 Dec I have liked 1927. I saw Florence for the first time and crossed the Alps, published my first book and have really had a success – tho’ not financially. Made friends with Cecil and have got to know several interesting new people and Rex has become famous by finishing his big work. He and I have deepened our friendship. I rather dread 1928. Don’t like years with even numbers. Unless I can earn more I shall be really bankrupt this coming year.
1939 Christmas Day …”to the Soldiers’ Xmas dinner in the Michael Herbert Hall. I have paid for them to have each a friend from home and it was a most rollicking roysterous meal… the King broadcast, a brave thing to do, as he began with 2 very bad stammering break-downs when one felt he must throw up the sponge and hand it over to someone else. But No, he surmounted it and was very fine at the end…”
Naomi Sackett, Records Assistant