I have in my possession a rather battered little book called ‘Sussex in bygone days – reminiscences of Nathaniel Paine Blaker MRCS’, which was published in 1919 by my husband’s forbears, the Combridges of 56 Church Road, Hove. It was first published privately in 1906. Nathaniel grew up in Sussex, having been born in Selmeston in 1835, and eventually went on to work at the Sussex County Hospital in Brighton. The book is a collection of memories of life in Sussex in former times and includes subjects such as old occupations, transport, sport, health and festivals as well as describing his medical training.
I wondered what Nathaniel might have to say about Christmas in days gone by. In talking of agricultural labourers, he says “sheep-shearing, harvest-supper and Christmas were in those country villages the three festivals of the year, and were looked forward to and remembered for days or weeks: A Christmas gambol oft could cheer the poor man’s heart for half a year”.
In a later chapter, however, he talks of ‘Club Day’ being “the most festive day of the year”, when members of the Benefit Club marched to church with a band and subsequently proceeded to the pub where they “dined and spent the rest of the day in dancing and other games and amusements”. He goes on to say “A little girl, when asked by a school inspector what were the chief festivals of the Church, replied ‘Christmas, Easter and Albourne Club’”.
Nathaniel’s other recollection of Christmas is of one year when he was about 11 or 12 years old (ie around 1847). On Christmas Eve burglars got into the family house by removing the iron bars from the cellar window. “They took nothing of value, only a gun, a few overcoats and other small articles, but they took what in those days I thought of great importance, namely, the beef and plum-pudding intended for the Christmas dinner next day. Being six miles from any town, and all the shops being closed, no more beef or materials for plum-pudding could be got, and we were indebted to the Rector, Mr Tufnell, who kindly helped us out by sending some pork pies”. (A quick check of the 1841 census reveals that Mr Tufnell and family and Nathaniel Blaker’s family lived in Edburton, a village on the north side of the Devil’s Dyke). Somehow pork pies sound a poor substitute for Christmas dinner, but I’m sure the family were extremely grateful for at least something to eat.
Well, whatever you are planning to eat for your Christmas dinner, and whether or not you are planning a ‘Christmas gambol’, I hope you have a lovely time.