By E. J. Stowe
Published in Wiltshire Life Magazine – December 1946.
Wiltshire Life magazine (approx A5 in size) for December 1946/January 1947
E. J. Stowe was Headmaster at Market Lavington School and a writer on country matters
EVERY Christmas at Market Lavington we are enlivened by the merry chords of the village band playing the well-known carols. In the streets and in the lanes the bandsmen stand round their leader and play to us at our door.
This is a custom of so long standing that Christmas without our band and carols would not seem Christmas at all. We welcome their coming with gifts of money; but years ago “the big houses” welcomed them with more than a donation. They invited them inside and regaled them with beer and eatables.
When I was a boy, I looked forward to another band’s serenading on Christmas Eve, Their visit, long after dark, was an event to be looked for, and we youngsters stayed awake as long as we could, anticipating their arrival. When their music reached us, sudden and near, we were agog with excitement. We jumped out of bed to peer through the curtains at their twinkling lanterns and the bright reflections of their instruments. We loved their music, as it echoed and re-echoed on the glassy air to become a swirl of harmonious sounds, whose beauty seemed enhanced by the very coldness of the air and the uniqueness of the occasion.
I recall, too, the visits of the hand-bell ringers, who always visited us on Boxing Day. They were our Parish Church bell ringers, whose chimes had cheered us Sunday by Sunday throughout the year and this was their way of spending their holiday as at Xmas. They came to us wrapped in greatcoats and wearing mittens. They tramped from house to house in the snow, giving at each a short round or two on their twinkling bells. They collected quite a large sum of money and used it in providing themselves with a good supper at one of our Inns.
When they visited us, they stood in a circle around their leader, who gave them brief instructions about “bobs.” As a boy, I used to wonder why “Bob” (one of the men was named Bob Chapman) should need so much attention. I watched Bob very closely, but to my untrained eye I could see nothing amiss with what he did. But still the leader shouted “Bob.” It was sometime before I discovered that the cries of “Bob” were really ringing instructions when he required a change in the order of ringing. It was fascinating to watch the eight of them swing their bells, shoulder high and then jerk them at the precise moment to swell the harmony of movements, their whole attention was fastened on their neighbours whom they watched with sidelong glances. They said nothing at all. They listened to their leader’s shouts, whose “Bobs” momentarily broke the rhythm of their movements. The chain of sounds spread upwards until the houses re-echoed their merry chimes and the streets and the lanes seemed Lilliputian Cathedral towers with their bells aswing.
Nativity Plays are closely associated with Mumming plays, which are indigenous to the Countryside. Mummers have been part and parcel of village life ever since Christianity began. Although their plays varied up and down the country, they always followed the same pattern. They grew out of the ancient plays showing Winter as Death and Spring as Life. To this was added as time went on, stories of Crusaders- stories of St. George and stories of Turkish Knights; the former (St. George for merry England) always the conqueror of the latter.
Some years ago I revived the Mummer’s Plays at West Tytherly in Hampshire, where the performers were all young people and the village audiences certainly appreciated them. After all they were intended primarily for village folks and I found that the addition of one or two famous English personages added interest to the story and the inclusion of a bit of local history gave point and amusement to the theme.
The historical references and incidents need not be too exact. Neither need the story be chronologically correct. There is a great deal of scope given and taken in this kind of play. Even the language can be at times mere gibberish. The idea is to amuse the people and not instruct them. If the audience is convulsed with laughter, the players are spurred on to excel themselves and this delights all. The wit which appealed to my Hampshire folk might fall flat on a Northerner, so a good deal of licence is necessary, but reference to local people (provided they are jocular and apt) never fail to raise a laugh and always go down well.
Christmas is the time of family reunions. Sons and daughters, with their children, travel from far and near to spend the festival with their parents.
Paper chains are hung across the ceiling, holly and mistletoe decorate the walls, and mantelpiece is thick with Christmas cards. Sometimes the paper chains break and wreathe the heads of the people sitting in the room. The family gather around the dining room table soon after mid-day to their turkey and chicken, plum pudding and mince pies. The first part of the afternoon is spent in resting – the men in the dining room and the ladies in the parlour.
The latter part of the afternoon the men spend (as they do on most Sundays) walking around the fields and looking at the stock and examining the crops. No countryman would think his walk right if he had no stick, for sticks are useful in many ways. Sticks are more than staffs in their hands – they are implements or tools, indispensable for their investigations. So the afternoon wears on until the sun begins to lower in the western sky, the men turn their steps homewards, for Tea comes in with nightfall in December.
Then the lights are lit, and as many a village has no grid, the lamps with their frosted globes are set in their standards in the dining room and drawing room.
After tea the tables are set out in the drawing room for a miniature whist drive. Here amid a continuous babble of conversation, the players move from table to table. The drive is a boisterous affair and not the serious game we know it can be when played in the Parish Hall with its M.C. and its many rules. After an hour or so, scores are added up and the prizes awarded. There are booby prizes too, for the lowest score and the recipients are made to reveal their prizes to the family amid much banter and copious hand clapping.
Supper follows and then the young people get busy taking up carpets and rearranging the furniture. Someone volunteers to play the piano and the rest of the evening is spent in dancing. Thus, with intervals for the wireless news, the evening draws to a close amidst conviviality and fun. The party breaks up at a late hour with invitations to other parties on the morrow.
Seldom nowadays do we get the traditional Wenceslas kind of Christmas weather. In the last seven years I remember only one such Xmas. Then deep snow lay over and around the village and the familiar byways, fields and hedgerows were completely shrouded from view. Around our houses the wind sculptured the snow with lines resembling those on the sands after the waves have retreated from the shore. The village streets were so deep in snow that the villagers found it better to walk than to cycle. The postman, instead of delivering his letters soon after dawn, arrived with them at noon. He, too, had discarded his cycle and was tramping through the snow with his sacks and parcels. But he was as merry as ever and his only comment was “I don’t enjoy this Christmas card snow Sir! ”
The change I notice most when deep snow covers the countryside is the directness of the routes people take to reach their objective. When footpaths are invisible, the villagers plod straight across field and furrow to the Church, or to the shops; and the children do the same to go to school. Usually village folk keep strictly to the twisting paths and circuitous lanes, but a snow-covered land gives them a new-found liberty and they make straight for the smoke of their cottage fire without regard to any rights of way or Parish Council regulations. And this is as it should be.
In December the Post Office becomes a busy place of work. The counters are loaded with parcels, the mailbags with letters. There you find game, rabbit and poultry neatly labelled, tied and parcelled ready for sending to distant relatives.
The window of our Post Office (filled with photographs and postcards, our postmaster being a skilled photographer) looks gay and attractive. Official formality of the office is over-ruled by the homeliness of the “taking photographs” or developing “snaps.” On the side counter are piles of photographs, most of them marked “With the season’s greetings.” A village Post Office has nothing of official aloofness about it but is the friendly place we like it to be. Many villagers would rather shop in the village than in the neighbouring towns, as here they are known, there they are not. Intimate relationships make for good dealings and fair transactions.
In December we find temporary postmen “sorting letters” ready for delivering. There are few secrets in a village Post Office, as all the business is done in one room. There are no separate sorting rooms, despatching departments) money order sections (and what not) found in our town offices. So all the work is transacted in the public view. The postmen are our friends) whose names we know – even their little idiosyncrasies we appreciate. One postman has a professional interest in garden flowers and my wife and he exchange plants) or seeds. If we have seedlings he likes, we present him with some and if he thinks our garden would be improved by the addition of some plant or other he not only suggests their inclusion but also presents us with them. Officialdom in the village is not so apparent as in the towns because small numbers make life more communal and personal.
I find but few turkeys being reared this year in the villages for the Christmas market. Before the war, a hundred or two were reared each year in my own village alone and about the middle of December at least a day was spent killing the birds and despatching them to London. One by one the birds were hung up to a barn beam and killed by a swift twist of the wrist. It is a curious fact that turkeys which are so delicate to rear when young are so difficult to kill when fully grown. As adults they become the tyrants of the farmyard and delight in lording it over all the other birds. Should an ailing hen allow herself to be caught unawares, they are sure to peck her mercilessly to death with their axe-like beaks. They “gobble-gobble” up and down the farm and its lanes all day long until the December butcher arrives. Then peace returns to the farms for a few months until the spring brings with it the squawk and squeak of the young turkeys once more. If the turkeys are gone, geese have come to supplant them. Geese are easier to rear and they are becoming the favourites of the small- holder and even of the cottagers with a piece of grassland at the back of their houses. Near my house a few geese have been reared into fat plump birds ready for the table and they should make good eating at Christmas.
In the country Christmas is a pretty lengthy business. For the school children, it begins in October when they start to make their Christmas toys. They fashion gay soldiers out of cotton reels, miniature dolls-house furniture from padded matchboxes, and workmanlike warships from boxes “scrounged” from the village shops. The more competent of the boys make complicated aeroplanes, tanks and guns from odds and ends of wood so skilfully that any London Store would be proud to display them on the counters.
The members of the Young Farmer’s Clubs, too, have been busy since September (when their Winter programme opened) making model poultry houses, miniature sheep cribs and wattle hurdles for their Christmas Exhibition: These have been constructed in their workshop where their instruction in rural handicrafts has been interspersed with visits to local craftsmen who have co-operated in their training. One or two of the older members have worked in the Village Smithy under the friendly eye of the Smithy himself; They have been preparing for their blacksmith’s badge and on the anvil have learnt something of the ancient craft of the country blacksmith. There they have forged “shut” links, angle plates, hooks and eyes. They have drilled and countersunk screw holes. They have welded links into chains, made rings for “bitels” (the countryman’s name for the- large wooden mallets found on every farm) and “shut” (welded) the irons for the scythes. And all this work has been done with a view to their Christmas show, held a few days before December 25th.
The W.I. Choir too, began their Christmas preparations in October, when they commenced in the Schoolroom their practices of the less known carols. Here week by week they have met in the gathering twilight and rehearsed their parts under the baton of the Vicar’s wife; and here (or in the Village Hall) they will have their service of carols at Christmas to which the Whole Parish will be invited.
Most of the cottagers have made other Christmas preparations as long ago as September when in their garden they erected their fattening coops in which one or two young cockerels have been pampered into the giant birds they now are, almost ready for the Xmas dinner. The gleanings of corn, gathered by the children from the harvest field have supplemented household scraps to make them these fine robust birds and many a cottager would prefer his Christmas “chicken” to even a turkey. The more fortunate of the villagers who have a sty at the bottom of the garden have anticipated Christmas even longer, for in mid-Summer they purchased a couple of weaner (piglets about two months old) to fat for Christmas. In my younger days, every cottager possessed a sty. It was small in size; but great in importance. The pigs were of the greatest interest to the whole family and even to the neighbours. The pigs changed the household and garden waste into bacon for Christmas, which when well salted and “cured” kept good and fresh for many weeks during the Winter months. Any Sunday morning in the autumn the villagers could be seen leaning over the wall of the pigsty, studying their animals or discussing them with a friend.
The disappearance of the pigsty is one of the things to be regretted in our village life and in spite of the effort of the Small Pig Keepers Council, its re-appearance is not so widespread as we should wish. With its going, many cottagers lost a topic of conversation and a thing of mutual interest with their neighbours. Had we taken steps to maintain this useful village institution we should have been the better prepared to meet the menace of starvation which faced us in 1940.
But most villagers have long ago secured their Yule logs. In early autumn they obtained loads of legwood (the countryman’s term for the long branches left where the timber merchant fells his trees). My family have been busy at the sawing horse with the cross-cut and even my small son, aged nearly eleven, has been with his miniature hand saw converting the branches into small logs for the parlour fire. He and his elder brother have built a tidy stack of logs “seasoning” in the shed.
Timber cut in September is full of sap and it is best to let the logs dry out (or season as we country people call it). They will be ready for the fire early in December and we look forward to sitting around our log fire this Christmas. Country folk for countless years have enjoyed a log fire at this season and there is nothing to beat the merry crackling of oak logs on a winter’s day.
So for country people, the thoughts of Christmas, (like the thoughts of youth) are “long-long thought” and the rural mind is occupied with them at intervals throughout at least a quarter of the year.