The Story of Christmas

THE theme of the December 2013 meeting of Ashbourne Heritage Society was, appropriately, the Story of Christmas. The speaker, Paul Barrass, was introduced by Mary Dear. She reminded us that Paul had entertained us at our December 2012 meeting as the leader of the Defence Volunteers — with a light- hearted look at the period when French POWs were in Ashbourne.
This year, Paul came as himself and started his story of Christmas where it all began. This was a reading from the Bible about the first Christmas as told in St Luke’s Gospel in the beautiful words of the King James Version. He then proceeded to talk about many of the things associated with Christmas. He had no visual aids but with his entertaining and amusing delivery he didn’t need them.
First under discussion was Santa Claus and the real man behind the story. This was the fourth century Nicholas (later Saint) Bishop of Syria – now in Turkey. He was a wealthy man and hearing of the difficulties of a poor man in providing dowries for his three daughters, he climbed on to the poor man’s roof and dropped bags of gold down the chimney. These landed in stockings which happened to be hanging by the fireplace. So we have the start of Christmas presents and stockings.
We next moved to Holland where we met Sinta Klaas, who wore a purple or green robe, and his assistant, Black Pete, who would drag off naughty children. Many Dutch people emigrated to America – after all, New York started as New Amsterdam. Sinta Klaas, of course, went with them but, eventually, became Santa Claus because other emigrants had difficulty with Dutch pronunciation.
Many people think Santa was first depicted in red clothes in a Coca-Cola advertisement in 1931 when he was portrayed holding a can of Coke. However, it was in 1881 that an artist called Nash first illustrated Santa as a large gentle- man in a red cloak. In England Santa had always been depicted in a green, fur-trimmed cloak. In 1823 came the reindeer – all named for the first time. This was in Clement C Moore’s famous poem A Visit from St Nicholas; “T’was the night before Christmas …. ’.
Traditional entertainment, particularly from the late 18th to the late 19th century, was the mummers’ play. These usually took place between Christmas and the New Year. They probably date back to the 16th century and a version of the story of St George. In the plays the hero was always killed and brought back to life. Paul had written a light-hearted mummers play in verse which six members of the society acted out for us. David Coxen as St George died a spectacular death which brought the house down. Some of our members have obviously missed their calling!
Mumming is closely associated with wassailing. In cider-producing areas, wassailers sing to the apple trees and anoint the trees to produce a good harvest. Some pubs have a wassail bowl in which ale, honey and spices are mixed and drunk, thus carrying on an old tradition. Wassail is from the Old Norse vas heil, meaning be in health, or nowadays good cheer.
Finally, crackers and Christmas trees. No, not Prince Albert! Martin Luther, the 16th century leader of the Protestant Reformation, illuminated the first Christmas tree. Walking home from church one day he saw many stars in the sky and thought “the Lord put stars in the sky why can’t I illuminate my tree”.
Prince Albert did introduce the Christmas tree to Britain but before that the Yule bough and the Yule log were the symbols of Christmas. A great log was laid, with great ceremony, in the hearth on Christmas Eve and burned until Twelfth Night. The word Yule comes from the Old English geola related to Old Norse jol – the name of a pagan festival at the Winter Solstice.
Christmas crackers originated from a sweet shop owned by a confectioner called Tom Baker. He imported bon-bons from France which came wrapped in paper twisted at each end. He decided to make them bigger and put more in them. Tom Baker decided these wrapped bon-bons needed a bit more ‘oomph’. He was a bit of a chemist on the quiet and developed a ‘snapper’. Behold, the cracker! He went into mass production and added hats and jokes. Crackers are today still made by the Tom Baker company. The first Christmas card was produced by Sir Henry Cole in 1846 with the first commercial firms printing cards in the 1870s.
This was a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable start to the Christmas season and was followed by mince pies and wine kindly supplied by the committee.

Some Ashbourne scenes
Larger scale pictures of these and other images are available on the Galleries pages.