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A Dartmoor Christmas 1899

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Whilst trawling through some old newspapers I came across this account of a ‘Dartmoor Christmas’ written in 1899 and if you yearn for a nostalgic portrayal of a simple but happy Christmas then read on. There will be no mention of children staring intently at Ipad screens, adults checking their mobile phones every 2 minutes, or tables groaning with exotic food that the supermarkets have persuaded us to buy. You will not find the faintest hint of TV games drowning out all hope of any conversation nor any mention of the ‘Strictly’ Christmas Special – just family, friends and neighbours celebrating a time of ‘peace and good will’

Christmas proper commenced on Christmas Eve, when the church clock was on the stroke of five. Then Joshua flung down the drashel (flail) that his lusty arms had been wielding in the barn from dawn to dusk. John Ploughman homeward plodded his weary way, while Kate and Sue, with their brimming milk pails, stepped delicately across the frozen pavements that lay between the byre and the dairy. Out-of-door labour having ceased, a general setting to rights commenced within the well-t-do farmhouse. The farmer himself and his sons brought in the sacred ashen faggot, which thrown upon the smouldering turf ashes on the great open hearth, soon sent a mighty blaze of light and heat, that reached the furthest corner of the spacious house-place, and was reflected in the brazon vessels that hung about the walls, and in the great pewter pots and platters that stood on the dresser, until the farm kitchen was transformed into the likeness of a palace.
The daughters of the house and their favourite parish ‘prentice maid hastened to dress the huge flitches of bacon which hung from the raftered ceiling with a profusion of holly, laden with its cheerful scarlet berries: for there was no stint, the great towns with their rapacious demands being, luckily, at that time few and far between. Nor were they unmindful to raise to its place of honour in the centre of the room a fine branch of mistletoe, beneath whose magic spell the bashful swain should hereafter seal the consummation of his bliss. The busy housewife, whose face beamed with good temper and hospitality, plied meanwhile her unwanted evening toil. and prepared, in addition to the curranty kettle-loaf and cheese, and the historical cider, sundry bowls of furmenty and dishes of toffee, which from time immemorial, had been the common use and practice of Christmas Eve in those parts.
The due observance of the festive time was thus maintained, as one neighbour and another chanced to drop in – chiefly the companions of the sons and daughters of the house. Then blindman’s buff and other forfeits went merrily, under fire of the farmer’s ‘quips and cranks’ which came dropping in from the corner of the great oaken settle where he sat and smoked his pipe of peace near the ashen faggot still blazing on the hearth. Thus quickly and joyfully the time moved on to the hour when the singers might be expected to arrive.
Now, Clerk Hurrel and his ten sons and one daughter, and his daughter-in-law to be, held the right of supplying the music, vocal and instrumental, both of church and parish, whensoever an event of sufficient importance, either of joy or sorrow, rendered that it be becoming that there should be a performance of the same. Choirs were then unknown but the clerk ruled his singing-loft with rigid discipline not to be surpassed. Having, therefore, on this Christmas Eve, satisfactorily stick a sprig of holly, by way of decoration, at the doors of the snug enclosures known as pews in those days, which happily lent themselves to the somnolent tendencies of the rustic brain during the parson’s wholesome, if somewhat lengthy discourse; and having profusely bespangled the pulpit with the same, the clerk and his company hastened to take up their musical instruments, books, stout staves and lanterns, though the ‘seven stars’ had been out for the matter of an hour or two, and started on their annual round of visitations to the scattered farms, and isolated warrens of the parish, carrying their message of ‘peace on earth, and goodwill towards men’ in the quaint words set to quaint music, which had come down to them through long-vanished generations.
What would have Christmas have been without its anthems! with their peculiar high notes, and shakes, and repetitions, rendered with as much care and precision as  when Clerk Hurrel and his sons first ventured on their performance; and listened to with as much delight as though they had never been heard before. Ah well! The singers and minstrels, playing on their bass-viol, violoncello, and flageolet, threw their whole hearts and voices into their work, and thus year by year the quaint words and quaint music of ‘Hail! happy nations, hail the day,’ ‘Jesus the Child is born,’ and ‘Glory on High’ came with a fresh inspiration of joy and thankfulness to the hearts of the listeners.

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The last and longest, halt made by these brave musicians was usually a lonely house at the furthest boundary of the parish. Here they were made much of, as befitted the occasion, being invited within the doors by reason of the bitter night and for the better appreciation of the music. Where Scotch and Dartmoor humour met a right merry time was spent though it might so happen that the same jokes, the same dry humour, the same smart repartee went round as had served for many a year past. Clerk Hurrel never failed to remark that he himself and his five sons then present, stood thirty-six feet in height, which was easily understood when he went on to boast that each stood six feet high out of their shoes.
After this there was not much time lost before the lonely house was again astir with light and warmth and expectation for some half-dozen of the best scholars from the parish school were due long before the late dawn broke over the moor, they having been invited, as a reward for their diligence, to give recitation of various psalms and hymns in the presence of the family who lived their.
Lighted by the horn lantern of Noah Edward Widdicombe, and rejoicing in their youth and strength, the young lads and maidens rejoiced also in the three miles walk across the frozen moor. The ashen faggot still blazing on the hearth lighted up the glowing faces of the happy group of young ones when they stood up one after another, and by reason of that wonderful gift of memory which distinguishes the true Dartmoor-bred youth, recited their self-imposed tasks, until Lizzie Crap, the pride and favourite of all, rose in her place and said the 119th Psalm, from the first verse to the last, without a break or hesitation. The approval if their friends and extremely small books were esteemed a sufficient reward. Oranges, French fruits and sweetmeats were at that time the portion of the gentry, and to be heard of only in the distance; but steaming cups of fragrant coffee and generous slices right off a good spice loaf made one feel that it mattered little how things were done on the outside when it was a good time and real Christmas cheer within this lonely moor house. The young ones, however, must not linger, for it behoved them to return, with what speed they might, over the frozen moor, as they were bound to reach church in time for morning prayer, it being deemed essential that every man, woman, and child in the parish, with any sense of years on their heads, should appear in their places at Morning Prayer on Christmas day; and was it not their bounden duty, as their fathers had done before them, turning their backs upon the altar and the parson, and their faces to the singing-loft – was it not their bounden duty there to lift up their voices to the praise and glory of God, in the before-mentioned quaint hymns and anthems?
Christmas Day was observed somewhat soberly on the moor, yet with much comfort withal, in humble, cheerful cottage homes. It seemed to be especially the children’s day; for, as Uriah Hurrel put it; ‘The parents thought much of comforting their children on that day,’ and this they did by managing what little treats and amusements their very humble means might permit. ‘Comfortable’ was the word which served best to express these Dartmoor folks’ sense of enjoyment. Naturally singing came in as an unfailing source of amusement; the fine air of the moor and much singing out of doors gave a richness, or, more properly described, a roundness and compass to their clear voices which well might be the envy of a prima donna. Dancing and other more boisterous amusements appeared to these simple-minded folk more fitting for the New Year. Amongst other established usages, Christmas Day was a time when neighbours who, mayhap, were parted by long distances, the whole year round, exchanged visits; and be sure neither neither let nor hindrance of real Christmas weather held them back from fulfilling this plain duty of neighbourliness; for, ‘peace and good will’ – the true message of Christmas Day – moved the hearts of the dwellers on the to kindly thoughts and deeds, so that ‘Christmas Day on Dartmoor,’ in the olden time was a happy day – ‘a day to be remembered‘.” – The Northern Echo, 25th December 1899.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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