Christmas in the Archives

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As the festive season is upon us once more what better excuse to highlight some of our Christmas archival gems? Gloucestershire Archives’ holdings are rich in references to Christmas. On searching for the word Christmas in the online catalogue, at the time of writing, you will reveal 1184 results. Since most of our material is not listed by content there are many more sources which relate to Christmas or cover the Christmas period. These records include accounts of Christmases past to insights into local folklore and traditions and even a few festive recipes.

If you are feeling nostalgic over Christmases past and the “must have” decorations, toys and food of yesteryear a glance through our newspaper and magazine holdings may be just the tonic. We hold complete runs of a range of newspapers and magazines and many of our collections contain albums of cuttings. The image at the beginning of this article is taken from one such cuttings book. It was printed on the cover of a supplement to “Poultry World” in December 1938.

The earliest mention of Christmas within our documents we have identified (for many lifetimes would be needed to read every document) is circa 1270. This document is a Grant of 1 acre of arable land in Standish. In the document it is requested that the annual rent for all services of one farthing is to be paid at Christmas. D214/T30A/9

Some of the most charming and festive documents in our collection are two letters in the form of a rebus where certain words and phrases are replaced with illustrations. The letter was written to Ellice Hicks Beach, younger son of William Wither Bramston Beach and his wife Caroline [nee Clevland], from his niece. Images of three pages from these letters  illustrate this blog post and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do and as Ellice surely did.

Christmas rebus

Christmas rebus

Christmas rebus

Christmas rebus

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Celebrations and traditions that continue year by year provide us with a direct link to our ancestors and to the past. In other cases traditions have changed over the centuries and details of how our ancestors celebrated Christmas are fascinating. With this in mind there are two final gems I’ll share with you.

Gloucestershire Archives is lucky enough to hold many diaries written by individuals from a broad spectrum of society. The diary of William Thomas Swift, a school teacher and later a head master, is one of the most extensive we hold spanning 1859-1915. Most years include references to Christmastime and in 1874 he provides a particularly long and detailed account of the festivities. Swift was obviously very fond of his food and often we will at least hear about his Christmas dinner. In 1863 it was “roast beef and plum pudding” as usual but in 1897 he appears delighted to have had “roast goose (which cost 7s!)”.

However to take you much further back we hold a copy of an article concerning the visit of the Bishop of Hereford, Richard de Swinfield, to his manor at Prestbury during Christmas 1289. Among other insights into a thirteenth century Christmas we learn from the roll of household expenses that the Christmas feast was vast “there were served up two carcases and three quarters of beef, two calves, four does, four pigs, about sixty fowls, eight partridges, two geese, bread and cheese in proportion and the whole was lubricated by ten sextaries of red and one of white wine, and an unscored quantity of beer”. The article reminds us not only what has changed but also what certainly hasn’t.

The scope of all things festive in our collections is much greater than this blog allows me to tell you but I hope this has given you a taste. I also hope the words and images of Christmas past have given you a festive feeling for Christmas future!

Merry Christmas to you all from everyone at Gloucestershire Archives. We hope to see lots of you in 2015.

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