The Hard Up Christmases Gone By (19 December 1975)
This Christmas most of us must perforce cut our expenditure on greeting cards and other forms of good cheer. Lest we should grouse too much at the decrease of affluence, however, I invite you to read part of an article which appeared in the old North Bucks Times at Christmas, 1946. Its writer was born about 1870, the son of a farm labourer and became a successful farmer and an authority on agriculture and on country village life in general. I think you will find it salutary and moving, yet not altogether without humour:
“‘Christmas comes but once a year, and when it come it brings good cheer’ is a very old saying. It may be true these days, but it was not always so.
“I have had some very hungry as well as some very lively and pleasant Christmas seasons.
“The first I definitely remember was when I was about five years of age and was considered “man enough” to go with the older ones “a-hollering” Christmas. A 12-year-old cousin, Harriett, was in charge.
“It was hoped that I might get threepence as my share of the money – and I was assured it would be the only money I should have to buy an orange and some sweets.
“It was an old established custom of the village to go round the farms a-hollering Christmas on the day of St. Thomas (December 21), a relic, I suppose, of the old mummers.
“At any rate, on that particular day we went first to the farm on the hill, where we sang or “hollered”:
I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year,
A pocket full of money and a cellar full of beer.
Open your windows and you shall hear,
The roads are very dirty . My shoes are very thin.
But I have a little pocket to put some money in.
Please marm, can you give us something to keep Christmas?
The lady of the house very kindly gave us each a mug of warm milk, a luxury seldom tasted by a village child in those days. It may seem strange and almost unbelievable in these days that it was then almost impossible to purchase milk unless some member of the family was really ill – and it is also fair to record that in those cases of illness it was not often, if ever, that money was accepted.
“We also had a mince pie – another luxury – and a few pence.
“There was similar shouting and another treat at the farm down the vale, and then off we went again.
“At another farm, which was in the parish but about a mile away from the village, we were called “a lot of noisy swine” and were sent off with “Here’s tuppence for you, which more than you deserve.” Ever after, we always referred to that farmer’s wife as “Old Tuppence.”
“At the Big House we were good fun for the domestics as well as for the Major. He asked us to sing or shout a second time. At this encore, one of the daredevils shouted loud enough for all to hear: “Please sir, will you give us something to keep my chops warm?
The butler and the Major disappeared up the passage of the great hall and returned with a plate of sandwiches. The lad took the first one on the plate. We also had one each, but Fred, after one good big bite, threw his up the passage at the Major – which greatly surprised us who were munching ours with great satisfaction.
“We shouted as best we could with our mouths full; “What was it, Fred?” To which came the reply: “Mustard.” They had indeed given him something to keep his chops warm!
“I remember that first public Christmas of mine because I had, for the first time in my life, a sixpence of my own to share with my brother, who was much too young to join the Christmas-going.
“On another Christmastide a few years later, a gamekeeper met a widow with two little boys at her side, crying bitterly in one of our village lanes. Her husband had died and she had been to the Guardians for what we would now call “public assistance.”
“The so-called “Guardians of the Poor” – they were guardians of the ratepayers’ pockets – had been told that the Lady Bountiful of the village had been helping her. This was not true, but the widow was not believed and as a test they offered her the Workhouse.
“Those guardians were called by the villagers any name but Christian. The gamekeeper obtained permission to shoot her a rabbit. The wife of the parish guardian sent some mince pies and a piece of home-cured pork. Some neighbours, almost as poor as herself, gave her some coal and wood to make a fire.
“On that Christmas Day, nearly 70 years ago, a rabbit pudding, some elderberry wine, and some beer given by a neighbour were the Christmas fare of that poor family. For the grocer, a hard-hearted man, did not send the few groceries ordered because the widow could not pay on the nail. He ended his own days in the “House.”
“That is the true story of how one poor family of three spent their Christmas Day. I heard about it from the widow herself, when she had become the most useful and most-loved woman in the village.
“She told me how the elder of the two boys, a lad of seven, put his arm round her neck when she told him they would have to go to the Workhouse or have no food and said he would make the Guardians treat poor people better when he became a man.
“He kept his word. Twenty years later he led a local crusade against the system of offering the “House” instead of outdoor relief to save the rates. He helped, too, with pen and voice, to show up the cruelty of it all, and lived long enough to see much better treatment meted out to widows and fatherless children.”
Boards of Guardians were not abolished until 1930. I well remember reporting their meetings, though by that time they were mainly looking forward to an end to their thankless duties.