Christmas started here

Christmas started here…

Geoff Sargieson (December 2010)

The front cover of Mike Harding’s Christmas in Yorkshire DVD

Yorkshire and Christmas go back a long way. In fact, almost back to the actual birth of Jesus himself.

The Three Wise Men may be associated with gifts at Christmas but the first non-biblical reference to the practice was in York around 200 AD, when the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus offered his consuls and general presents to mark Saturnalia – the Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice from which Christmas evolved.

And the choice of 25 December as Christmas Day is attributed to the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was acclaimed Augustus or Deputy Emperor in York in 306 AD. He went on to become the first Christian emperor, and his decree allowing the people a choice of religion is regarded as hugely significant in the spread of Christianity.

(Incidentally, following a dispute that had lasted centuries, the date of Easter was finally determined in Yorkshire at the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD.)

Though mistletoe was banned by the Church in Britain because of its Pagan associations, the sole exception is York Minster, where a sprig is placed on the altar every Christmas Eve.

The first turkeys to be seen in Britain were brought back from the Americas in 1542 by a Yorkshire explorer, William Strickland, from Boynton, near Bridlington. In acknowledgement he was granted a Coat of Arms and allowed to take as his family crest “a turkey-cock in his pride proper”. He is commemorated in Boynton Church by a lectern carved in the shape of a turkey, rather than the usual eagle.

Without ‘Boynton Billy’ it is unlikely that turkey would have become the mainstay of the British Christmas dinner, nor indeed a key constituent of the traditional Yorkshire Christmas Pie.

The way in which Christmas is celebrated in Britain is still greatly influenced by the Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol. Less well known is that the book was in part inspired by Dickens’ regular visits to Malton in North Yorkshire.

Mike Harding and Selina Scott visit a pub in Malton to find out about the town’s influence on Charles Dickens’ famous novel

He later acknowledged that many of his characters were based on people he’d met in Malton and that Scrooge’s office was based on the Chancery Lane, Malton, premises of his friend Charles Smithson. There’s also a widespread belief in the town that, in Dickens’ mind at least, Scrooge was a Yorkshireman.

While the Christmas tradition of carol singing is practised around the world, Yorkshire is exceptional in giving voice to essentially local carols such as the Yorkshire version of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ to the tune of ‘Ilkla Moor Baht ‘At’ – or rather the original tune, later appropriated for the comic song.

Further examples of unique Yorkshire carols are the ‘Wensleydale Carol’, still sung regularly in the Dales, the East Riding setting for ‘Unto Us a Child is Born’ and, from the Sheffield area, ‘Six Jolly Miners’.

Even more noteworthy are the Village Carols, sometimes called the Sheffield Carols, which are sung in a dozen or so pubs in the South Yorkshire area in the run up to Christmas. These are essentially local compositions or settings; local that is to each of the participating villages and communities, and described as one of the most remarkable instances of popular traditional singing in the British Isles.

Other long-standing Christmas traditions in Yorkshire include the practice of Long Sword Dancing, also known as Hilt and Point Sword Dancing. This is unique to the county and is most prevalent in the Sheffield area and around the North York Moors. Mummers’ Plays, some dating back to the Middle Ages, are still performed at Christmas all over Yorkshire.

The practice of Long Sword Dancing still takes place in certain areas of the county

Paul Jackson adds…

Geoff Sargieson is the producer of a new DVD, Mike Harding’s Christmas in Yorkshire, in which the popular entertainer and broadcaster takes a journey in story and song around the county.

Geoff says: “The film was inspired by a visitor to the county in the early nineteenth century who wrote that: ‘Nowhere are the traditions of Christmas kept up with such splendour as in Yorkshire’. We’ve since discovered that the visitor was the American writer Washington Irving.”

Mike adds: “We wanted to find out if the claim remained true today, and set out to explore the ways in which Christmas is still celebrated across the three Ridings.

“What we came up with shows that Christmas traditions going back centuries are still maintained in Yorkshire – including Mummers’ Plays and Long Sword Dancing. There’s also a widespread singing tradition whereby carols unique to the county play a significant part in the festivities.

“For example, we filmed Hawes Silver Prize Band and East Whitton Male Voice Choir performing the Yorkshire version of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ with its original tune, better known as ‘Ilkla Moor Baht ‘At’. We also went carol singing with Leyburn Ladies Choir and filmed their performance of the ‘Wensleydale Carol’.

“We’ve included film of village carollers at the Black Bull, Ecclesfield, one of a dozen pubs in the South Pennines which are packed out at Christmas, as people get together to sing local carols unique to their village.”

On a visit to Haworth Parsonage, Mike is surprised to find that Christmas for Yorkshire’s Bronte sisters was pretty dull in comparison to that portrayed in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

He also travels over to Cottingham near Hull to watch a hundred four and five year olds perform a traditional (almost) Nativity play, while in Malton, Selina Scott explains the part the town played in inspiring Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.


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