A Christian Christmas

Issue 85: December 1990

On Christmas Day 1823, the Rev John Skinner rector of Camerton wrote in his diary: ‘I cannot say my sleep was disturbed, but my waking hours certainly were by the ringing of bells about seven o’clock announcing the joyous day, when half the Parish at least will be drunk.’ Miserable Git.

He had a cold, mind you, that he caught when his feet got wet as he crossed a brook in Smallcombe Valley a week earlier, and although he’d been stuffing himself on James’s Powders, a famous patent medicine, perhaps he felt a little under the weather. Shall we forgive him his moaning? No.

Here is what he wrote on Christmas Day 1827:

‘I was awakened early by the ringing of bells, and could not help thinking how much sound overpowers common sense in all we have to do in the present day. I lay awake last night thinking of these things, and soon after I had closed my eyes they were again opened by the loud peals these thoughtless people among whom I dwell chose to ring, as they suppose, in honour of the day. They had better retire within themselves, and commune with their hearts, and be still.’

Then he went walkabouts around his parish, calling on ‘the clerk, White’ and telling him off for not taking the Sacrament, then on to ‘old Widcombe’s’ to ask him why he didn’t attend church, and then to the home of ‘Balne, the constable’ to berate him for being absent from church for five Sundays and for not doing something about ‘the house kept by Mrs Moon in his lane, where she continued to harbour improper persons.’

A real bundle of joy at Christmas, was the Rev Skinner, as far as his parishioners were concerned, but he had his own party in the rectory on Boxing Day, dinner followed by music and signing, and two days later was out to dinner with the local Captain of Horse, followed by dancing at Old Down ball from which he could not tear himself away until four o’clock in the morning.

Compare old Skinner with another Somerset parson, the Rev James Woodforde of Castle Cary. Christmas began for him when he took delivery of his annual order for a half hogshead of pert (25 gallons). On Christmas Day he didn’t go out and harangue his parishioners, he had them to dinner: Christmas Day 1764, ‘Fifteen poor old People dined here as usual being Xmas Day. We had for dinner a large Rump of Beef of thirty pound roasted, and three large plum puddings. Fine beef it was.’ And he gave them each a shilling and a sixpenny loaf.

Woodforde was not above earning his living from the poor, however. As Christmas 1768 loomed he recorded in his diary: ‘I married Tom Burge of Ansford to Charity Andrews of C. Cary by license this morning. The parish of Cary made him marry her, and he came away handbolted to Church for fear of running away.’ For this service he received a half guinea from the overseer of the poor of Cary.

At other Christmases the Rev Woodforde would dine on fatted geese, half a pig – or beef and goose and pork together – and always with vast quantities of beer brewed by himself and bottle upon bottle of his favourite port wine.

He welcomed the bell-ringers, giving them beer and money, and carol singers, giving them cider and money, and dispensed largesse as well as Christian ideals not only at Christmas but throughout the year although he was not a wealthy man.

Rev Woodforde died shortly after Christmas 1802. Rev Skinner shot himself before Christmas 1839.