Although it is not the Georgian festival but the Victorian image that we now draw on for the ‘Olde Worlde’ look of a ‘traditional’ Christmas: tree, turkey, mounds of presents, the Nutcracker Suite; in Georgian times Christmas was celebrated energetically and there was an earthy side to it. Gothic novel The Shadow of Nanteos takes place in the early 1750s. With the second George on the throne, it was a time before the railway, before the great Turnpike Roads and the celebration of the Christmas festival had not begun to be commercialized.
According to some historians, Christmas was perhaps less important in terms of ritual than the celebration of the New Year in Wales. Certainly it was only one part of the church and folk calendar that included many other important dates such as Candlemas, the celebration of which is now largely lost to us.
Almost everything would have been made by hand and at home, the great houses and estates such as Nanteos supplying everything that was needed, from the Yule Log in the grate, to the horse’s skull and dead wren of the New Year’s wassail celebrations.
On Christmas and ‘Boxing’ Day, the ban on hunting was traditionally lifted and groups of men would go into the woods armed with weighted sticks to kill the native red squirrels. In living memory the great house of Nanteos has hosted its Boxing Day Hunt and ball – with the fox as quarry.
Welsh would very much have been the language of the area and of the house too – certainly below stairs and among the workers of the estate. According to my research, the 1750s were a turning point in many ways. Until this time, many gentry families, despite their town houses and English Public School educations, would also have been likely to be able to speak Welsh.
The festivals were an excuse to get out of the dark, damp, smoke filled hovels in which people lived. They would burn precious fuel in huge bonfires, share hoarded resources and crowd together to beat back the dark of Winter.
On the eve of Christmas, the church practice of Plygain lasted all night and the congregation did more than just follow the service: in many accounts they seem to be the service. Each parishioner brought a candle to light the church that night.
Even in fine houses such as Plas Nanteos, there was a much smaller degree of separation between ‘master’ and ‘minion’ than in Victorian times. Some servants still routinely slept in their employers’ bedrooms, as they had since Medieval times and customs such as the deliberate ‘misrule’ of Twelfth Night – where master and servant switched roles for a night, were widely enjoyed.
The following extracts are from Jane Blank’s latest novel The Shadow of Nanteos, published by Y Lolfa. As Emma Corfield said on Radio Wales ‘The Shadow of Nanteos is the perfect book for Christmas’.