A Leeds Christmas by Chris Nickson

Image from thegraphicsfairy.com
Image from thegraphicsfairy.com

On Christmas Eve, Chris Nickson fittingly reminds us of past traditions, some of which we continue to this day. We, at the Big Bookend, would like to thank you all sincerely for your support over the last year and wish you a very merry Christmas! 

These days Christmas is just one of the winter holidays that we celebrate, and for many people it’s lost most of its religious significance. But Christmas has been celebrated in Leeds for centuries, sometimes with our own little local foibles.

Of course, many of the traditions associated with Christmas have their roots in pagan times, and none more so than the wassail bowl. Down south, the wassail bowl was a deep bowl filled with mulled cider, the drinking of which was intended to wake the apple trees to produce well the next year. Around Leeds it was wassail ale in the bowl, passed around and shared. Although any celebration had been frowned up in the Puritan years, after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 the traditions were openly revived. The early 18th century saw the wassail bowl being shared, along with mince pies.

Early in the 19th century, Christmas Day saw four church services held and just a few years later, the day itself was a holiday, even before Victorian times. Children would go around town carrying a figure of the Virgin Mary and a box filled with spices, oranges and sugar, which they’d open for a small donation. Along with that they’d have the wassail bob, an evergreen branch holding a doll meant to represent the Christ child. After the middle of the century, as they paraded they’d sing the song Here We Come A-Wassailing (composed around 1850):

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.


We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
Whom you have seen before.


Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.


We have got a little purse
Of stretching leather skin;
We want a little of your money
To line it well within.


Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a mouldy cheese,
And some of your Christmas loaf.


God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go.


Good master and good mistress,
While you’re sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.

From an antique Charles Dickens book and shows the Ghost of Christmas Present along with Mr. Scrooge, from the story A Christmas Carol.  Thegraphicsfairy.com
From an antique Charles Dickens book and shows the Ghost of Christmas Present along with Mr. Scrooge, from the story A Christmas Carol. Thegraphicsfairy.com

For those who could afford it, the Christmas meal was roast beef, plum pudding, custards and mince pies. In the weeks leading up to December 25th mummers would have their plays, and there was Christmas cake and pudding to share.

There was even a little charity for the poor. Free Christmas dinners for the poor in 1848, and decorations in the workhouse, along with free tobacco for the men, with fruit for the women and children.

Handel’s Messiah has been sung at Christmas in Leeds since 1847, when the first performance took place at the Music Hall, and pantos began here in 1860 with Little Red Riding Hood.

From the latter part of the 19th century, Christmas would have looked very familiar to us. Even the great department store, the Grand Pygmalion, took on a festive look, with its ‘magic cave.’

Much changes but in some ways nothing changes at all. A Merry Christmas to you and can you pass the wassail bowl,please?

With thanks to David Thornton’s excellent Leeds: A Historical Dictionary of People, Places and Events. Put it on your Christmas list.

DBB cover crop

Chris Nickson is a Leeds novelist and music journalist. His new paperback, Dark Briggate Blues is a Leeds-based 1950s noir, and will be published in the UK in January 2015. 

Date for your diary:

The launch of Chris Nickson’s book Dark Briggate Blues is taking place on 6th February 2015 at Waterstones in Leeds, 6.30 pm. Come along for the opportunity to talk to the author, drink wine, eat nibbles, and buy a copy of the book!
For more information, please click here.

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