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Earlier Traditional Christmas in Ruthin

On Saturday 15th December. the Friends of Nantclwyd y Dre will stage a traditional Christmas in the venerable old house on Castle Street. Friends will have decorated the house with green cuttings sources from Ruthin gardens very much as our ancestors would have done a century ago. The Rotary Club will deliver Father Christmas to the house at 2pm where he will be greeted by musicians and Santa will receive his young friends throughout the afternoon. In the evening, from 7pm onwards there will be carols in the garden with soup and mulled wine. It will be a homely and pleasant occasion very different from our modern and commercial concept of Christmas. Our concept of Christmas was created by Dickens and Prince Albert who brought family feasting and Christmas trees an cards together but before them there were older and less elaborate versions of Christmas many of whose features have been forgotten. My first encounter with a pre-Victorian Christmas was in 1971 when I came across a Tudor recipe for mince pies. Today's mince pies contain a minced mixture of fruit and spices wrapped in pastry and give off a wonderful aroma of spices respectably cinnamon and of l brandy if you are lucky. They are a heavy dessert which fortifies as cold and dark days embrace the world. The Tudor mince pie had three things in common with our own: in the first instance it was heavy, secondly its contents were minced and wrapped in pastry and finally it gave off a powerful aroma. There the resemblance ended. The principal ingredient was mutton and the added fruit and spices were there to disguise a strong flavour and aroma given off by meat killed several weeks earlier and inadequately stored. Christmas is today associated with feasting and so it was in earlier times, as surplus animals were slaughtered and the meat and fruit harvest which could not be stored were consumed. Up untiI Victorian times communities lived close to starvation levels as winter drew to an end but the great November slaughter produced a surplus, some of which had to be consumed quickly, and for centuries before Dickens, feasting became synonymous with December. It was a time of enforced plenty and this engendered celebration which became intermingled with the joy of the nativity. While the bulk of the population celebrated Christmas with dishes made of offal and poorer cuts of meat whose maturity may have required disguising, the wealthier neighbours started making special provision which over time became an established custom. The best and most general example of this was the way parts of the rent at Christmastide was required to be paid in poultry. Thus the occasional hen and a goose at Christmas became a common feature of tenancy agreements and were eventually commuted to cash payments where landlords
were able to purchase produce more to their liking suck as turkeys and swans as producers responded to market demand. It was a small step from compulsory payment of poultry in kind to giving poultry as gifts to a patron. In December 1664 Mr Greene of Ruthin sent a manservant to Chirk Castle with some turkeys and another Christmas custom was developed, as the Myddeltons of Chirk Castle tipped the manservant a shilling for his pains. In December 1666, Mr Greene’s man bought a turkey and geese and the long journey from Ruthin to Chirk in the depths of winter was rewarded with another shilling. Adding spice to Wine became a Christmas favourite. ln December 1680, Mr John Owen of Ruthin, who kept the White Lion, was paid £6 for wine and spice which suggests the Myddeltons were throwing a Christmas party in Ruthin. Also in 1654, the Myddeltons paid for “7 pintes of muskadine” for the communion at Wrexham and no doubt similar generosity was shown by the gentry at Ruthin. There were also Christmas ales. In 1682, the Thelwalls of Plas y Ward bought “lemons and Orrenqes to putt into the Beare” and this was a simple recipe much used in Wales producing a different beer to that used during the remainder of the year. Cloves could also be added to the beer producing a spicy beer and, as beer was much cheaper than wine, Christmas beers could be enjoyed by gentry, neighbours and servants and was no doubt offered to all who called around Christmas time. 'Fruit, currants, raisins and dried fruits were available from shops as were spices and imported sugar. Gentry households and no doubt the senior town tradesmen and craftsmen who copied the fashions of their social superiors were developing a seasonal cuisine to mark Christmas. This was accompanied by carol singing, often of Welsh carols, and sometimes a soloist or a group of men would visit houses to sing carols and receive money as appreciation. 'The Thelwalls of Plas y Ward just outside Ruthin, as befits a leading family, went further and at Christmas they gave barley rye and wheat to “Bessy the Clochwydd” (the bell ringer) perhaps for a special Christmas peal of bells, and in 1613 the Myddeltons were entertained at Christmas by fiddlers who received the princely sum of five shillings. At the Nativity, gents did not forget charity and in 1664 the Myddeltons gave to the poor of Ruthin but forgot to reimburse their agent until the following June! By the mid-seventeenth century many of the ingredients which make up our Christmas were in place. Mulled wine, seasonal beer, mince pies, fruit and spice and lots of food are evident as is carol singing and music and givinig to good causes. A Christmas in a seventeenth century household in Ruthin would strike some chords but would be less intense than today and perhaps be all the more enjoyable for that.
In December 2012, GARETH EVANS looked back on geese, orange spiced beer and mutton mince pies—the many forgotten versions of Christmas