Introduction to a Christmas Special.
Have you suddenly realised you have no Mince Pies for Christmas? How about making some yourself? Gervase Markham’s ‘The English Housewife’ [London: 1615] may help you cope with Yule Tide Mince Pies. His recipe says [spelling by Gervase, modified punctuation by me]:-
‘Take a Legge of Mutton, and cut the best of the flesh from the bone, and parboyl it well, then put to it three pound of the best Mutton suet & shred it very small; then spread it abroad, and fashion it with Salt, Cloves and Mace: then put in [a] good store of Currants, great Raisins and Prunes clean washed and picked, a few Dates sliced, and some Orenge-pils sliced;
then, being all well mixt together, put it into a coffin, or into divers coffins, and so bake them and when they are served up, open the lids and strow store of Sugar on the top of the meat and upon the lid. And in this sort you may also bake Beef or Veal, onely the Beef would not be parboyld, and the Veal will ask a double quantity of Suet. [There’s more information later.]
The 21st December is ‘St Thomas’ Day’ – the day people used to go ‘Thomasing’.
Remember this rhyme?…
Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat, please put a penny in the old man’s hat;
If you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do, if you haven’t got a ha’penny well God bless you.
Thomas the Apostle was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus. There are many stories about his life and more than one ‘feast day’ is linked to him. He is the ‘Patron Saint of old people’ and, on this day in Britain’s past, old people were allowed to go round their streets asking for food or money.
This freedom remains in some form or other in many communities to this day. The following has been published this year by the village of Deeping St James:
‘The St Thomas’ Day Distribution’ was instituted by our ancestors to benefit the widows of the Parish who were at that time, by definition, destitute having suffered the loss of the family breadwinner. This tradition has been continued and over time, brought up to date. With effect from 2014, the Trustees are now offering a small cash grant from the St Thomas’ Day charity to all older residents of the Parish who are in need. The grant will be limited to one application per household and will be distributed on the nearest Thursday to 21st December, the date on which St Thomas’ Day used to be celebrated. If you are of state pensionable age, in need, and have been resident in the Parish of Deeping St James & Frognall for at least two years, you may be eligible to apply for the grant’.
The Application details follow with this addendum which harks back to times gone by:-
The Trustees no longer offer the original benefaction of a loaf of bread and a bucket of coal
22nd December: – the period just before Christmas has, over the years, become a serious competition as to who can sell the most ‘pop’ records and this week before Christmas has become a frenetic race to get that ’best seller of all’ the Christmas number 1.
The British Pop Charts began on 14th November 1952 and I thought it would be ‘fun’ to see what was the best-selling pop record every 10th year after the first Christmas Number One – which, on this day in 1952, was Al Martino singing ‘Here in my Heart’.
Ten years later, in 1962, we had Elvis Presley having difficulties with his (ex) girlfriend with ‘Return to Sender.’
The 1972 Christmas chart was published on 23rd December and at number one was Little Jimmy Osmond with ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’. Jimmy was the youngest of the Osmond family and was just 9 years 251 days old when this record hit number 1. In achieving the number one slot he displaced 14 year old Frankie Lymon (‘Why do fools fall in love? in July 1956) as the youngest ever chart topper. He still remains the youngest ever solo performer but it is quite possible that there was someone younger among the St Winifred’s School Choir who were the top Christmas sellers in 1980 with ‘There’s No-one Quite Like Grandma’!
Moving on ten more years, to 1982, and we have another ‘very different’ number 1 in 1982 when Renée and Renato were telling us all to ‘Save your Love’. But – in the background – ‘love’ had gone. Hilary Lester – the ‘Renée’ on the record – had left before the record became a success. Val Penny was hired to mime her way through the associated video – wearing a wig so as to match earlier pictures of Hilary!
The 1992 Christmas number 1 set a record which is still to be bettered – Whitney Houston’s ‘I will always love you’ – hit number 1 on 5th December 1992 and was not unseated until 13th February 1993 – 10 weeks ruling the roost. This version came from the film ‘The Bodyguard’ in which she starred with Kevin Costner. The song was actually written by Dolly Parton in 1973; twice reached number 1 in the US charts sung by different artistes; was sung by Dolly in the film ‘The Best Little Whore House in the West’ and, in the summer of 1993, Britain’s Sarah Washington’s (born Sarah Warwick) dance cover version reached number 12 in the UK charts.
To complete this 50 year review of Number 1’s: in 2002 we have, for just Christmas week, the ‘boy band’ Blue sitting at the top of the UK charts for their third number 1, collaborating with Elton John to revive an old hit of his, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”.
23rd December and ‘Star Gazy Pie’: The story of ‘Star Gazy Pie’ originates from the fishing village of Mousehole (mow-zul) in Cornwall. It involves a very unusual pie and a legend that has ‘grown’ over the centuries.
Let’s first consider the pie that you should/would eat today.
Star Gazy Pie – sometimes called Starrey Gazey Pie – is made of baked pilchards with eggs and potatoes, covered with a pastry crust. Predictably there are ‘personal’ modifications to the recipe but the one thing that must never change are the fish heads (and sometimes tails) that protrude through the crust, appearing to gaze at the stars. I am told that this ‘structure’ allows the oils released during cooking to flow back into the pie!
So where does this pie story originate?
The festivities were recorded by Robert Morton Nance, a leading authority on the Cornish language and joint founder of the Old Cornwall Society. In 1927, in the magazine Old Cornwall, he wrote about the festivities prior to 1900, going on to suggest that the origins of the festival dated back to pre-Christian times, though it is unclear at what time the Stargazy Pie became part of the festivities. None-the-less he went on to restore the traditional song sung on this day – Tom Bawcock’s Eve – and played to the local tune “Wedding March”:
“Merry place you may believe, Tiz Mouzel ‘pon Tom Bawcock’s eve
To be there then who wouldn’t wesh, to sup o’ sibm soorts o’ fish
When morgy brath had cleared the path, Comed lances for a fry
And then us had a bit o’ scad an’ Starry-gazie pie,
As aich we’d clunk, E’s health we drunk, in bumpers bremmen high,
And when up caame Tom Bawcock’s name, We’d prais’d ‘un to the sky”
So who is Tom Bawcock?
As far as the story is concerned Tom was a local fisherman in the 16th century. Legend tells us that one winter had been particularly stormy, which meant that none of the fishing boats had been able to leave the harbour. As Christmas approached the villagers, who relied on fish as their primary source of food, were facing starvation.
On 23rd December, it is said; Tom Bawcock decided to brave the storms and went out in his fishing boat. Despite the stormy weather and the difficult seas, he managed to catch enough fish to feed the whole village. The entire catch (including seven types of fish) was baked into a pie, which had the fish heads poking through to prove that there were fish inside. Ever since then, the ‘Tom Bawcock’s Eve’ festival is held on 23rd December in Mousehole. The celebration and memorial to his efforts sees the villagers parading a huge StarGazy Pie during the evening with a procession of handmade lanterns. They then sit down and eat the pie itself!
Thursday 24th December 1987
It’s Christmas Eve and Alan Clark – a Conservative MP who served as a junior minister in the Thatcher government – writes in his diary:
‘Christmas Eve: I’ve got £700,000 in my Abbey National Crazy-High-Interest account. But what’s the use: Ash, ash, all is ash. Lay not up for thyself treasures on earth. The cars are all getting streaked and rust-spotted, the books foxed, the furniture dusty. The window panes, all 52,000 of them are revolting, so greasily blotched; translucent only. And there is moth everywhere. My grandfather’s great Rothschild coat, bought in Wren in 1906, is terminally degraded ….. The whole thing is out of control – and why? I know why; because I am not rich enough to have servants. We have to do everything ourselves, and we just haven’t got the time, and things get neglected.
I found the old Wages Book for 1960. That was the year James was born, and we bought our first new car, a dear little red Mini. It was the cheapo model with cloth seats, and we saved a further three pounds and ten shillings by hand painting the registration numbers ourselves. Total cost ‘on the road’ was £460.’
Monday 25th December 1916 – The First World War is two years old and ‘The B.E.F. TIMES with which are incorporated ‘The Wipers Times, The “New Church” Times, The Kemmel Times & The Somme-Times; No. 2, Vol-1; price 1 Franç’ announces in its Editorial:
‘Now we have arrived at our “Grand Double Xmas Number” (this by the way is provided the paper arrives in time) and the first thing any good Editor does, is to wish all his readers the very best of good wishes. Between ourselves I think the least said about “Peace on earth, goodwill to man” the better, when most of the inhabitants of this planet are trying to “put it across” someone or other in the most unpleasant way that lies handy.
We have received many of the Xmas Nos. of our English contemporaries, and we must say that it is about time England had a war, if the popular taste runs in the direction indicated by most of the coloured plates. It is good to see that England has at last realised that we are at war, and has fixed the price of officer’s meals, although we fully endorse the views expressed by the Brigadier who wanted an extra pat of butter at an A.B.C. and was told he had already spent ninepence, and was so up to his limit. But it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and by the time the war is in full swing it will not surprise us to see many innovations of this sort, in fact, one might venture to prophecy that a few more years of war, will see officers restricted to a three shilling taxi fare. If we are to win the war then officers will really have to make every sacrifice. But it is pleasing to see that England has shaken herself and means business.’
26th December – St. Stephen’s Day. In many countries December 26th commemorates the life of St. Stephen, a Christian deacon in Jerusalem who was known for his service to the poor, and his status as the first Christian martyr – he was stoned to death in 36AD.
In Britain the 26th December holiday is commonly known as Boxing Day. It takes this name from the practice of giving small gifts to household servants on this day for their work throughout the year. Apprentices also used to carry a box around to their master’s customers for small gratuities. In a wider element – boxes were placed in churches through the days preceding Christmas Day for casual offerings to be placed there. The box would be opened on Christmas Day and the contents, called the ‘dole of the Christmas Box’ or ‘Box money’, were distributed the next day – this day; St Stephen’s Day – by the Parish Priests.
Monday 27th December 1965: Not everything about Christmas can be good – and this day saw a very non-Christmas calamity. The Sea Gem was the first British offshore oil rig, and became its first offshore rig disaster when, on this day, the rig’s legs collapsed, causing the death of 13 members of the crew.
In the early 1960s, oil companies had found some crude oil in the North Sea and suspected that there was more to be found. However, in general, they didn’t think that there were enough significant reserves to warrant the use of major resources to search for it. That attitude changed when ‘fields’ were found that proved fairly large reserves existed – and the oil companies began to search.
Originally a 5,600 ton steel barge, the Sea Gem had been converted to function as an oil rig in 1964 with 10 steel legs that made it possible to raise the barge c50 foot above the sea. It also had a helipad, living quarters for the crew of 34 and a drilling tower with all the usual associated structures. It had made the first British discovery of natural gas in September 1965 but the find was considered too small to be commercially profitable.
On this day, 27th December 1965, the crew were moving the rig to another site. This involved lowering the rig onto the surface of the water and floating it to that new site. As the rig was being lowered, two of the legs crumpled and broke, causing the rig to capsize, with equipment and people sliding off into the North Sea. The radio hut was among the equipment that fell into the sea so the rig never had chance to send out an emergency signal. Luckily a British freighter, the Baltrover, saw the situation and sent emergency signals. Men were seen jumping into the freezing-cold sea and clinging onto wreckage. The Baltrover, together with an RAF and a civilian helicopter, set about saving as many men as they could.
The RAF helicopter rescued three men. It’s Flight Sergeant, John Reeson, said that by the time they had arrived only one leg of the Sea Gem was left visible. He described some horrendous conditions as they had tried to save those in the water. “We went out through a snowstorm”, he said. “It was clear weather around the oil rig but it was rough. There were waves 15ft to 20ft high. I went down the winch line to men I could see in the water. It was freezing cold.”
Robert Hessey, one of the rig workers, said the structure collapsed without any warning. “I saw the crane topple over the deck,” he said. “There was a loud sound of grinding and rumbling. I hadn’t realised what was happening until I heard someone shouting, ‘She’s sinking.'”
A later public inquiry into the accident caused several changes to be made to improve the safety of oil rigs. These included the use of a stand-by boat, which would be able to help rescue crews in the event of future accidents. This inquiry concluded that metal fatigue in part of the suspension system linking the hull to the legs was to blame for the collapse.
PS: Harking back to Gervase Markham’s Mince Pies at the beginning:
As you will have gathered, pies then were more savoury than now: the ‘coffins’ referred to were small rectangular pastry cases similar in concept to modern mince-pies but a different shape.
I have eaten pies made pretty closely to this recipe – and watched others eat them at the end of a talk on Christmas. I like them; most of the ‘others’ have looked at them and been very suspicious. A few usually decline the ‘mince pie’ offer but of those that do give one a try, over half usually give a positive response.