Penwith Uncategorized West Cornwall (and local history)

Memories of St Ives at Christmas circa mid 1950s

The days leading up to Christmas are associated in my memory with a series of various festivals and events from Guise Dancing to Fair Mo and then Christmas itself. This too was soon followed by the scarlet coated and spectacular grandeur of the Western Hunt during St Ives Feast. The Guise Dancing was ominous and noisy; it seemed to myself-perhaps a timid child, with masked figures, lanterns and loudly beating drums. It was still commonly performed until the mid fifties but seemed then to have died out with the corresponding popularity of television. However, by Fair Mo, a Church based fair situated in the Guildhall and taking place at the end of November it was by then always clear that the Christmas season would soon be upon us. It is described now on the History of St Ives website, as,”… a less rowdy tradition, celebrated just before Christmas. This ancient ‘pig fair’ reflects the long-standing custom of keeping pigs in virtually every Downlong yard. Today local ladies dress in traditional costumes and hold their fair, or market, in the Guildhall.”

07 1950s Cornwall, England - 03 St Ives

Around Christmas Eve, or a day or two before, everyone in downlong had been serenaded by the agreeable euphony of perambulating choirs from the Primitive and the other MethodistChurches. These were accompanied by a clarinet or two and everyone emerged to the truly blissful sounds of Thomas Merritt’s Carols, before each the verses were briefly intoned and led by the choirmaster. “Hark the glad sound” resonated and reverberated against the cottages and along the cobbled streets with such utterly superb harmony that Christmas, together with its peaceful promise, seemed as imminent as the arrival of “the Saviour promised long.” The effect was utterly magical and glorious; recalling it again makes the hairs on my neck stand up on end. So that neighbours emerging from their doorways were thoroughly receptive to the “Tidings of great joy” that Gabriel brought “to you and all mankind.” After the melodic repetitions of Cornish and other carols people returned to their houses prepared by such benedictions to enjoy Christmas Day itself.


Most pubs and inns similarly resounded with affirmative renditions of the “Old Time Religion.”  The Cock Robin choirs provided youngsters with the opportunity for mild horseplay- as evidenced the next day by seeing a punt or skiff hoisted on to the roof of the fisherman’s lodge. Few would have ventured as far afield as Mousehole, for either Tom Bowcock’s Eve or even Starry Gazey Pie. There was absolutely no rowdy celebration on New Year’s Eve but grand and elegant Scottish or Hogmanay dances, attended largely by the professional classes at such grand venues as the Portminster Hotel or Kenegie Manor in Gulval.

Preparations for Christmas in the home were concerned with food, presents and decorations. There was an early ecological arrangement whereby potato skins were placed in a special bin and collected each week by the ‘pig man’. The result at Christmas was that every house received a good sized pork joint. The turkey-some in the family might have had goose -was paid for on a card signed for, again on a weekly basis, at the butchers over the autumn months leading up to Christmas. Pickled onions were prepared over a longer period and stored with peppercorns and tiny red chillies on a shelf above the stairway on the ground floor. Military pickle and piccalilli were purchased to go with the tongue, pulled together with skilvin (quality string from the Fisherman’s Co-op) and pressed in a saucepan, with a weighted lid-usually a smoothing iron. Salt beef was also prepared with other cold meats for suppers over the Christmas period.

Patrick Heron
Patrick Heron

The house was extra warm from the heat generated from the kitchen and if it was windy in the wrong direction, especially before a cowl was fitted, smoke from the coal fire would fill the sitting room. The resulting “smeech” would deposit smoke particles of varying sizes spoiling some of the coloured paper decorations in the sitting room. After saffron stamens had been floated in a small bowl to extract the lovely liquid yellow concoction, bowls both of dough and cake mixture were placed by the fireside, covered by tea towels and left to rise. Cakes purchased especially at Christmas included batten burg, chocolate log and walnut. Macaroons, coconut pyramids were prepared on rice paper as well as congress tarts. The one cookery book –the one which probably came with the oven- were referred to on an annual basis. Reference was made to on one or other well thumbed pages.

The Christmas tree was always a holly tree and the large fairy light bulbs were checked and replacements inserted into and the holders, some of which were in small copper lanterns my father had made and into which rice paper was inserted to diffuse the light. Embroidery thread was cut into lengths and tied on to the baubles or shiny things. The extra demand meant that the electricity meter ‘went’ more frequently and had to be fed and wound with two shilling pieces that were of course known as florins. This process was often accompanied by the question, “Where was Moses when the lights went out?” There seemed to be much to do in those days leading up to Christmas Day and my father might describe how in the 1920s he and my uncle would mostly just have oranges, some wrapped in silver paper and walnuts and brazil nuts as the main fillers in their Christmas stockings.

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After Christmas dinner, the turkey which was taken upstairs afterwards into the preservative cool of the so-called small bedroom, borne on the large appointed Victorian ornate and crazed platter. It was carved for suppers and other dinners over the next few days. Nobody could quite get through all the cakes or biscuits, so my father took it, as a snack, with his thermos flask of tea to the factory where he worked until about the middle of March. Apart from Sherry and usually Port – there might be a bottle of each- there was little in the way of drink until white wine, in the form of Blue Nun became a favourite with my mother in the seventies. On reflection much of the fun in the celebration of Christmas was probably also a recovery from the tough period during the war when my parents had travelled around air stations. From Filton in Bristol, where they both worked and had been bombed, they journeyed to Hull and Girvan in Scotland and other places. Housing shortages, especially in Cornwall had to be endured and the severe economic pressures of the Cripps austerity period had also just ended.