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Echoes of Christmas Past

East Riding of Yorkshire Council

Mention Christmas and most of us instantly think of receiving presents, but if we stop and think for a while, we should also remember that the spirit of Christmas is about giving. As well as giving and receiving presents from within our circle of family and friends, it's a time of year when our charity is called upon to lend a helping hand to those who need it most.

One of the most traditional ways in which we raise and give money to charity is through door-to-door carol singing. Men, women, and children have been getting together to do this for years, centuries even, but how do we compare to bygone generations in terms of our generosity? Archives, held at the Treasure House in Beverley might be able to help give us something of a clue:

A 19th century Christmas singing collection book records the amounts received by carol singers, who filled the houses of Pocklington with tidings of 'comfort & joy' across 7 Dickensian Christmases between 1886 and 1892. The generosity of the townsfolk was jotted down in the book, recording each person's name, and the amount they donated. Donations ranged from threepence to a shilling (about £1.25 to £4.80 in today's money), with 1892 being the year when most cash was given – a total of £6 14 shillings and 4 pence (£637.30 nowadays).

Collections Officer, Sam Bartle said: "With inflation, it's very hard to compare the amounts donated back then with what we give to carol singers nowadays and it's also difficult to know if these figures were representative of the town's population. It seems unlikely, but with the lowest donation being the modern equivalent of £1.25, that's not bad going."

Looking back at carol singing of old, it also begs the question what carols may have been sung? Well, also at the Treasure House is a book by William Andrews (founder of the Hull Literary Club in 1879), who compiled a number of carols that were popular at the time of publication in 1906. As you might expect, there are a few firm favourites there: 'Joy To The World', 'God Rest You Merry Gentlemen' and 'I Saw Three Ships', which was allegedly 'popular with the illiterate'. There are many though that most of us perhaps wouldn't recognise as being 'popular', such as the 'Carol for the Poor', which neatly sums up the reason why the carollers were calling on people's doors: "And, oh! Remember, gentles gay,

To you who bask in fortune's ray,
The year is all a holiday, -
The poor have only Christmas
When you the costly banquet deal
To guests, who never famine feel,
Oh, spare one morsel from your meal,
To feed the poor at Christmas"

So we can guess what those Pocklington carol singers may have sung, but alas we'll never know what they sounded like. The nearest we can get to the sound of Christmas past is a Treasure House archive recording of Midnight Mass at Keyingham 53 years ago, when the carol of choice was 'O come all ye Faithful'.

To find out for yourself what secrets the Treasure House at Beverley holds on East Riding Christmases past, delve into the archives by visiting in person, or call (01482) 392790 for more information.