Christmas traditions in Yorkshire date back to the time of the Roman invasion. For example, documentation shows that a celebration dedicated to Saturn, the god of harvest and agriculture, took place somewhere between December 17 and December 25 in York each year. During this time the Romans suspended the court proceedings, gambling was permitted, instead of frowned upon, those committing crimes, other than murder, were often given a lesser sentence, and masters ordered elaborate banquets served to their servants.
Saturnalia was characterized by role reversals and behavioral license. Slaves were treated to a banquet of the kind usually enjoyed by their masters. Ancient sources differ on the circumstances: some suggest that master and slave dined together, while others indicate that the slaves feasted first, or that the masters actually served the food. The practice might have varied over time.
Saturnalian license also permitted slaves to disrespect their masters without the threat of a punishment. Everyone knew, however, that the leveling of the social hierarchy was temporary and had limits; no social norms were ultimately threatened, because the holiday would end. Gambling and dice-playing, normally prohibited or at least frowned upon, were permitted for all, even slaves. Coins and nuts were the stakes. The Sigillaria on 19 December was a day of gift-giving. Because gifts of value would mark social status contrary to the spirit of the season, these were often the pottery or wax figurines called sigillaria made specially for the day, candles, or “gag gifts.” Children received toys as gifts.
These winter celebrations gradually converted from a pagan ritual to a Christian one as the religion spread throughout the Roman Empire during the 4th Century. The idea that the final day of Saturnalia, the 25th December also marked the day of Jesus’ birth was first recognised by Pope Julius I when Christian ideology began to take hold towards the early middle Ages. The Anglo-Saxon influence marked the winter solstice on December 21. Yuletide came to last for twelve days, thus we eventually have “The 12 Days of Christmas.”
This establishment of a celebration in the third week of December swung heavily back toward religious purposes after the Norman invasion. The word “Christes Maesse” (Festival of Christ) was first used as a description for the festival around 1038. William the Conqueror declared himself King of England on Christmas Day 1066, which in his eyes was a further reason to celebrate.
Since the 1400s a tradition called “The Devil’s knell” has taken place in the town of Dewsbury. On Christmas Eve the parish church bells toll once for every year since the birth of Christ. The peel is timed so the last bell is rung exactly at midnight on Christmas Day. Yorkshire has also made several contributions to the food we eat around Christmas time. The first turkeys were brought over to England from the Americas by Yorkshire explorer William Strickland in 1526. Originally from Marske on the North Yorkshire coast, he built estates at both Wintringham in Ryedale and Boynton Hall near Bridlington with the profits he made from selling these exotic creatures. The Strickland family crest, which adorns both of these residencies, is in the shape of a turkey, something which is widely acknowledged as the first ever depiction of the bird in Europe. Boynton village church lectern, a stand that supports the bible, is carved in the shape of a turkey instead of a traditional eagle in honour of Strickland. The custom of eating turkey on Christmas day would only become popular centuries after Strickland’s death in 1598, during the Victorian Period.
During advent in Haworth, around the time of the Bronte’ sisters, vessel maids would call from door to door carrying a box, called the “Wassail bob,” which contained nativity figures wrapped in a sacred cloth. The maids would unveil the figures at the cost of a penny to the household. It was considered unlucky if the vessel maids did not call round to your house during the run up to Christmas.
All of the above, except for the Saturnalia celebration, show up in either “Letters from Home” or “Lady Joy and the Earl,” for they are both set in Yorkshire in December 1815. The estates of Major Lord Simon Lanford in “Letters from Home” and James Highcliffe, Earl of Hough, in “Lady Joy and the Earl,” are only a few miles apart. In fact, Hough mentions one of the minor characters in “Letters…” to Lady Jocelyn Lathrop, his love interest in the novella.
“Letters from Home”
She is the woman whose letters to another man kept Simon alive during the war. He is the English officer her late Scottish husband praised as being “incomparable.” Can Major Lord Simon Lanford claim Mrs. Faith Lamont as his wife or will his rise to the earldom and his family’s expectations keep them apart?
“Lady Joy and the Earl”
They have loved each other since childhood, but life has not been kind to either of them. James Highcliffe’s arranged marriage had been everything but loving, and Lady Joy’s late husband believed a woman’s spirit was meant to be broken. Therefore, convincing Lady Jocelyn Lathrop to abandon her freedom and consider marriage to him after twenty plus years apart may be more than the Earl of Hough can manage. Only the spirit of Christmas can bring these two together when secrets mean to keep them apart.
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