Venue for meetings
Work at Allendale House is continuing into January at the earliest, so the venue for the next few meetings is still St Catherine’s Hall, Wimborne where we used to meet. For new members’ information, the hall is at the rear of St Catherine’s Roman Catholic Church, which is at the junction of Leigh Road and Lewens Lane in Wimborne. (A map was enclosed with a recent Newsletter).

Our member Roger Peers has recently been in hospital for an operation. We wish him a speedy recovery

At our last lecture on the 12th November, Martin Wright, assistant curator of Salisbury Museum and responsible for the archaeological collection of the museum, talked to us about the various amateur groups who have contributed to the museum archive.

The group has had various titles and was originally inspired by the work of Dr J F S Stone, a scientist at Porton Down research establishment who excavated various sites before World War II. It was he who encouraged John Musty, later head of the Ancient monuments Laboratory and science “diarist” of Current Archaeology, to undertake his own excavations and to form SMARG (Salisbury Museum Archaeological Research Group).

SMARG consisted of around 40-50 enthusiastic amateurs and over the years excavated a large number (70-80) of important sites in and around Salisbury. We were shown some early slides of some of the excavations where very little thought was taken of the safety of the excavators, and often the museum director would join in wearing his suit!

It was very encouraging to see the vast contribution made by the amateur groups to the archaeological record over the years, and we would like to thank Martin for an interesting and informative presentation.

Carol Concert – Sun 7th December

On 7th December at 3pm there will be a Carol Concert at Gussage St. Andrew Church in support of Church funds and also EDAS. Tickets are £5 each, and include mulled wine and a mince pie. For more information and tickets contact Simon Meaden on 01725 552715 or Phil Roberts on 01929 400507.

Dewlish Roman Villa, starting 13th January
On Tuesday 13th January the first in a series of eight weekly evening-class lectures on the Dewlish Roman Villa starts, given by Bill Putnam. The course takes place in Stratton Village Hall and is arranged by Bristol University. It costs £40 per person, and can be booked by ringing 0117 928 7165 and quoting course no. D03J011RP.

Phil, Marion and I attended the previous two years of these courses (Roman Roads; and Roman Towns) and as you would expect from Bill they were excellent.

EDAS Field Trip 2004
This is a preliminary notice of next year's Field Trip (or history holiday) which I will be leading so that you can keep the week free and join us. We are going to Northumberland & Durham and the visits take place from Sunday 6 June to Friday 11 June. We will base ourselves around Hexham where there is a variety of accommodation to suit all tastes - B&B, self-catering, campsites, hotels & pubs. Being close to Hadrian's Wall means we will be taking the opportunity to visit several Roman sites. Further details and a booking form will appear in next month's newsletter.
Peter Walker

December 25th the birthday of Christ will soon be on us. At least that is what we celebrate, but is it really?

The early Christians celebrated Christmas on dates as widely apart as the 1st and 6th of January, the 29th March and the 29th September. It was Pope Julius I (A.D. 337-52) who decided that the 25th December should celebrate Christmas throughout Christendom. (Even which century is the correct one is argued by some)

This date though was not plucked from a hat. Mid-winter had always been a season of pagan celebrations. In Rome the 25th was observed as the Dies Natalis Invicti Solis (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) sacred to Mithras, God of Light and the Phyrigian Sun-God, Attis. The great Roman Saturnalia, a festival of fire and light, began on December 17th and lasted seven days, quickly followed by the New Year celebrations of Kalends. These festivals were celebrated from North Africa to Hadrian’s Wall.

In the Saturnalia all forms of anarchy, merriment and grotesque conduct were encouraged. Master and servant changed places or shared the same table, slaves wore their masters’ clothes, lamps burned everywhere and greenery decorated the houses. At Kalends, which lasted three days, gifts (called strenae since the goddess Strenia presided over the festival and greenery was brought from her grove for presents and decoration) were exchanged and divinations told what the New Year would bring. Wreaths and branches hung in the houses.

In northern Europe, hard in the grip of winter, the festival of Yule was celebrated. It was a time when the gods Odin and Thor were worshipped and the Wild Hunt (Asgardereid) could be heard in the winter storms and the goddess Frey was worshiped.

This was the season of established festival of the pagan peoples of both north and south, whether Roman, Norsemen, Celts or Teutons, and the church prudently decided that rather than attempt the impossible and suppress immemorial custom amongst its growing flock it would weld Christmas to Yule, Saturnalia and Kalends to make a new Christian festival hallowed by special services and ritual.

There are many rituals that express this change of date. The Glastonbury Thorne is perhaps one of the most famous trees in Christendom. St Joseph of Aremathaea is said to have visited Glastonbury soon after the crucifixion and planted his thorn staff on Weary-all-Hill. It immediately rooted and flowered and since then the tree flowers twice a year, including old Christmas Day, 6th January. In 1753 alterations in the calendar caused some difficulty and the Gentleman’s Magazine wrote:

Glastonbury – a vast concourse of people attended the noted thorns on Christmas-Day, New-Stile, but to their great disappointment there was no appearance of its blowing, which made them watch it narrowly on the 6th. January, the Christmas-Day, Old-Stile, when it blowed as usual.

There is little documentary evidence of the tree before 1722 when in Hearne’s History and Antiquities of Gloucester an account is given of the Miraculous Thorn that blows still on Christmas Day. Botanically the tree is Cretaegous Monogyna Praecox, a type of hawthorn which flowers twice in the year and often once about Christmas if the weather is mild.

It is claimed the original tree was destroyed by the Puritans as idolatrous and the Puritan who actually chopped it down was blinded by a flying chip from it.

Another Holy Thorn can be seen at Orcop, Herefordshire. A Herefordshire correspondent wrote to The Times on the 14th January 1948, saying that he had seen some of the buds open to full bloom within a few minutes of midnight on Old Christmas Eve.

The Yule log, with its suggestion of sparkling northern Christmases of the kind so seldom seen in England, is a delightful survival (though nowadays only in the form of cakes) of Scandinavian invaders. In the medieval period with its huge open fireplaces it became a very important Christmas custom. The carefully decorated Yule log was dragged from the woods in triumph and anyone who meet the procession raised his hat in salute for it was a sight indicating good omens. No squinting person, no barefooted or flatfooted women might enter the hall while the log was burning, which it did so for twelve days.

Wassailing the apple tree is a West Country custom, usually on the twelfth night, or the old twelfth night (17th January). In Devon the farmer and his family ate hot cakes and cider, then adjourned to the orchard after dark carrying further supplies. A cake soaked in cider was laid on the fork of the tree and cider thrown over as a libation. The men then fired guns into the tree and banged on pots, pans or kettles, while the company solemnly bowed and sang the Wassail song. In Wiltshire and the New Forest similar ceremonies took place where they sang:

Apples and pears with right good corn,
Come in plenty to everyone,
Eat & drink good cake & hot ale,
Give earth to drink and she’ll not fail.

It is said if the sun shines through the apple trees on Christmas day there will be an abundant crop and the preservation of a small piece of charred Yule log would protect the house from fire and lighting.

The now defunct custom of electing a Boy Bishop, was one of the oldest rituals in the medieval church. A boy chosen from the choir was ordained ‘Bishop’ and wore the full vestments of a real Bishop. The election took place on St.Nicholas’s Day (6th. December), his tenure of office extending until Holy Innocents’ Day (28th. December) during which period he was allowed to perform all the duties of the office except mass. If he died within this time he was buried with full honours and Salisbury Cathedral has an effigy of a boy Bishop in full vestments.

There are a multitude of beliefs associated with Christmas, some regional some more widespread. Bees are said to hum the Hundredth Psalm in their hives at midnight and farm animals to speak among themselves. Bread baked on Christmas Eve or Day was a good remedy for diarrhoea and dysentery. Returning spirits favoured the Christmas season. The house must be left clean for them and everything be left for Christmas before the family left for church. While the house was empty the spirits would come and inspect it, perhaps stopping for a meal. To please them meant a successful year.

At the tables of the well-off, geese, capons, pheasants, bustards, swans, pickled oysters and above all, peacocks, were almost as important as Boars Heads. The now supreme turkey, exemplified in an old rhyme:

Turkey, Carpes, Picarel and Beer,
Came into England all in one year.

came into England about 1518. Christmas pies, from which the modern mince pie is derived were often made with an oval pastry crust, said to represent the manger in which Christ was laid. The first course at Christmas dinner was made by boiling beef and mutton with broth thickened with breadcrumbs, raisins, currants and prunes and seasoned with wine, spices, cloves and ginger and sent to the table in a semi-liquid state to be eaten with a spoon. From this grew the stiffer, modern Christmas pudding which was popular from about 1670.

The Twelfth Day, so called from its being the last day of Christmas, counting from the Nativity, is sometimes called "Old Christmas Day". It is considered the last day upon which it is lawful to eat mince pies, which are essentially a Christmas dish. To eat one on each of the twelve days of Christmas is said to ensure entire happiness for the ensuing year, or failing that, one happy month for each mince pie eaten. In some parts of Dorset, however, it is said that to procure the desired result each mince pie must be of a different person’s make, or must be eaten at a different house. (Lets rejuvenate this practice, sounds good to me).

Christmas cards are a modern innovation. In the 18th century children produced "letter pieces" lettered on coloured paper in fine copper plated script to show how they were progressing at school and wish them the compliments of the season. The real instigator seems to be Sir Henry Cole, a Civil Servant, and later organiser of the Great Exhibition of 1851, who suggested the idea of a Christmas Card to the artist John Callcott Horsley in 1843. Only about a thousand copies were printed the first year, at a shilling each, but it was soon taken up and within five years swept the world, given help by the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840 and halfpenny post in 1870. The giving of gifts are said by some to have originated by those offered by the Magi, but others trace it back as a survival of the Roman gift-giving at the Saturnalia and Kalends celebrations.

The history of Christmas is a fascinating one. First pagan festivals, then Roman Catholic rituals, then the Puritan practices, then gradually commercialism; surely it has gone full circle.

Happy Christmas


The dates for EDAS events are underlined. The monthly evening lectures start at 7.30 pm.
Walks and field visits usually meet at 10.30 am at the published Grid Reference. Ring the leader if the weather is doubtful or if more details are required.

Wed 10 Dec EDAS Lecture: 'Medieval Uses of Chalkland Flowers and Herbs' with Barry Perratt of EDAS.
Tue 13 Jan First in a series of eight Tuesday evening-class lectures by Bill Putnam on the Dewlish Roman Villa. See earlier for details.
Wed 14 Jan EDAS Lecture: Talk by Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology. Subject to be announced.
Wed 11 Feb EDAS Lecture: 'Aspects of Dorset's Medieval Archaeology' with lan Hewitt of Bournemouth University
Wed 10 Mar EDAS Lecture: ‘Early Religion in Wessex’ with Teresa Hall of EDAS.