How to Research Christmas

By Antony Ramm, Librarian

It’s Day 14 of the Heritage Advent Calendar, and it’s time to look into the history of Christmas.

Even Christmas – that eternal day of uniformity – has a history; a history of why people have celebrated Christmas and a history of how people have celebrated Christmas, both changing through time. Anyone interested in this topic will find a selection of books in the Central Library’s Research department as opulent as the richest Christmas pudding – and possibly more nourishing.

(c) Leeds Libraries

You could start your journey into the distant antiquity of Christmases past with The Englishman’s Christmas: A Social History (1978), a wonderfully accessible narrative read by renowned civil servant and social historian J.A.R. Pimlott. (And one that is helpfully available to loan for members of Leeds Libraries.)

After indulging in Pimlott’s broad historical sweep, you might find yourself wanting to focus on a specific period; and what better period than the one age of English history synonymous with Christmas: the Victorian era, of course. And that’s where you’d most likely turn to Antony & Peter Miall’s handsome The Victorian Christmas Book (1978); a nicely illustrated and rather detailed breakdown of how the Victorians spent Christmas Day itself. (And another book available for loan)

Next, you might inevitably find yourself drawn to a book from the Victorian age itself – perhaps John Ashton’s A Right Merrie Christmasse !!!: The Story of Christ-tide (1894); a book whose archaic title hints at its theme: the British customs and folklores of Christmases past – just as we today look back to the Victorian Christmas as being the ‘real’ Christmas, so Ashton casts his gaze back into the distant past on a perhaps quixotic search for the true, pure and authentic Christmas; one that the rampant and vulgar commercialism of his modern era had long-forgot: “The modern Waits have entirely departed from any pretence of allusion to Christ-tide, and play indifferently the last things out in dance music, operatic arts, or music-hall songs.”

Finally, you could turn to W.F. Dawson’s extravagantly-named Christmas: Its Origin and Associations, Together With Its Historical Events and Festive Celebrations during Nineteen Centuries: Depicting, by Pen and Pencil, Memorable Celebrations, Stately Meetings of Early Kings, Remarkable Events, Romantic Episodes, Brave Deeds, Picturesque Customs, Time-Honoured Sports, Royal Christmases, Coronations and Royal Marriages, Chivalric Feats, Court Banquetings and Revellings, Christmas at the Colleges and Inns of Court, Popular Festivities, and Christmas-Keeping in Different Parts of the World, Derived from the most Authentic Sources, and Arranged Chronologically (1902). The title alone would take you the best part of Christmas Day to read (especially after a few mince pies), but anyone brave enough to delve into the book’s contents would find all that title promises – and much more besides; all illustrated with over seventy evocative images. (Both these last two books are for reference-use only: please contact us if you wish to view them)

Join us tomorrow for the next window in our heritage advent calendar

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