Christmas in the Essex Sound and Video Archive

Rightly or wrongly, Christmas is a unique time of the year, imbued with centuries of traditions, celebrated on a mass level across the country – even the world – but also on an individual level. Each person picks and chooses his/her own customs to create traditions that become more sacred with each passing year that they are observed, passed down through generations and adapted as families intertwine.

It has been fun to spend the last few days putting together seasonal recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, as our first ever online audio advent calendar. It provides a chance for you to get a glimpse into the variety of unique recordings in our collection, one day at a time.

What does the selection tell us, without giving away too much about future recordings?

First, it demonstrates the tremendous variety in the Archive. We have plenty of local radio broadcasts – primarily from BBC Essex, but also recordings for specialist broadcasters such as hospital radio, and talking newspaper magazines. These are an excellent source for finding specific information, local responses to significant national events, such as the 1953 floods, or the 1987 hurricane. They also provide snapshots of the county at moments in time, through BBC Essex’s ‘A-Z of Essex Villages’ or ‘Pub of the Week’ series.

We have music, from captivating professional recordings to charmingly amateur ones. Sacred music, carols, folk songs, and fun songs. Music inspired by Essex, and music written on distant shores but performed in Essex. We hope there is something to meet everyone’s taste in our advent collection.


One example of the festive music in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, from Day 5 of our advent calendar (SA 10/1/1/19/1).

We have public talks and information broadcasts, revealing the history of traditional customs, or useful information on how to get through winter.

A large proportion of our recordings are oral history interviews with Essex people. So, secondly, the recordings emphasise the fact that Christmas is a special time of year, by the frequency with which it is mentioned in interviews. Even if the interviewee only speaks for a minute or two, the fact that the interviewer thought to ask about the festive holidays demonstrates its importance.

The ways in which people talk about Christmas when they are asked, particularly memories of childhood celebrations, also demonstrate the holiday’s significance. The sense of wonder and delight at this time of year comes back in the voice of the speaker as they recall these memories, even fifty, sixty, or seventy years later.

But this sense of delight raises an important question that must always be asked of oral history interviews. How far does the account reflect the reality? There are obvious questions about fading memories, particularly of years blurred together – was Christmas in one family celebrated in 1930 the same way as in 1925? But there are also dangers of thinking all was bright and lovely; there was just the right amount of snow; and we were all satisfied with the orange and new penny in our stocking, and wanted nothing more. Did siblings never argue? Did Mother never burn the dinner?

Do Prim Coppin’s memories of playing in the snow mask the bitter cold of the winter of 1947, and how much people suffered to endure it? A clip from an oral history interview from Day 2 of our advent calendar (SA 44/1/12/1).

Most people suggest that Christmas in ‘the past’ (that undefined age) was happier. Children wanted less. There was less pressure to strive for perfection, so parents did not overspend. Families enjoyed spending quality time together without television (or smartphones). Communities came together to enjoy carol singing, or skating on the frozen pond. Is this true? And is Christmas really so bad now? And if it is, do we not each individually have the freedom to decide how we celebrate it? What memories will our children recount in fifty years of their childhood celebrations?

Thirdly, the collection demonstrates the gaps that are still evident in our archive. The recordings were deliberately chosen as representative of the common ways that Christmas is celebrated in Essex. But what about the many other cultures now living in the county that have their own special high days and holy days? Often these minority cultures are not suitably represented in the archive. If you are a member of a community that does not celebrate Christmas, you can help: you can collect recordings about your customs and traditions. Please do get in touch with us if you want to discuss starting up this kind of project.

We hope you enjoy our first advent calendar, and please do let us know if you would like us to do it again in future (resources permitting!).

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Many of these recordings were digitised as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place.

Document of the Month, December 2017: The Christmases of Essex

Lawrence Barker, Archivist

Our Document of the Month for December is the will of Dorothy Christmas of Chelmsford, dating from 1644 (D/ABW 58/39). Dorothy was the wife of Peter Christmas, an inn-keeper at Chelmsford, whose will of 1639 we also have showing that he left most of his estate to his widow.  The couple seem to have had no children.

‘Christmas’ is very much an Essex surname and indeed Reaney, in his Dictionary of British Surnames (1958), traced the name back to one ‘Ralph Cristemesse’ living in Essex in 1185.  Of course, the name has several variants, such as Chrismas or Crismas, which are scattered across Essex but perhaps with a concentration in the villages around Colchester in the north east.  National newspapers, such as The Daily Mail in December 2014, have already noted the record in a parish register we keep here at Essex Record Office of the burial of ‘Father Christmas’ at Dedham in 1564.

‘the marke of the said Dorothey Christmas’

Not much is known from his will what Peter Christmas left his widow but there is much more detail in Dorothy’s will about what she gave to her relations, her brother and several cousins, as well as some ‘loving friends’.  From it, we get a good idea of what her life was like from the ‘goodes’ and ‘chattells’ described; for example, how comfortable the beds were in her house (or ‘shoppe’), with their feather pillows and bolsters and flaxen sheets and coverlets.

Like most early wills, the opening statement beginning ‘In the name of God Amen’, reflects the piety of a former age.  In particular, references in this will to Jesus Christ, the ‘alsufficient Saviour and Redeemer’ and the assurance of having one’s sins forgiven and being ‘made partaker of his heavenly Kingdom with the Elect’ reflect the beliefs promoted by Luther and Calvin during the Reformation.

In 2017, we look back to the beginning of the Reformation 500 years ago, and in doing so, perhaps we might also reflect upon the religious significance that Christmas had for all those who lived at that time.

Dorothy’s will will be on display in the ERO Searchroom throughout December 2018.