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History Society Report

A local view of Carols and Christmas

Speaker: Diana Monahan

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

For Hebden Bridge Local History Society’s last meeting before Christmas, society member Diana Monahan gave a talk entitled a local view of Carols and Christmas. The talk was illustrated with several fascinating clips of film.


Carols can be traced back to medieval times when they were frequently accompanied by joyful circle dances. However songs celebrating the turning of the year go back to earliest times and some of these reflect the pagan traditions associated with the festival such as bringing holly and ivy into the house.

Wassailing was another tradition reflected in old carols and was the custom of going from house to house singing songs to bring good luck, in exchange for food drink, or money. This led to the later custom of carol singing from door to door round a neighbourhood or village.  A piece of archive film footage featured the carol singers from Blackshaw Head chapel who walked an estimated ten miles on some occasions, visiting numerous farms and houses with their carols. The evenings ended back at the chapel with liver and onions for the singers who were no doubt cold, tired and hungry!

Mumming was a Calder Valley Christmas tradition, which was still alive in the 1970s. Small groups of people with blacked faces and sometimes in costume would go from door to door, sweeping and tidying the hearth of each house they entered. No words were said but a humming (mumming) noise was made as they went about their business, again bringing good luck in return for some money.

Another singing tradition, which is still carried on locally, is the performance of the Messiah. Performances of the oratorio in Halifax can be traced back to the early years of the nineteenth century. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century numerous chapels of varying sizes were performing the Messiah with great enthusiasm and some continue to the tradition this day.

Carols in the Square in Hebden Bridge on Christmas Eve is always popular. Its origins are thought to date back into the 1940s when people would gather in the Square after the dance in the Co-op ballroom ended. The pubs, which were still open, did a roaring trade as no alcohol was served at the dances! If anyone can tell us more about the origins of this tradition we would be glad to hear from them.

The evening concluded with a look at the Cragg Vale Carols. Diana told us that thanks to the Internet, the origins of the local Cragg Carol turn out to be in America in the late 19th century. But how did they become adopted as the village carols? Diana speculated that they were probably introduced to the valley by Henry Jones who was appointed organist and choirmaster to St John’s in 1899 and remained in post for the next 47 years. The carols appeared in some very popular publications at the time and he may well have brought a copy to his new post. Whilst the carols fell out of fashion elsewhere, they continued to be sung by the Cragg Choir not just in church but around the houses in Cragg Vale.

The next meeting of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society on Wednesday 11th January when Alan Stuttard will ask, Did I see Marilyn? An amusing look at Alan's time as a National Serviceman, defending Hong Kong and peacekeeping in Korea.

Meetings are held at the Methodist Church in Hebden Bridge and start at 7.30 pm. Everyone is welcome and more information can be found on the website www.hebdenbridgehistory.org.uk

With thanks to Hilary Fellows for this report

See also

Hebden Bridge History Website

HebWeb History section