A Merry Tudor Christmas with Lucy Worsley – BBC 2

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I’ve always rather fancied the idea of Christmas at the court of Henry VIII, although I dread to imagine how many calories people must have got through.  Eat, drink and be merry … before the Puritans come along and put the kybosh on it all!  Decorate your work tools so that they can’t be used: come on, folks, get those office computers festooned with holly and icy.  Keep dancing into January, and then get stuck into a Twelfth Night cake that’s a full yard in diameter.  And make sure you get Henry a good prezzie, because he’ll be opening it in full view of the entire court.  This really was good fun, and, it being the festive season, Lucy’s dressing up didn’t seem that annoying for once.

Henry apparently spent £7,000 on Christmas festivities in 1509.  That’s a serious amount of money even now, never mind over 500 years ago.  And he didn’t even eat most of the food that was put in front of him.  Well, not then, when he was young and slim, anyway.  However, the leftovers were given away to the poor.  Marinated pigs’ ears wouldn’t really do it for me, but it was fascinating seeing the re-creation of the sort of things that would have been on the menu then.  The intricate creations in marchpane particularly caught my eye. You see them abroad sometimes, especially in Sicily, but it’s rare to see them here.

Roast beef … now, that’s more my thing than marinated pigs’ ears would be.  And it was interesting to hear about the Welsh influence on the mead they drank – it’s well-known that Henry VII was keen to play up his Welsh links, but you don’t think so much about Henry VIII doing the same.  A lot of drinking went on!   It’s easy to fall into the Victorian trap of imagining a Merrie Englande that never actually existed, but, in the case of Tudor Christmases, it really did.  Court masques.  Carol singing.   The Lords of Misrule on Twelfth Night.  And all that food!

Twelve days of feasting.  The biggest difference between Christmas then and Christmas now is probably that, in Tudor times, it was all about the Twelve Days of Christmas, with people fasting during Advent.  The pre-Christmas fast still seems to be a thing in some predominantly Orthodox countries, but it certainly isn’t here.  The partying starts well before Christmas Eve, and then no-one really knows what to do with themselves during “Twixmas”, and it’s usually back to work and diets on January 2nd.  I’ve always wanted a Twelfth Night cake, ever since I first read about them in Katherine L Oldmeadow’s Princess Prunella!  Maybe not one a yard across, though.

Of course, this was only at court, but, even for the less well-off people, Christmas was a time of celebration.  Homes were decorated with greenery – and that’s a tradition going way back before Christianity.  Lords of the manor would usually give out food.  “We want some figgy pudding … we won’t go until we get some!” There were mummers’ plays.   And sports were enjoyed – rather miserably, they were banned for much of the year, to stop rowdy behaviour and to make people concentrate on archery.  Except at court, obviously.  Play as much tennis as you liked there!  But, at Christmas, play as much as you liked anywhere!

Then along came the Puritans.  Mind you, I keep going on about the Puritans spoiling people’s fun, but, until the early 1830s, there were over 30 Bank Holidays in England – secular holidays like Oak Apple Day and Bonfire Night, as well as religious holidays.  Wakes weeks were still going until very recently.  William Harrison Ainsworth writes about Twelfth Night festivities in Manchester well into the 19th century, and Dickens mentions Twelfth Night as well.  So a lot of these festivities long outlasted the Puritans … but didn’t make it through till today.  Shame!  As Lucy said, early January can be a pretty miserable time, and a bit of singing and dancing would liven it up no end.

I really enjoyed this.  It was good fun.  We do still have quite a Puritanical culture in many ways, and it’s easy to frown at excessive eating, drinking and spending, but life is short, winter nights are long, and people deserve to enjoy themselves.  £7,000 in 1509’s money – Google informs me that a labourer’s annual wage would have been £5 to £10 – does seem a bit extravagant, though …

 

Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey – BBC 4

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I was expecting this to be just a bit of festive fun, but it was actually surprisingly moving. Lucy Worsley really can do moving, when she’s not dressing up and being irritating. We love to sing. Even when you’re me, and you were told to mouth the words at the school Christmas concert because your voice was so bad that you were putting the other girls off. We feel a need to sing together, whether we’re cheering our team on at football matches or singing Don’t Look Back In Anger when we’re trying to come to terms with a devastating terrorist attack.

Christmas carols go back to the days of wassailing, long before the winter festivities were taken over by the Church. The Puritans wanted rid of them, and any religious-themed music not actually using words from the Bible was frowned on for decades after that, well into the mid-18th century. But people wanted to sing, and, as Lucy said, carols were “the people’s music” – and the religious authorities had to give in. During the famous Christmas truce of 1914, carols were sung, and “Just for a little while, they brought comfort and comradeship, and a little bit of peace”. I think we could all do with some of that. Let the midwinter festivities, regardless of whatever form of religion, if any, they’re associated with for you, be about coming together. Singing’s a really good way of doing that. Even when you’re me, and you were banned from singing out loud during the school concert!

The programme started off with wassailing, and a reminder that midwinter celebrations go back long before they became associated with the Nativity story. We then got some Tudor jollification, complete with a picture of a Tudor Father Christmas. I’ve always rather fancied the Tudor court idea of stuffing yourself for twelve days, but I’m fat enough already – not that that seemed to bother Henry VIII, in his later years. Then the Reformation, and the infamous Commonwealth period – which I prefer to call the Interregnum, but no-one else seems to use that term these days! – when the Puritans were calling the shots and, as we all know, a lot of the Christmas traditions were banned. Out went any form of singing in church other than psalms set to melodies.  Even long after that, the Church of England wasn’t keen on carols –  and the Methodists deserve a big festive gold star for promoting them.  Eventually, the Established Church gave in – the first non-Biblical one it OKd being Hark the Herald Angels sing.

It was quite hard to get it all to fit in with the history of carols, because we don’t actually know how or where most of them came from, and that’s complicated by the fact that, in most cases, the words and the music originated separately! And we honestly don’t know if there are hidden meanings behind, say, The Twelve Days of Christmas. But we did hear quite a bit about the history of some individual carols. Is O Come All Ye Faithful actually a Jacobite song, referring to Bonnie Prince Charlie rather than having anything to do with Christmas? Yes, probably! How far does In The Bleak Midwinter reflect Christina Rosetti’s struggles with mental and physical health problems? I didn’t know that O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by an American minister who’d gone on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem to get away from the Civil War – why did I not know that?!

And, whilst the story of the Silent Night music and the flooded church organ is well-known, something that’s never really mentioned is the fact that the actual words date from slightly earlier, 1816, the year after the end of the Napoleonic Wars which brought such upheaval to the Salzburg area, passed around like a parcel from ruler to ruler. It was the first year of “heavenly peace” for a long time. And that’s the carol most closely associated with the Christmas truce of 1914. Lucy seemed quite emotional whilst she was talking about it. I really hadn’t expected this programme to be quite so moving. It was lovely.

This isn’t a carol (nor was it in the programme, but I’m sticking it in anyway) but it is a Christmas song – Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas, sung by the late, great, Freddie Mercury.

Oh my love
We live in troubled days
Oh my friend
We have the strangest ways
All my friends
On this one day of days
Thank God it’s Christmas
Yes it’s Christmas
Thank God it’s Christmas
For
One
Day

Could we have some peace and goodwill to all men (and women), please?  Some tidings of comfort and joy?  And some heavenly peace?   Waes Hael (good health)!!   Well done, Lucy.  I really enjoyed this.

Last Christmas

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I’ve still got my vinyl copy of Last Christmas, after 35 years.  No idea whether it still works or not – but one of the all-time classic Christmas songs, and the late, great, George Michael, deserve so much more than this rather disappointing film.  The lead character needed a good slap, there’d been a ridiculously careless error over the dates of the Yugoslav Wars, and there weren’t even that many Wham! songs in it.  And why are these things always set in London?!  There were moments of promise, mostly involving minor characters, but none of them were fulfilled.  It was watchable, but certainly not memorable.

The main character, Kate (Katarina) was just irritating.  She was sofa surfing in London, but it was entirely her own fault that she kept being asked to leave: she showed no respect for her friends’ homes, and kept wrecking their treasured possessions and inviting strange blokes back without asking if it was OK.  And whingeing about being “homeless” when her old room at her parents’ home was ready and waiting for her. Not to mention rushing out of work – a Christmas shop, where she dressed up as an elf all day –  without locking up, as a result of which there was a break-in and the place got trashed.  She didn’t even apologise to her boss.  People’s lives do get in a mess sometimes, but you need to be able to sympathise with the person, and instead I just wanted to slap her!

And, as I said, why are these things always set in London?  And why do they always involve with people with posh Home Counties accents?  I was just waiting for Hugh Grant to turn up like he usually does!   Although, in this case, the main character with the posh Home Counties accent was supposed to have been a child refugee from “former Yugoslavia”.

At the start of the film, we got a picture of children’s choir in an Orthodox church in “Yugoslavia” in 1999.  Well, OK, technically the name “Serbia and Montenegro” wasn’t adopted until 2003.  But we were then told that the irritating Kate and her family had moved to London from “former Yugoslavia” because of “the wars”.  For a kick off, no-one says “former Yugoslavia” any more.  Everyone says Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, etc.  And whereabouts were they from, and which of the wars had they fled from?  The mum mentioned Croatia, but the war in Croatia was long over by 1995.  And it was definitely a Serbian-looking church.  OK, they could have been Croatian Serbs from Krajina, but why would they have been fleeing in 1999?!  There was fighting in Kosovo in 1999, but most of the people who left were Kosovo Albanians, who do not have Slavic names, speak a Slavic language, or, as a general rule, attend Orthodox churches or any other churches.  It just all gave the impression that the scriptwriters didn’t know what they were talking about.

Presumably Emma Thompson, she who flew from California to London on a carbon-emitting plane just to protest about climate change, was trying to show how right on/woke she was by having a main character who was a refugee, but the fact that no-one could even be bothered to check the dates was really rather insulting to the many people who suffered so terribly as a result of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the wars that followed.  Not impressed.  /rant

We learnt that Kate had had a heart transplant, and that that was supposedly why she was so flaky and irresponsible, but she was so annoying that I was hard to sympathise – although it was easier to sympathise with her worried mum, whose phone calls kept being ignored.   In fact, several of the minor characters were far more appealing than Kate (which wasn’t hard), but sadly we didn’t get to see much of them.  The mum, who’d been traumatised by her experiences in the wars – although that would have worked better if a) they’d actually bothered to check the dates of the wars and b) Emma Thompson hadn’t played her like a stereotype in a ’70s sitcom.  The dad, who’d been a lawyer in “former Yugoslavia” but hadn’t been able to retrain and was working as a taxi driver.  The sister, who’d felt pressurised into becoming a lawyer to live her dad’s dream for him, and hadn’t told her parents that her “flatmate” was actually her girlfriend.  All the people at the homeless centre where she ended up volunteering – what were their stories?  Kate’s boss, played by Michelle Yeoh, who seemed to have had umpteen different jobs and was obsessed with Christmas – what was her story?

And Tom, the really nice, if totally uncharismatic, guy – why do really nice guys in films always chase after horrible partners?!  – who was a volunteer at a homeless centre, and managed to show Kate the error of her ways … before a sad twist in the tale.  She ended up organising a fundraising concert and apologising to all the people she’d upset.  It was all pretty cheesy, but that’s fine in a Christmas rom-com as long as the film’s OK and the characters are nice.  This, unfortunately, was all a bit of a let-down.  And I was expecting it to be full of Wham! songs, but in fact there were only a few.  It didn’t even include Careless Whisper!

It wasn’t a bad idea, I suppose.  Nasty character is redeemed in time for Christmas – very Charles Dickens.  But Scrooge isn’t the hero, and Kate was supposed to be the heroine.  Getting the dates of the wars wrong was appalling, and it was all just a bit silly.   Last Christmas, one of the greatest Christmas songs ever, deserved better!