Thursday, 18 December 2014

Christmas Past III

Food, Glorious Food by Irene Soper

November the 26th really sees the start of the preparations for Christmas in the New Forest.  For that is the traditional date on which the Gypsies are allowed to start picking holly to sell at local markets and to make wreaths.  Already they have filled their sacks with moss fathered from the boggy paths on the side of the hill above Abbots Well.  This moss is used in the foundations of wreaths.  One old Gypsy lady living in the village can always be seen at that time of year colourfully dressed in a long skirt, short coat with flowered apron and headscarf, pushing a pram overflowing with holly towards the town.

Our small local Forest town Fordingbridge is a throng of activity as the festive season progresses.  Outside the butchers shop hang rows of hares, pheasants and turkeys.  Lighted Christmas trees shine above every shop and in the square, people gather to sing traditional carols around the bigger lit tree.  Back in the village the carole singers find their way along the dark lanes by the light of a lantern on a long pole.  At one time carol singers on Christmas Eve were given a warming spiced drink.  The Christmas Wassail Bowl was usually composed of a strong ale, the froth of roasted apples, cloves, cinnamon, and a grate of nutmeg, ginger and brown sugar.

Through the open doorway of the village church comes the sound of more carols sung, this time to the accompaniment of the local silver band.  Approaching the church, our pathway is gilded by the glowing colours of a stained glass window.

Inside a huge Christmas tree stands shining with coloured lights and cascades of gold and silver tinsel.  Every seat is filled and after the service coffee and sandwiches are served in the adjacent hall where everyone can meet and discuss the coming festive season.

On Christmas Eve the kitchen is a very busy place.  Although the cake and puddings have been made for several weeks, there are still the mince pies to make, the chestnut stuffing to prepare, the trifle to make and the cake to decorate.

It was once the custom in the old farmhouses to serve a dish called Frumenty for breakfast at Christmas-time:


One dish of crushed whole wheat, sugar, spice and raisins and skimmed new milk, simmered in a jar in the oven, or at the back of the stove overnight.  It can be eaten hot or cold.

On the farmsteads, it is possible a fat capon was served for Christmas dinner, and most likely in some more remote cottages a joint of venison would grace the table at the Festive season.

After a traditional Christmas lunch in the middle of the day, only a light tea was wanted.  This was usually eaten around an open fire, and was probably just a sweet.


Half a pound of macaroons, six penny sponge cakes (trifle sponges), one ounce of powdered sugar, raisin wine, two ounces of raisins and two pints of custard.

Crumble the macaroons and sponge cakes into a large glass dish, mix with the sugar and raisins and saturate them thoroughly with the wine.  Prepare the custard and pour over the whole of the above, stirring gently to mix perfectly.  After it is cold, garnish the surface with blanched sweet almonds and glace cherries, and serve from the dish . . .

Taken from "A Hampshire Christmas" compiled by Sara Tiller.


  1. That is so lovely, what ever happened to christmases like that, I blame plastic. :-)

  2. Christmas is what you make it I guess. We can still borrow bits from the past and combine them in our Christmas traditions. Mind you, I think if you had Frumenty for breakfast, and a Wassail bowl passed around at teatime, you would scarcely need the capon in between. There's an old word - I can remember we had a capon (neutered cockerel) twice a year - at Easter and Christmas only - because chicken was so expensive!! How things change.

  3. I did enjoy reading Irene Soper`s description. I wonder which New Forest village she lived in? Presumably one of the villages north of the A31 if Fordingbridge was her nearest market town.

    I too remember having a capon for Christmas lunch. A bit bigger than a chicken but not so large as a turkey!

    We had masses of berries on the old holly hedge this year but the thrushes and blackbirds have taken most of them now.

  4. DW - Thank you for popping in. Very few holly berries locally, unless there are a lot of male trees. I think Irene Soper must have lived Stuckton or Godshill way as she mentioned Abbott's Well, and that was mentioned in Juliet de Bairacli Levy's books.

  5. Some folk round here still have frumenty for breakfast on Christmas morning.
    When I was a child chicken was not the common, cheap meat it is now. We always had a capon for Christmas.

  6. Good to hear that the custom hasn't entirely died out Pat. Chicken might have been expensive back in the day, but it was proper chicken - grown to its full potential and not factory-farmed and full of antibiotics and water as it is now.