From the Archives: Festive Celebrations

POST BY MAllen

Christmas 2020 looks set to be a Christmas like no other. Traditionally a time spent with family and friends, thanks to the global pandemic celebrations for many will be limited this year, but no less special. In this blog post, the Jesuits in Britain Archives look back at some of the ways in which the festive season has been celebrated by Jesuits at the start of their careers in the Society.

For anybody entering the Society, the first stage is a two-year Noviciate which, between 1860 and 1950 was at Manresa House, Roehampton. Novices and Juniors at Manresa in the 1930s would have been treated to the cooking of Br Thomas Moore, whose recipe book survives in the Archives and includes a recipe for an inexpensive Christmas pudding, shown below (ref. SJ/29/6). Traditionally Christmas pudding is prepared on the last Sunday before Advent, roughly five weeks before Christmas. The fact that he recorded his recipe in July suggests he was well prepared. You may want to reduce the quantities if trying this recipe for yourself as it produced 4 large or 8 small puddings, though for a reasonable 5 shillings.

The Novitiate was followed by the Juniorate, also at Manresa House, until 1958 when this stage of formation ceased to exist. This was a course of humanities, typically English, French and Maths, with some Latin and Greek, giving a broad general grounding before going on to Philosophy. The Juvenilia, an in-house publication produced by the Juniors between 1909 and 1955, contained illustrations, poems, scientific and philosophical essays and much more. Below you can see two colourful illustrations produced by talented Juniors in 1909 and 1912, respectively. As you can see, Juvenilia provided an excellent opportunity for budding cartoonists to show off their artistic flair.

Also found within the Juvenilia is this article discussing old and now outdated Christmas traditions by James Gallagher in 1910, and a tongue-in-cheek Christmas weather forecast, 1929, describing the harsh, cold and wet conditions that inevitably accompany this time of the year.

One of our favourite sources of inspiration, which we have featured many times, is the Blandyke Papers. This rather odd word, 'blandyke', comes from Blendecques, a village on the river Aa in Flanders an hour’s walk from St Omers, where the English Jesuits purchased a property in 1626 for students to spend their monthly holidays. The custom of calling such monthly holidays ‘blandykes’ continued. The Blandyke Papers, first published 1889 at St Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst, were compiled by the Philosophers, Philosophy being the next stage in Jesuit training after the Novitiate and, for a time, the Juniorate. Containing essays on literature, history, liturgy, philosophy, science and art, the aim was to provide an outlet for future priests to develop their literary skills and creativity. The trainee Jesuits channelled their artistic energies into producing spectacular Christmas issues, which contain many beautiful illustrations such as these from the Christmas 1928 edition:

In 1926 the Philosophers and Theologians, who had been at St Beuno’s, moved to Heythrop College, Oxfordshire, where the Heythrop Christmas pantomime became tradition. The Archives contain two bound librettos written by Bernard Basset with music by John Delahunty, both of whom studied Philosophy at Heythrop 1931 to 1934. The first is ‘Robinson Crusoe’ from 1932 in which Basset is listed among the cast in the role of Fairy Godmother (ref. SJ/109/6/1).

The second volume is ‘Aladdin and the wonderful lamp’, 1934 (ref. SJ/109/6/2). Both are illustrated with photographs of the performance at Heythrop and have also been autographed on the first page by what is presumably the cast and crew.

Both Basset and Delahunty received praise for their talents in their obituaries, printed in Letters and Notices:

Bernard arrived at Heythrop when the traditional Christmas entertainment of Gilbert & Sullivan was wearing thin:…No need for me to dewll on the brilliant way in which he introduced in his pantomimes something very English to a very cosmopolitan audience and with such an impact of immediate success. The glorious tunes composed by John Delahunty, and the topicality of the verses, formed an irresistible combination. (L&N vol. 89 p. 226)

… It was [at Heythrop] that John’s talent was apparent. Bernard Basset wrote popular songs and John wrote the music. He had great ability to write melodies which fitted the words of BB. The two of them provided Christmas pantomimes-Robinson Crusoe and the Aladdin…They were successful but it was the catchy tunes which made the show. (L&N vol. 91 pp. 58)

Preparations for Christmas at Heythrop were taken very seriously. A ‘Christmas Log’ volume (ref. SE/2) contains detailed instructions and arrangements for the Christmas festivities of 1927, from a programme of cleaning to the gargantuan process of ordering supplies for 160 people and a strict timetable of activities for Christmas Day itself. The logbook includes lists of the numbers of chairs and tables available as well as a detailed diagram of table arrangements in the hall for the traditional Christmas entertainments, plays put on by the Philosophers and Theologians.

Not even the most careful planning, however, could prepare the community for the Great Christmas Snow of 1927 which brought, in some areas, 25 feet of snow. The image below of the Chalford Oaks drift shows just how deep it was (ref. 32/5/2F).

On Christmas Day the Beadle wrote in his log:

Raining hard a.m.: about midday turned to snow, which fell very heavily. About 4.O an SOS came in from a motor car which had become embedded in snow half way down the drive: sent out a party & got him free. 8.O Snow so deep, the two visitors cannot get away. Tremendous gale blowing, forming big snow drifts. (ref. 24/3/4/11)

The two visitors, priests from nearby Chipping Norton and Banbury, who had been invited to dinner at Heythrop Hall were unable to leave until 31 December. In the following days, the Beadle noted the worsening conditions with the surrounding roads completely blocked by drifts. On the 27th, a few members of the community walked through the fields to Chipping Norton to fetch the post while others took toboggans to the Quiet Woman public house in search of supplies. Members of the community continued to receive and respond to SOS calls from stranded motorists and travellers attempting to reach Heythrop. Further toboggan parties were dispatched in the following days, including on 30th December to collect the films for the much-anticipated New Year’s Eve cinema showing. Despite the heavy snowfall, blizzard and squalls, the Christmas festivities of 1927, so meticulously planned in the Christmas logbook, seem not to have been unduly disrupted.

If you are interested in any of the items mentioned in this blog post or would like to make an enquiry, please contact us: [email protected].

Mary Allen, Deputy Archivist