An annual Christmas Stock Show and Sale was established in Dunster in 1835. It joined with the Roots Fair on Waglands, a field between Conygar and The Ball. The Meat Show was held in the High Street and the animals were penned up near the building that was put up in 1825 to house butcher’s stalls. This great cattle market continued on the 1st Friday in December until 1925.
Until the 1940’s the burning of the Ashen Faggot was one of the most popular Christmas customs on Exmoor. It was looked forward to with great excitement. It was said that no West Country farmer would have any good luck during the following year if the ashen faggot was not burnt at his home. Whereas in most counties a Yule Log was burnt Somerset favoured the ashen faggot which was a fair sized bundle of ash branches bound together with twisted ash whips. It was sawn at either end.
Its size depended on the fireplace it was destined for. The ties, made of hazel, withy or thorn were an essential part of both the faggot and the custom. The day on which it was burnt varied between Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Firstly some old wood ash from the previous year was burnt and then the new faggot was placed on top of the embers which had been spread across the hearth. As a tie broke wishes were made, cider passed round and during the evening each person in turn sang a song, told a story or gave a recitation. The Luttrell Arms still keeps up this festive custom do any other locals?
Harold Reeves who started at Allerford village school in 1914 aged 3yrs 8mths described preparations for his school’s Christmas concert.
“Mrs Cox chose a suitable play for about 7-8 actors which lasted about an hour. The 5-7 yr olds put on their own half hour play. A small choir performed and recitations were given. The materials needed for the stage were given by the Acland Estate, including the seating. Every year the Aclands gave a 9-10 ft Christmas Tree for the Schoolroom. All the materials were delivered on a Friday afternoon around 4pm after the children had gone home. The estate carpenters would carry everything into the school. Firstly they evenly spaced 3ft high tressle tables across the room’s width and then floorboards were nailed lightly on to them. A carpet was laid on top. Stage lighting was provided by paraffin lamps- each lamp was 300 candle power. The footlights were in the form of small hand or wall lamps fitted with reflectors to throw out the maximum amount of light on to the stage.”
Minehead had its own Christmas Mummer’s play. In 1908 it was performed by members of the Guild of St George, a charity founded by John Ruskin in 1871, to help the arts,crafts and rural economy. Mumming goes back over 1,000 years in England and was originally a mime or dumb show. The theme was based loosely on the legend of St George and the Dragon (represented by a Turkish Knight) and included much Mediaeval sword play. There was always a death and a miraculous cure by a doctor. Really it was an early form of pantomime.
Compiled by Sally Bainbridge on behalf of Minehead Conservation Society.
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