From the desk of Helena Whitbread: Anne Lister’s Georgian Christmases

Anne ListerIn England during the Georgian era, the spirit of Christmas varied from region to region and even from family to family. In some places, the religious rites associated with the birth of Christ were rigidly observed with all indulgences, such as rich food and other festive trimmings, strictly excluded, whilst in others there was a judicious mix of religion and merrymaking. As one writer put it: “One half of Yorkshire behaved as if there had never been a hint of [religious] reform, with all the joy and merriment of the ‘Old Christmas’; the other half fought against all but the meanest acceptance of the birth of Christ as a reason to rejoice.’ It rather appears that the Listers fell into the latter category.

From the evidence available in the journals of Anne Lister Christmas at Shibden Hall, then, was a sober affair with attendance at church on Christmas day the focal point of the day. Virtually nothing is recorded by Anne about anything remotely festive. The selection below, taken from the pages of her journal, is some indication of her Christmas experiences.

Christmas night, 1810, found Anne writing a wistful letter to her new love, Isabella Norcliffe, in which she imagines her lover dancing the night away at the Assembly Rooms in York.

“Perhaps my dear girl at this moment whilst my thoughts are all yours, you are gaily winding through the mazes of the dance, or led by some stupid senseless coxcomb gasping for breath among the careless crowd.”

Sat at home, far away from the York revelries, Anne’s melancholy mood deepened as she allowed her imagination to conjure up seasonal ghosts and spirits to haunt the ‘midnight dances’ in which she fancied Isabella was indulging.

“‘Tis then the hour when sprites and witches go abroad and “thin shiv’ring ghosts from yawning charnels throng and dance with silent sweep the shaggy vaults along.”

She cheered up a little when she remembered that, as it was Christmas night, the Assembly Rooms would be closed, but still, her own Christmas festivities of burning the ‘yewl log’, eating rich food and playing cards with the family ‘from conformity rather than inclination’ were no compensation for the absence of Isabella.

In 1822, we find that even in the town, life went on in a very workaday fashion. On Christmas Day the shops were open and the postman was on his rounds – i.e. ‘…As we were going to church, met the postman. A letter from Isabella Norcliffe’. Although Anne’s father, Captain Jeremy Lister, and her sister Marian called at Shibden Hall later in the day (they were living at Northgate House), there is no mention of an exchange of presents or what we now regard as a traditional Christmas dinner. It appears, when compared with other sources where the Georgian Christmas is shown as a truly festive occasion, that the Listers’ Christmasses must have been relatively austere, according to Anne’s journal entry for the day. ‘…Went to morning church…all 3 [herself, her aunt and her uncle] staid the sacrament [sic].’ From then on the day progressed normally with Anne visiting her horses and writing letters.

For a number of years, the one bright gleam for Anne in any Christmas spent at Shibden was the prospect of her married lover, Mariana Lawton, coming to stay. In the year 1817, Christmas Day itself was passed, as usual for the Listers, in churchgoing in the morning and prayers at home in the afternoon. However, the following day, breaking her journey from her parents’ home in York to her own home, Lawton Hall in Cheshire, Mariana arrived at Shibden, bringing with her her new cook, Elizabeth, whom she had hired in York. She was also the bearer of gifts. Her sister, Anne [Nantz] Belcombe had sent Anne, ‘a pair of cambric muslin sleeves, with broad wristbands, to be worn as linings, which she (Nantz) had made…& a Saffic [Sapphic]seal – new moon rising over the sea – motto – je ne change qu’en apparence’ – a covert message of love to Anne, reminding her of their affair earlier that year. It is intriguing to note that the wax seals of those days had many covert and overt uses – money could even be concealed beneath the wax e.g. in 1810 Eliza Raine (Anne’s first lover) wrote to Anne and told her that ‘You will find half a guinea in the seal for my shoes’ [Eliza Raine to Anne Lister. 27.4.1810.]

As the years went on, Christmas for Anne took on different forms, not least when she was in such exciting places as Paris and Moscow but the ones I have chosen do give us a glimpse into what Christmas must have been like for her in the fastness of her medieval family home in the small provincial north of England town of Halifax.

Helena Whitbread


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