With old pubs ringing out sea shanties, dark and drizzly evenings made for cosying up by the fire, and the scent of mulled wine and mince pies in the air, there’s no doubt that Christmastime in Cornwall has a certain magical feel to it.
As a historic town, there are local stories that have been carried to today through the mouths of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so forth. But before we get into a couple of lovely festive Bodmin stories from times past, what is the story behind Christmas itself?
Thanks to Marion Adams, curator at Bodmin Town Museum, we are able to tell you just that!
So how did the traditional Christmas begin? Well, it’s thought that Christmas dates back to the days of early civilisation, when festivals were celebrated according to the changing seasons. It wasn’t until AD320, after the birth of Christ, that the Christian church made the 25th December Christ’s birthday, and from 527 the 25th December and the 12 days following became a sacred festive season. Of course, in England, with the coming of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan government in the 1600s, Christmas - along with other religious festivals - was no more, outlawed to make way for Puritan ideals.
Arguably, it wasn’t until later in time, during Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s reign, that Christmas really began to shape itself into a festival many of us celebrate today. With Albert’s German origin, the traditional Christmas tree was brought over to the British Isles and became a staple in homes across the country. In addition to this, Christmas Day became a time to swap gifts with loved ones, and enjoy a special meal to be shared together round the table of the family home, the contents of the meal depending on your status in society. With Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol being published in 1843, the true meaning of Christmas became generosity and kindness. It became a celebration of togetherness and community.
But what of Christmas of old in Bodmin?
John Tregida was a young miner who, on Christmas Eve, trudged wearily over Halgavor Moor after a long shift working in the cold, damp ground, and was stricken by the sound of St Petroc’s bells ringing out across the valley. John suddenly thought of local preacher Henry Bray, and was suddenly being led through Bodmin on the back of a donkey, accompanied by Henry, until they reached his home on Mill Street, his wife and four children waiting for him inside. Henry returned to deliver a parcel of Christmas goods to John and his family - decorations, food and gifts - echoing the true meaning of Christmas mentioned above.
Morwenna Yeo was a farmer’s wife and found herself in labour on a cold, foggy Christmas Eve night. Her husband John set off in search of Doctor Thomas of 12 Castle Street. John arrived at Doctor Thomas’ home, where he appeared to be intruding on a party in full swing. Of course, Doctor Thomas returned to the farm with John to deliver a healthy baby boy. Tinners shortly arrived, armed with brandy, to toast what became known as the Christmas Child.
Bodmin Town Museum is closed over winter, but will be opening the week before Easter 2024.
With thanks to Bodmin Town Museum and the late historian Peter Davies, whose book ‘Looking Back at North Cornwall’ is full of local stories such as the ones mentioned in this article. His book can be obtained from the museum.