John E. Vigar MA, FSA Scot., FRSA

Church Christmases Past

This is a blog I wrote for the Friends of Friendless Churches which I hope you find interesting.


Our vision of Christmases Past is so dominated by Dickens, Prince Albert and Thomas Hardy that we might be forgiven for paying little attention to celebrations in older times. Yet many of our parish churches have been witness to over a thousand Christmas celebrations, and it is a fascinating study to identify the way in which things were done in the earlier periods.

Christmas Day - meaning December 25th - is first mentioned in the fourth century and probably incorporated existing Roman festivals[1]. It was thought that March 25th was when the world was created, and Christ conceived, so December was determined as the month of His birth. It also marked the Equinox and the move from darkness to light. Later disagreements over the date meant that Christmas was little celebrated and only really became a widely-accepted significant date after Charlemagne was crowned on that day in AD800. In England, the date was subsequently chosen for the coronations of both King Edmund of East Anglia (AD855) and King William the Conqueror (1066) setting it firmly in both secular and religious calendars[2].

To most of the medieval population Christmas was a time for secular festivities, but with ever increasing religious influence. As Eamon Duffy explains, the secular carols were `pervasively indebted to liturgical hymnody`.[3] Secular festivals included parades and coronations of `Kings for a Day` with accompanying Mummers and Wassailers. The tradition of the Hooden Horse in Kent and Mari Lwyd in Wales took religious symbolism (the horse Mary rode into Bethlehem) into the secular world.

Medieval churches had permanent reminders of Christmas year-round. At Fincham (Norfolk) the font has a wonderfully crude Nativity scene on its twelfth century font whilst at Ashampstead (Berkshire) fine thirteenth century wall paintings survive. Interestingly, Nativity scenes were not common in the early medieval period, but by the fifteenth century every church may have had one. One of the finest, of alabaster and made at Nottingham in the fourteenth century is now in the V&A and must originally have formed part of an altarpiece. It is widely believed that St Francis of Assisi introduced the first nativity figures into his church at Greccio in 1223[4].

Churches themselves have many little-known traditions associated with Christmas. At Dewsbury (Yorkshire) the tolling bell, used to announce funerals, was rung on Christmas Eve to symbolise the death of the Devil, to precede the birth of Christ.[5] Churches were decorated with evergreens – Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe. The latter was much revered as it represented a plant which depended on another for survival. In 1486 the churchwardens as St Mary at Hill (City of London) paid 4d for “Holme and Ivy at Christmas Eve”[6] .

Following the Reformation, Christmas was still celebrated widely in churches and in 1559 Bishop Grindal, the then Bishop of London published a book of carols that were predominantly religious rather than secular[7]. The early seventeenth century, however, saw changes in public attitude towards Christmas which was seen as too much fun, and in 1647 the Long Parliament said that Christmas would no longer be recognised. This led to general unrest, especially when in Canterbury a woman was thrown in prison for making a Christmas Pudding, and shopkeepers imprisoned for not opening their shops as usual on Christmas Day. Thankfully, the celebration of Christmas was restored, with the monarchy, in 1660. That year, Samuel Pepys attended his church of St Olave (City of London) and recorded that his pew was `covered in rosemary`[8]

In the diaries of the James Woodforde (1758-1802), the parson of Weston Longville in Norfolk, we discover that he only introduced a service on Christmas Day in the late 1790s, and that it was not at all well-supported.[9] The Revd Francis Kilvert (1840-1879) living on the Wales/Herefordshire border did not have a service on Christmas Day at all. He was a low-church clergyman who took services on Sunday alone, and this was not uncommon in rural communities. Conversely, the High Church Anglicans most certainly celebrated Communion on Christmas Day as we see from the Returns from the Census of Religious Worship of 1851, where several clergy mentioned holding services. However, nineteenth century Christmas services relied on a few old carols – most were still secular and usually sung at home or as part of concerts. In 1875 a book of appropriate carols was published by R R Chope and these became popular almost overnight.[10] Like the Harvest Festival which we all think has been around forever, the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols is a nineteenth century invention, first introduced by Bishop E W Benson at Truro Cathedral 140 years ago this year. It was apparently conceived to get the men out of the pubs, and after Benson became Archbishop of Canterbury its popularity was assured.

No wonder that today we prefer to see Christmas through Victorian eyes.


[1] Friar, Stephen, A Companion to the English Parish Church, Sutton Publishing 1996 p108

[2] Williamson, David, Kings and Queens of Great Britain, 1991

[3] Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars, Yale, 1992, p15

[4] Johnson, G O, Why do Catholics do that? Random House, 1994

[5] Thistleton Dyer, T F, Church-Lore Gleanings, Innes and Co, 1892, 104

[6] Andrews, William, The Church Treasury, William Andrews, 1898, p 230

[7] Strype, John, The Life of Edmund Grindal, Clarendon Press, 1821

[8] Smith, G G (ed) The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Macmillan, 1935, p60

[9] Beresford, John (ed), The Diary of a Country Parson, OUP, 1978

[10] Chope, R R, Carols for Use in Church During Christmas and Epiphany , Metzler and Co 1875

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Kent Churches Online Course


A reminder that there are still places available on my forthcoming course on ZOOM entitled `Historic Churches of Kent`.


The course takes place on the next three Monday evenings between 7.30pm and 8.30pm and covers the history, architecture and furnishings of Kent Churches. It is profusely illustrated and includes many previously unseen photographs. Topics include towers; fonts, screens, seating, memorials; stained glass.


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Forthcoming Zoom lecture


I I am giving a Zoom lecture on Tuesday. Please join me if you can.

John Vigar presents a series of lectures on zoom

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Online Lectures


I am pleased to announce that I will be giving these online lectures in October


Tuesday 6th October  Churches of the Romney Marshes

Tuesday 20th October   For Weddings, Baptisms and Funerals

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English cathedrals - residential course


I am delighted to announce that I will be teaching a short course this autumn at KNUSTON HALL, Northamptonshire on an "Introduction to English Cathedrals". For those of you who do not know Knuston Hall, it is a residential adult college, and I have taught there for several years. It's just three miles from Wellingborough Station where taxis are available. The food is superb and the staff friendly and welcoming. The college fulfills all Covid-19 safety regulations and is deliberately running on small class numbers.


The course starts with lunch on Tuesday October 27th and ends after lunch on Thursday October 29th. We`ll look at the way in which all 42 English cathedrals were established and run and as the course is profusely illustrated it's an ideal armchair study, suitable for absolute beginners.


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Autumn online lectures

I am pleased to annouce my programme of ZOOM lectures for the rest of the year. They cost £5 each. Please do tell your friends!


Wednesday August 19th at 7.30pm   Little Known treasures in Norfolk churches

Monday September 14th at 8.00pm  Cathedrals of England

Tuesday September 15th at 7.30pm for three Tuesday evenings Historic Churches of Norfolk - 3 sessions

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New online lectures


For the forseeable future all my work will be online. This means that I will be opening my work up to a whole new audience who will be able to attend my lectures from the comfort of their own homes - but existing clients are more than welcome, of course!

I currently have two one-hour lectures available.

Murder Sex and Mayhem in English Churches on Monday10th August at 7.30pm  

Exploring Kent Churches on Tuesday 11th August at 7.30pm  

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Online lectures

For the next 4 Monday evenings at 8pm I am giving online lectures. The titles are as follows:


Monday 6th July

Bedrooms, Banquets and Balls - an off-beat look at the English Country House

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Online lecture

I'm presenting my popular lecture "Murder Sex and Mayhem in English Churches" via Zoom on the evening of June 29th.

All you need is a computer or tablet and internet access.


Full booking details here

Murder Sex and Mayhem - BOOKING

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Church Day Trips

Sadly, I have decided to give up arranging my public church day tours. I have been running these for over 30 years. They have been thoroughly enjoyable and I have met many interesting people along the way.


These tours take a huge amount of organisation and since Data Protection came into force it has been almost impossible to obtain contact details for individual churches. In an average year I have to contact in excess of 50 churches (just for day tours) and when you don't receive a response from half of them and spend hours trying to make contact it just takes the fun out of it.


For the past two years I have run the tours at a loss and COVID-19 has made the situation even worse.

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Saxon Church Architecture

An introduction to Saxon architecture


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Medieval Dedicatory inscriptions

A short vBlog


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A few words about baptisms

A new vblog about baptisms


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Ballidon, Derbyshire

Ballidon, Derbyshire, is an undiscovered gem in the care of The Friends of Friendless Churches. In this Blog I outline the main features of the church. 

Ballidon is an area of great antiquity. There are remains of Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows in the area and house platforms near the church attest to a sizeable medieval settlement. As industry in the form of quarrying limestone took the place of agriculture the population decreased considerably.

In the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, Ballidon church had seats for 72 people. Most were rented with only 8 being free. A service was only held once a fortnight in the evening and the average attendance was between 20 and 35. The present open benches date from 1882.

This church was a parochial chapel in the parish of Bradborne. Whilst Ballidon is mentioned in Domesday Book (1086) there is no mention of a church, but this is not uncommon and cannot be taken as evidence that there wasn’t a church here. In any case the present building dates from shortly afterwards, say 1100, with the south doorway being a good example of simple Romanesque architecture. There was once a north door as well, but this is now only visible outside. The plan of the church is very simple, of nave, chancel and vestry. It is constructed of local limestone rubble, with gritstone dressings, although the external west wall has been much altered and is now significantly thicker than the rest of the church. Its massive plinth foundation is clearly visible outside at the NW corner.

In 1205 the church at Bradborne, with its parochial chapels including Ballidon, was given to Dunstable Priory in Bedfordshire which is useful to us as Ballidon is mentioned in several of their documents. In 1287 some of the Priory lands here were being illegally farmed by the locals. In 1547 a record of church goods was compiled, showing that the church was well equipped for divine service. However, the most amusing record dates from a hundred years later when William Alsop was dismissed as a clergyman for conducting illegal marriages here!

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Kent Churches Day Tour

John Vigar`s Church Day Visits

Tuesday March 17th 2020

Coach Departs

Tonbridge School 0830

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A Lincolnshire Churchcrawl

Monday 9th December promised fine weather, so I had arranged to meet my friend Gary from Lincoln and to go on a churchcrawl to 12 churches. We met at Horncastle, a lovely little town with a stately, though Victorianised, church.

Our first target was LANGTON one of the best examples of an untouched 18th century church in the country. It is built of brick and stands on a hill overlooking the former rectory. Inside it is all box pews but they are arranged longitudinally like a college chapel. The 3-decker pulpit is in the middle of the south side.

The second church was Sutterby now in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches who took it over as a near ruin and have conserved it. A simple rectangular building with few fittings, its atmosphere is electric. I went there to write the guide leaflet which will be published in 2020.

Brinkhill is a totally 19th century church which would look at home in an urban setting. It is obviously much loved and had a good historical display.

South Ormesby was my favourite church of the day. Standing within a parkland setting it contains many memorials to former owners of the great house. The font is unusual as it has a dedicatory inscription around its base naming its donor. The church also contained some Netherlandish glass panels.

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A storm is brewing

This week marks the 316th anniversary of one of the worst storms recorded in England. About a third of our naval ships were lost at sea whilst on land destruction was on a huge scale. In London alone 2000 chimneystacks collapsed with great loss of life. The most famous architectural loss was the first Eddystone lighthouse, although 400 windmills were also destroyed.

At Riddlesworth, Norfolk, a ledgerstone records the death in the storm of Elinor Drury.


This got me thinking about other memorials I've found in churches that relate to storms. The heading photograph for this Blog is at the church at Pevensey, East Sussex and is unusual in being a timber 'headboard' type memorial. At Knowlton in Kent is the more famous monument to two brothers killed in 1707 when HMS Association ran aground on the Isles of Scilly under the command of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who just happened to be their stepfather. It shows the ship on the rocks being tossed by the waves. Interestingly in the 1703 storm the same ship had been blown all the way from the English Channel to Gothenberg.

At Chitterne on the edge of Salisbury Plain, Robert Michells' amazing escape when a whole stack of ten chimneys fell on him whilst he was in bed in 1763 is recorded in great detail. 

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Denman College Courses - SALE ON NOW

If you would like to spend more time with John Vigar why not consider a short course at Denman College near Abingdon, Oxfordshire? Courses are open to all and accommodation is in ensuite rooms. Here are courses for 2020.

An armchair guide to English Parish Churches, 20-22 January

An armchair guide to buildings with battlements, 22-24 January

Abbeys and Priories, 24-26 February Visiting Dorchester and Reading

Hampton Court Palace, 26-28 February with a visit

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Wimbotsham Church, Norfolk

As I write this post the timbers are still smouldering at Wimbotsham church in west Norfolk. This is the most recent of what seems to have been a rash of fires in medieval churches.


Wimbotsham church is essentially Norman in date with fine Romanesque doorways to north and south and built of the local Carrstone. The walls are characteristically thick. The tower was remodelled in the fifteenth century and contains two medieval bells. The chancel was substantially rebuilt in the 19th century, in keeping with the Romanesque character of the original. It carries a wonderful corbel table.


There were a wonderful set of bench ends in the church. A few were medieval but most were outstanding work by James Ratlee (born 1820) who is best known for his woodwork in Ely Cathedral. 

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Historic Churches of Norfolk

Historic Churches of Norfolk

A 3 week course led by

Ecclesiastical Historian John E Vigar

To be held 1.30 – 3.30 on

Mondays 14th  21st 28th October 2019

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