ELHAS Meeting Report - November 2010

With the country shivering under a blanket of early snow we were pleasantly surprised to see 23 people turn out for the November meeting. The meeting was a talk by regular speaker Ken Goor on the history of Christmas traditions with particular reference to those specific to Leeds or Yorkshire. The weather was certainly a suitable backdrop for the talk.

Ken, who has been a Leeds guide and speaker for many years, usually treats people to this talk whilst guiding them round the Leeds Christmas Lights. And it was with the history of Christmas lights that he began the talk. He told us that the first town in Yorkshire to officially set up Christmas Lights was Heckmonwike, in the late 1800's and these were powered by gas. However Leeds did host a light display of oil lamps in 1813 as a celebration after the end of the Napoleonic War, but they were not regarded as Christmas Lights. He regaled us with a long list of celebrities who have performed the switch on ceremony over the years. But the most amusing anecdote was in 1989 when Danny La Rue was destined to switch the lights on, but refused to do so when he was not allowed to appear dressed as Margaret Thatcher. He went on to describe some general Christmas traditions such as coffin shaped mince pies, originally made of meat, and millie boxes (effigies of the Virgin Mary which were paraded round the streets in order to collect a few pence). Describing Christmas food he told us that goose was the traditional fare until the advent of the railway when other foods such as turkey became available. He also said that during the Puritan period all the fun activities and rich food we associate with Christmas were banned but these gradually came back into fashion, and it was during the late Victorian period that the sumptuous festivities really came into their own.

Talking about Leeds in particular he told us that Ralph Thoresby, Leeds' first historian, used to spend his Christmas Day reading the effigies on the graves in local cemeteries, and Benjamin Gott, one of the largest mill owners, insisted his workforce sang Christmas carols to him in order to be given Christmas boxes. Leeds also has a claim to fame in that the longest running pantomime in England was held during the last year of WW2 at the Theatre Royal. He finished the talk by telling us that the German Christmas Market which the people of Leeds have enjoyed since 1991, originally began in Frankfurt in 1393.


Theatre Royal, Lands Lane-1950s, reproduced with permission from www.leodis.net

We thoroughly enjoyed Ken's talk and it was good to be reminded of Christmas traditions and, as ever, to hear information about Leeds which we perhaps were not aware of.

The next meeting on Monday 31st January 2011 will be a talk by Tom Dixon, entitled 'Sweet Fifties - Life on a Liquorice Farm'.