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Remembering Norfolk's Christmas past

David Keller, BBC Norfolk
By David Keller
BBC Norfolk

A Victorian family eating Christmas dinner
Christmas has long meant the family gathering together

The birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated by millions of people all over the world in many different ways.

But in times when commercialism is thought to have faded Christmas' meaning, how was it celebrated in Norfolk in years gone by?

One of the places that holds the answers is Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, near Dereham.

Curator Megan Dennis helps unearth some customs from Norfolk's Christmas past while BBC Radio Norfolk presenter Maggie Secker talks about her festive childhood experiences that make a Norfolk Christmas so special.

Victorian influence

It's the Victorians, according to Megan, who have shaped how people in Norfolk mark Christmas today.

"Almost every aspect of the way we think about Christmas is coloured by the Victorians," she said.

"When you think about Christmas you think about winter, ladies in big skirts, gentlemen in top hats, holly and ivy, plus Christmas trees and cards. We still romanticise about all of it," she added.

How we celebrate Christmas in the present day compared to more than 100 years ago is often similar, although some things have altered.

"The Victorians introduced a lot of things that we think of as traditional: crackers, cards and the Christmas tree," said Megan.

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse
People used to have an austere Christmas at Gressenhall

"But many things have changed. For example, the Victorians didn't eat turkey at Christmas, they ate goose, and Santa wasn't red until Coca-Cola changed all that around the early 1900s. He was usually dressed in green or blue.

"Even though people today still send Christmas cards, they often make donations to charity instead or send cards electronically through the Internet," she added.

Even though the modern world is very different, people have always celebrated Christmas with their families.

"One trend we've discovered is that it has always been about community, getting together and enjoying being with your families," said Megan.

Saving money

This year the economic crisis is affecting how people celebrate Christmas, reflecting the experiences of past depressions.

"In some ways, I think the credit crunch has made people reassess lots of things," said Megan.

"They haven't got the money to go out and buy the amount of presents they would normally, so the commercialism that surrounds Christmas these days has gone out of the window - people are thinking about what's really important at Christmas.

"Looking back at the past, people in poorer times saved money by making presents and cards or by having a smaller Christmas dinner without three big courses."

Living memories

While today many families enjoy unwrapping masses of presents, the focus of the day in rural Norfolk - not so long ago - was on the exchange of smaller gifts and upholding traditions.

Maggie Secker
Radio presenter Maggie Secker grew up on a farm in rural Norfolk

BBC Radio Norfolk's Maggie Secker explains what Christmas was like for her as a child.

"I lived on a farm at Morley Saint Peter, near Wymondham, and my father was born in 1886, so well into the Victorian period," she said.

"It was such an idyllic childhood and everything on the farm was so old, with open fires and cart horses instead of combines.

"Christmas was very traditional. The Christmas tree didn't go up until Christmas Eve, we used to put stockings up filled with Brazil nuts, oranges and sweets. I'm even sure the postman used to deliver on Christmas Day!"

Christmas activities at Maggie's school were very festive.

"As a little girl I used to make things for family and parents at Christmas," she said.

"We used to make things like spill holders, which looked like a mug with long sticks placed in them and they could be lit to light fires and cigarettes.

"We also used to make blotting paper books, needlework holders and pin cushions to take home. It was wonderful," she added.

In the era of the iPod and the Wii it is hard to imagine a life without electricity, but it was very different in Maggie's childhood.

"We didn't have electricity until I was 14, so we used to play the piano and sing. My auntie used to play the comb and the kids were allowed to play the spoons!"

"Too many people these days sit in front of the television, which is sad.

"At Christmas, if there are a lot of you in the house - as we always had - it certainly makes it special for you."

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