Amgueddfa Blog: St Fagans Archive

Christmas day is less than a week away and for most of us our tree and decorations are up, Christmas cards posted or messages sent via social media, presents purchased, turkey ordered and Christmas pudding made or bought - these are still popular christmas traditions in 2017 but why do we practice many of these rituals?

Decorations

We have decorated our houses at this time of year since Pagan times. Pagans used evergreens to acknowledge the winter solstice and it reminded them that spring was on it's way. Pope Julius I decided on the 25th of December as the birthday of Jesus, and as this date fell within the Pagan celebrations, some of the Pagan traditions were absorbed into the Christian calendar, including decorating with evergreens and particularly holly. For Christians evergreens came to symbolise God's life everlasting and holly came to represent Jesus's crown of thorns at the Crucifixion, and the berries respresented his blood. Other evergreens also had significance: Ivy as a clinging plant symbolised us holding on to God for support; Rosemary was believed to be the Virgin Mary's favourite plant and laurel represented success and especially God's success in conquering the devil. Holly and ivy were also seen to be representative of a man and woman, holly being prickly and masculine, and trailing ivy being feminine. Whichever was brought into the house first indicated which gender would assume the upper hand for the following year! It was unlucky to bring evergreens indooor's before Christmas Eve and remove them before the 12th night.

In rural Wales homes were usually decorated with evergreens in the early hours of Christmas morning to while away the hours before attending the Plygain service at the parish church, which consisted of an early morning service at somewhere between 3am and 6am and in which soloists and groups sang carols. Candles were also made to light the way to the church and to decorate the inside. Pagans used candles as a decoration to represent the sun and Christians to commemorate the presence of Christ. Before the advent of electricity, candles were used to decorate Christmas trees.

Click here to hear “Parti Fronheulog” and others singing “Addewid rasusol Ein Duw”. Recorded by St Fagans National Museum of History (or the Welsh Folk Museum as it was called at the time) in Llanrhaeadr-ym mochnant Vicarage, following the Plygain Supper held there at the beginning of January 1966.

https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/738256

Christmas Trees and Other Decorations

There is evidence to suggest that Christmas trees were used as decoration in the U.K. as early as the 1790's and its triangular shape had significance, as it represented the connection between the father, son and holy spirit. Its use became most popular however in Victorian times, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert used a tree to decorate Windsor Castle in 1841, and in 1848 a picture of the family appeared in the London Illustrated News with a decorated tree.

It was in the early 1920's that evergreens were gradually replaced by artificial decorations, predominantly in the industrial areas, towns and cities. Mass produced decorations became cheaper and more readily available. As early as the 1880's shops such as Woolworths began to sell decorations, sweets cakes and ribbons. It was also during the 1920's and 1930's that Christmas presents began to be wrapped.  It was in 1882 that the first electric tree lights appeared in New York, just three years after the introduction of the light bulb.

During the war paper chains became popular as they could be assembled at home and in the 1950's artificial trees became available.

At St Fagans National Museum of History we decorate many of our buildings every year with appropriate decorations according to the age and area of the building. Here are some images.

Although the "Penny Post" was first introduced in 1840 by Rowland Hill, it wasn't until Sir Henry Cole printed a thousand cards for sale at a shilling each in his art shop in London at Christmas time that the idea of sending Chistmas cards emerged as a popular idea. Sending cards became more widespread in 1870 when people could send cards for a halfpenny, as the blossoming of railways made postage cheaper. The Victoria and Albert Museum holds a card sent from Cwrt-yr-Ala in Cardiff in 1844.

Here are some images of Christmas cards from the St Fagans collection

Traditional Christmas Fare

Christmas time wouldn't be complete without the usual over indulgence in rich food. Traditionally the Christmas pudding would be made 5 weeks before Christmas, and in Wales it was customary for all members of the family including children and servants to stir the pudding mixture, often mixed first by the head of the household. In the pudding mixture tokens would be placed such as a a wedding ring; a button; a thimble or a sixpence. If the stirrer found the wedding ring it would foretell the finder's imminent marriage; the finding of a button for a young man would foretell his batchelerhood and the thimble for a young woman an indication of spinsterhood. The sixpence was a symbol of good luck.

Other traditional Welsh foods made at Christmas would be toffee ("cyflaith") made by boiling butter, treacle and sugar to a high temperature and then stretching and rolling the cooling mixture (requiring hard work on the part of the stretcher!). The recipe did vary according to the region. Here's a short film from our archive of this type of toffee being made.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26bDQqRQICY

Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of our fabulous, weird and wonderful stores at St Fagans National Museum of History. It’s chockablock full of objects. We’re still collecting new things, but we have to be very selective in what we take in. We just don’t have the space!

Store at St Fagans National Museum of History

You can come across all sorts of things in a social history store like this one, from grandfather clocks to prosthetic limbs.

When a colleague of mine first went into this store and was told to ‘mind the mantrap’ she thought it was a joke. It turns out there really was a mantrap lurking at the end of a dark corridor!

For a long time I’ve known that the majority of museum collections are hidden away in storage, that what you see in galleries is only a small portion, but I had no idea to what extent until I started working here.

Of the 5 million objects we have across seven museums ranging from vintage motorcars, moon rock, world famous paintings, Iron Age slave chains, to a public urinal. How many objects are on display?

Only 0.2% of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales’ collections are on display.

So if there is a specific object you want to see at any of our museums, check that it’s on display first, and if it’s not, you can always make an appointment to view it. Thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery, we have had funding so we can enhance records and add images for you to view in Collections Online which will be up and running in the autumn. Keep an eye out for behind the scenes store tours with the curators and conservators who look after our collections, these can be really enlightening!

We’re looking after the collections, on your behalf. We hope you enjoy exploring them as much as we do.

People's Postcode Lottery Logo

The collection at St Fagans National Museum of History includes numerous archives relating to the Welsh experience of the First World War. While working with colleagues to produce a digital database to commemorate the centenary of the conflict, I found an intriguing bundle of documents associated with a young soldier with connections to Penarth who died, serving with the Grenadier Guards, exactly 100 years ago today. His name was Oscar Foote and in this blog I have pieced together his last 24 hours from the archives we hold at the Museum.

On the night of 6 July 1917 an exhausted Oscar Foote had just returned from fighting in the trenches of Ypres for some well-earned rest and recuperation in a nearby camp. This camp was well within range of German artillery and on occasions they would shell the area. The morning of 7 July had begun like any other morning for Oscar. He had just put away his shaving kit when shells suddenly started bursting in the vicinity. A shell landed close to Oscar’s hut, creating murderous splinters in its aftermath. One of these splinters caught Oscar in the head and neck. Although his comrades desperately went to his aid, their efforts were in vain. He had been killed instantly. That afternoon, Oscar was buried by his comrades in Canada Farm British Cemetery, near Elverdinghe. A card dated 3 January 1918 includes a photograph of a simple wooden cross marking his resting place. 

The Oscar Foote archives came into the national collection in 1946 – a donation from a Mrs Maillard of Penarth who had been corresponding with him during the War. It appears that Mrs Maillard also donated material to the Imperial War Museum (IWM), possibly in response to the Bond of Sacrifice initiative. More research is needed to unpick how letters addressed to Mrs Maillard from the IWM came into our possession in 1946, but both institutions were actively collecting war memorabilia from soldiers and their families during and immediately after the conflict. Another blog for another day.

The digitisation of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales’ First World War collection is supported by the Armed Forces Community Covenant Grant Scheme.

The Voices from the Archives series is based on recordings in the Oral History Archive at St Fagans National History Museum. Connected to the agricultural activities, demonstrations and displays at the Museum - they provide an insight into the lives and histories of farming people, the agricultural practices in the past, how they developed into contemporary agriculture.

Lambing in Pembrokeshire, 1984

March is lambing time at Llwyn-yr-eos Farm, the Museum’s working farm. Lambing in the past and present was described by Richard James, Portfield Gate, Pembrokeshire, south west Wales, in a recording made in 1984. Aged 79, he recalled lambing in an interview about his life in farming, but also described how it was being done on a farm in the area in the year of the interview. The following short clips are from the recording.

Pembrokeshire born and bred, Richard James had farmed at Lambston Sutton in the south west of the county. It stood between the large county town of Haverfordwest a few miles to the east, and the coastline of St Bride’s Bay to the west. The lowland coastal areas, warmer climate and lower rainfall made agriculture more diverse than in many other parts of Wales, with the keeping cattle and sheep and the growing of early potatoes and cereal crops. The coastal areas could be exposed to the winds and rain from the Atlantic Ocean though, and weather conditions could strongly influence lambing, to which Richard James refers in the first clip:

 

Richard James, Portfield Gate, Pembrokeshire

 

When lambing was to take place was decided by when the ewes were put to the rams. Up until then the rams on the farm had to be kept separate from the sheep. It was always a concern that rams might break through a poor fence or hedge and cause lambing to start at the wrong time. Also, a ram of poorer quality or a different breed from another flock could also result in poorer quality lambs and reduced income. After mating, a ewe is pregnant for between 142 and 152 days, approximately five months or slightly shorter.

In this clip, Richard James describes at what time of year lambing took place on a local farm, and how it was being done by a farmer using a former aircraft hangar.

Richard James, Portfield Gate, Pembrokeshire

The final clip is about working the day and night shifts:

Richard James, Portfield Gate, Pembrokeshire

 

The country craft of hedgelaying is being demonstrated at Fagans National History Museum during 2017. Hedgelaying creates a stronger, thicker barrier to keep animals within fields, and provides shelter and shade for them. This year it will be combined with opportunities to try out the craft and the museum provided its first hedge-laying training courses for the public.

Hedgelaying, Pen-y-cae, Brecknockshire, c1936
Hedgelaying, Pen-y-cae, Brecknockshire, c1936

Creating fields and hedges

From the sixteenth century onwards, vast areas of open land were enclosed and turned into fields for agricultural use. Hedges were planted to prevent sheep and cattle from straying, and to separate grassland from crops. Such hedges also provided shelter, a source of food such as berries, and habitat for wildlife and fauna. Hedges were also cheaper than building and maintaining dry-stone walls.

 

The craft of hedge laying

Hedges are maintained by laying. Once the trees had grown to a certain height, they were cut and laid horizontally to form a stock-proof barrier. The cut is not made through the branch in order to allow the tree to re-grow. What is created is effectively a living fence. The work is done during the less busy winter months when there is less foliage and the tree will re-grow.

 

Welsh hedging styles

Methods of laying hedges vary in different parts of Wales. Styles differ according to how the branches are positioned, the use of stakes, and whether binding is used. Hedging is often accompanied by building banks and digging ditches. The hedges being laid this year at St Fagans are in the stake and pleach style from Brecknockshire (Powys).

 

Stages in laying a hedge, stake and pleach style.

Photographs taken in Sennybridge and Cray, Brecknockshire, 1972-73.

 

Photo of hedge cleared of dead wood and unwanted growth
Firstly the hedge is cleared of dead wood and unwanted growth

Photo of branches, known as pleachers, cut at the base of each stem and bent forward. When cut properly, they should continue to grow.
The branches, known as pleachers, are cut at the base of each stem and bent forward. When cut properly, they should continue to grow.

Photo of hedge showing pleachers woven between stakes.
The pleachers woven between the stakes.

Photo of hazel hetherings along the top bind the stakes and pleachers
Hazel hetherings along the top bind the stakes and pleachers

Photo of the hedge is trimmed and shaped to a uniform height and width.
Finally the hedge is trimmed and shaped to a uniform height and width.


 

 

Gareth Beech

Senior Curator: Rural Economy

Historic Properties Section

History and Archaeology Department