As I sit here opposite our softly lit Christmas tree and roaring fire (*disclaimer: of course, we have no fire, I’ve just written that for atmospheric purposes), it has occurred to me that despite the plethora of materials that we have here in Special Collections, I have been unable to locate any (on) mulled-wine. This has rather stifled the jingle in my book-bells, for what can I bring to the blog besides a turkey at this time of year?
I could follow tradition. Of peace, and earth, we have many a volume, and no doubt you will find something on the nature of good-will and all manner of ‘recipes’ – medical, cosmetic, culinary, even vegetable dyes, though none so far as I can see, on how to make your own Irish-cream. The bilingual guide for making temperance drinks failed to impress! Something more… festive is needed.
My thoughts turn to the Plygain, the traditional Welsh Christmas service where ‘carolau plygain’ are sung, traditionally by men, in church in the very early hours of Christmas morning. In rural areas, this custom involved gathering in a local farmhouse to make a ‘Cyflaith’ – a treacle toffee, while decorating the house with mistletoe and holly, accompanied by singing and dancing to the harp until dawn.
But isn’t it nice to break with tradition sometimes? No sooner had this thought crossed my mind, down the chimney comes Helen, our multi-skilled Welsh Librarian and Cataloguer, with some ‘gifts’ for our collection. I notice a thick volume entitled ‘The Welsh at Home’. But all is not what it seems. As I open the book it’s as if the ghost of Christmas past is blowing the pages so that I may take a different view. This caught my eye:
Behold my festive muse! Christmas Evans was one of Wales’s most charismatic preachers, his early life however, is just as remarkable. Born on Christmas day, 1766, His father, Samuel Evans, was a shoe-maker and his mother, Joanna, was related the respectable Lewis family who were freeholders in the parish of Llandysul, Cardiganshire. The Evans’s were poor, nonetheless, a situation exacerbated by the death of Christmas’s father when he was a young child. His uncle, James Lewis, took Christmas to live with him on his farm, but was a drunk, and cruel man. Christmas would say of him years later, ‘it would be difficult to find a more unconscionable man… in the whole course of a wicked world’.
Consequently, he had very little education and by seventeen was unable to read. Around this time, in the throes of religious awakening generally, Christmas started attending the local Presbyterian meetings where he learnt to read the Bible in Welsh. Some of his Lewis relatives also lent him ‘many good books’ which introduced him to the works of English authors. He also studied Latin under the Rev. David Davies, but it was largely through his own drive that Christmas became a proficient reader in several languages, including a little Greek and Hebrew.
His youth was also extremely hazardous and it is a miracle that he survived it at all. ‘When I was around nine years old’ he recalls, ‘I climbed up a rather tall tree, with a knife in my hand’. The bough gave way under him, and he fell to the ground, knife in hand. ‘There I lay unconscious until some people happened to see me later in the afternoon’. He almost drowned after a banking gave way besides a flooded pool, and on another occasion a horse he mounted galloped off ‘until the earth was trembling underneath’. The horse turned into its stables ‘but instead of knocking my brains out on the lintel, fate intervened on my part’, he says.
And not for the first time, for Christmas was also stabbed in the chest by another farm labourer, and his most telling injury occurred some years later, as he was contemplating giving up his spiritual calling. He was set upon by five or six men who beat him so badly, one with a stick, that he lost his eye instantly. As he lay dying, Christmas describes a dream he had of the final judgement, and how when he awoke, he became determined to follow his spiritual calling. Soon after, he was baptised and began his illustrious preaching ministry.
On a cold and snowy Christmas day in 1792, he and his wife Catherine set off for Anglesey on his faithful white mare, Lemon, to take charge of the Anglesey Baptists at Llangefni. It was the first of many journeys that Christmas and Lemon would make from North to South Wales to raise money for his chapels. He would preach every day, three times on a Sunday, and always mindful of his chapel debts, paid no heed to his thread-bare clothes. However, on one occasion Catherine, noticing the shabby condition of his hat, managed to get him a new one. When Christmas returned home from another long and arduous journey on his trusty mare, Catherine was mortified to see his new hat in a worse condition than the old! It just so happened that on the way home the old mare was thirsty, and on approaching a stream where there was no trough or house, or inn, Christmas filled his hat so that Lemon could drink! A mark of his sincerity that served all his ministries, for he left Anglesey in 1826 and served at Caerphilly from 1826-28, and then Cardiff from 1828-32, raising hundreds of pounds for his chapels in the course of his travels on the sturdy back of the lovely Lemon.
Christmas Evans was one of the greatest preachers that Wales has ever produced, and the volume of sermons and allegories that he has left behind reflect his intelligence and imagination. Yet it is the feats of his younger self, as well as his topical name, which inspired me to break with Christmas tradition and pay attention to this impressive figure. And so the moral of this blog post is, even if you’ve got just one eye for books, you’re vision will be infinite. Let’s hope for some interesting paperbacks stuffed in our stockings this year. Merry Christmas Evans and Lemon from all of us here at Special Collections and Archives, and a Happy New Year to you!