Tuesday 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas

Were any of your ancestors baptized or married on Christmas Day?

Christmas in Cornwood and nearby parishes in Devon has been a time when many families chose to have their children baptized at the local parish church, whether born then or not. The earliest Christmas Day entry preserved in the Cornwood baptism register was for Richard Maddocke, baptized in 1689. No doubt there were earlier ones however few records are available prior to 1685. In nearby Plympton St. Mary parish, the earliest Christmas Day baptism on record occurred in 1608.

1689 December 25 - baptism entry for Richard Maddocke, in Cornwood parish register
It was not uncommon for more than one family to have a child baptized during the Christmas season, particularly if any of December 24th, 25th or 26th fell on a Sunday. In my four parishes, Cornwood, Harford, Plympton St. Mary and Plympton St. Maurice, the most baptisms on any of those days was four: Sunday, December 24, 1837; and Tuesday, December 26, 1971, in Plympton St. Mary parish. 

In the 1837 Christmas Eve baptisms only one of the children had been born in December of that year. Possibly the parents waited until this special day when many of the relatives could come to Plympton St. Mary to attend the ceremony. Similarly in 1971, the four children baptized on Boxing Day had been born in April, September (2) and November.

Christmas Eve, 1837 baptisms in Plympton St. Mary parish, Devon
Between 1685 and 1995, there were 38 baptisms on Christmas Day in Cornwood parish, seven in Harford between 1699 and 1993, 69 in Plympton St. Mary between 1603 and 1982 and 16 in Plympton St. Maurice between 1616 and 1963.

Marriages were not quite as numerous. In Cornwood, there have been a total of 11 marriages on Christmas Day between 1685 and 1994; in Harford, only two between 1699 and 1978; in Plympton St. Mary, 32 between 1603 and 1975; and in Plympton St. Maurice, 11 between 1619 and 1971.

These are just some interesting statistics but probably not overly important in the greater scheme of things. From a genealogical perspective, however, many of the entries suggest that Christmas period baptisms do not necessarily represent the time those individuals were born. In the baptism registers of my four parishes, birth dates are shown for 96 individuals who were baptized on December 24th, 25th or 26th between 1648 and 1979. None of them were born on any of those dates. And only 25 were even born in the month of December.

There is probably no doubt that residents of the parish celebrated Christmas enthusiastically, especially in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, possibly more so than in later decades.

A charity was set up in Cornwood Parish, in 1700, in which my 6th great-grandfather, Nicholas Shepheard, played a role. The Rooke Charity combined with another established by Reverend Duke Yonge in 1811. Initially organized to assist the poor of the parish, it continues to this day helping out many residents in the community. Among other initiatives, every Christmas they give all old age pensioners £25 each.

In Cornwood, at least, traditions continue. Each year the members of the community participate in a special event – turning on the Christmas lights. The Churchwarden for St. Michaels and All Angels Church, Marilyn Sharpe, had the honour of flipping the switch on the evening of December 7th this year.

Afterward, everyone celebrated the event in Cornwood Square with tasty mulled wine and mince pies with clotted cream, and participated in the singing of Christmas carols.

Marilyn Sharpe turns of the Christmas lights
Cornwood residents enjoy the singing of Christmas carols
Whatever your traditions are, I hope you enjoy every one of them. May I take this opportunity to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous year in 2014!

Baptism images reproduced here are used with the kind permission of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office (PWDRO), Images were downloaded from FindMyPast. Cornwood photos were taken by Kelvin Butcher, to whom I would like to express my thanks and appreciation for allowing me to reproduce them here.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He serves as the Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.