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A Yule Log and Plum Pudding in the Round Tower - Formby Lighthouse

We all love the traditions and tales of Christmas Past, whatever our age. Just consider the enduring popularity of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ well into the 21st century: our ways of celebrating at this time has certainly changed and developed over the years, but for so many reasons this remains a special time for family, friends and community. Personally, I look forward to enjoying the traditions and having the time to reflect on past and present, and enjoy particularly trips to bookshops to enjoy the wide range of publications available for the festive season. This year I have been reading a set of four short stories by the late P.D. James: in ‘The Mistletoe Murder’, set during the second world war, readers are drawn into a murder mystery with the following description of the heroine’s arrival at a country house for Christmas: “...I followed the small circle of light from (my) torch through the porch with its country paraphernalia of walking sticks, brogues, rubber boots and umbrellas, under the blackout curtain and into the warmth and brightness of the square hall. I remember the huge log fire in the hearth, the family portraits, the air of shabby comfort, and the mixed bunches of holly and mistletoe above the pictures and doors ...”

When I read this I was reminded of a Christmas in Old Formby in what was probably the latter part of the 19th century. I came across this description in an old copy of the Formby Times published in spring 1917; however, the account dates from many years earlier and describes a Christmas celebration of a family of Formby people at the ‘Old Lighthouse’. The family consisted of “father, mother, and a group of happy, healthy boys and girls. Christmas was kept up in good old style then, and the young folks invited their friends to partake of the Christmas cheer. The Yule Log, which the young people had fetched from the Formby shore, was burnt in the old-fashioned grate; and as they all sat round, telling fortunes and trying to peer into the future, they made a goodly picture.” There must be many readers who recall older family members ‘telling fortunes’ by looking at patterns on the palm of someone’s hand or supposedly reading from the pattern of tea leaves left in a finished cuppa in the days before tea bags were introduced. And Yule logs? Today our first thoughts go to a chocolate-covered piece of confectionary; but the original was a very large wooden log which was set alight in the hearth and kept burning throughout the 12 Days of Christmas. In this particular case, the log had been found on the shore by the family and brought back to the Lighthouse.

The description continued, “Then there was the good old English dinner of roast beef and plum pudding, mince pies and spiced ale, all of which were devoured up quickly by the youngsters. After dinner had been partaken of the usual Christmas games were played: ‘Blindman’s Buff’, ‘Hide and Seek’, and the last, but not least, the good old favourite ‘Kiss in the Ring’. Now, of these three games, the latter is probably the least recognised today, yet it was very popular throughout the country and included a number of local variations. One such tradition was for a group to form themselves into a ring, holding hands except for one who stayed outside and who carried a handkerchief; this player then had to walk round the outside of the ring, repeating some agreed words or rhyme. One example was, ‘I sent a letter to my love, and on the way I dropped it; and one of you have picked it up and put it in your pocket’. As they went around the circle they would touch each of the people in the ring with the handkerchief saying also, "Not you," "not you," "not you," until the person she/he liked most was reached and they would say, "But you!" He/she then chased their favoured one and could claim a kiss if they caught them.

“As the evening advanced,” continued the description, “the young people adjourned to the Round Tower (i.e. the Lighthouse itself), where dancing was kept up until the early hours of the following morning. There were no vehicles in Formby in those days except the farmers’ carts, so the young people had to walk down the dark lanes after the dance was over; but as every lassie had a laddie they all reached their homes in safety.”

Dr. Reg Yorke wrote: “Formby Lighthouse features strongly in Formby folk memory and its image is indeed incorporated in the medallions of the current Parish Council Chairman’s chain of office and the road sign situated on the Altcar boundary... Nicholas Blundell noted in his diary on the 17 September 1719 that his wife and he “rode out to see the landmark as it is building at the Grange. Although now remembered as a Lighthouse, the 120 foot structure which survived until destroyed by the military in 1941 was actually only used as a Lighthouse for a relatively short part of its life. The rest of the time it stood proudly overlooking the dangerous approaches to the river as a valuable landmark. The old Lighthouse was finally demolished in 1941 following the May Blitz on Liverpool when it was thought that German bombers were using it as a useful beacon to Merseyside.”

Formby Civic Society would like to wish our members and visitors a very Happy Christmas and prosperous New Year - thank you for your support.

By John Phillips

Formby Civic Society

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