Christmas can be a time of overblown expectations -  “Nothing like it used to be” we mutter as another expensive festive fling shrivels away like a limp balloon behind the trimmings.

Then as sales bargains and sunshine brochures dance across the television screen, we close our eyes and seek consolation in an era when Christmas really was a season of peace and goodwill, joyful family gatherings spiced with spontaneous storytelling around an open fire.

There’s a strong tendency to indulge more in a journey of imagination than to settle for a record of fact.

Perhaps a quiet stroll along my Norfolk bookshelves can combine the two in a way that satisfies yearning for yesterday while accepting a few blessings of today.

My seasonal saunter across the centuries begins with the comforting sight of one of Norfolk’s most formidable medieval housewives sorting out her Christmas agenda. There starts a thread of continuity following me down the ages.

Margaret Paston wrote many of the celebrated  family epistles opening a window on the 15th century during one of the most turbulent periods in English history. Festivities in 1549 were put on hold after the death of Sir John Fastolf, an influential friend of the family who gave Caister Castle as his home address.

With her husband John in London, Margaret took advice on proper etiquette from the doyenne of Norfolk mawthers, Lady Morley.

A period of mourning was demanded but the household was anxious to make merry. Margaret wrote to her husband:

“Please you to know that I sent your eldest son to my Lady Morley to have knowledge of what sports were used at her house at Christmas next following the decease of my Lord, her husband, And she said that here were no disguisings (acting), nor harping, luting or singing, nor any lewd sports, but just playing at the tables (backgammon) and chess and cards. Such sports she gave folk leave to play and no others.”

By the time Daniel Defoe came this way in 1734 on a Tour  through the Whole Island of Great Britain, turkeys were prominent on the festive menu.

He reported on Christmas dinners that walked to London as turkeys and geese were driven to the capital on foot:

“A prodigious number are brought up to London in droves from the farthest part of Norfolk, even from the Fen country about Lynn, Downham, Wisbech and the Washes, as also from the east side of Norfolk and Suffolk, of whom it is very frequent now to meet drovers with a thousand, sometimes two thousand, In a drove.”

A century later, when radical William Cobbett included Norfolk  in his tours of the English countryside on horseback - his famous Rural Rides - his 1821 Christmas Eve chronicle saluted

“This county of excellent farmers and hearty, open and spirited men”.

Our clergy are exceptionally busy at this time of year. Happily, two outstanding men of the cloth found time to light up pages of Norfolk history with plenty of Christmas entries in their famous diaries.
Parson James Woodforde looked after his flock at Weston Longville from 1776 until his death on New Year’s Day in 1803. His first Christmas in Norfolk was marked by a shilling apiece and a good meal for poor of the parish: “Gave old Richard Bates an old black coat and waistcoat. I had a fine sirloin of beef roasted and plumb pudding. It was very dark at church this aft. I could scarcely see …”

Chilly going on Christmas Day, 1874, for he Rev. Benjamin Armstrong, vicar of East Dereham in Victorian times: “The thermometer being 15 degrees below freezing point, many were kept away  from church through the cold. Several sudden deaths owing to severity of the weather. The bell tolls every day in the fog.”

Henry Rider Haggard and daughter Lilias formed one of the most prolific family forces in Norfolk literary history.

Henry had peered down King Solomon’s Mines and listened to She who must be obeyed before becoming a gentleman farmer in his native county. He compiled A Farmer’s Year in 1898 as he worked land at Bedingham and Ditchingham.

His Christmas Day record included :“In the afternoon I went to hear some carol singing in the neighbouring church at Broome. Afterwards a friend of mine who lives there gave me some curious facts illustrative of the decrease of population of that parish. 

“It is his habit to make a present of meat at Christmas to every cottage inhabitant of Broome, and he informed me the difference in its cost owing to shrinkage of population between this year and last is something really remarkable.”

On Christmas Eve, 1939, as the country waited  for unfettered  dragons of war to breathe fire, Lilias Rider Haggard penned this poignant passage in her Norfolk Notebook after watching people on Norwich Market buying bunches of berried holly and little Christmas trees:

“Well,” said a stout and homely housewife, tucking her prickly burden under her arm, there’s only one child at home this Christmas, and the Lord knows when I’ll get the others back again.

"But I sez to the old man we’ll have the tree and all, and if there’s not much to hang on it, we’ll have to do with hope for a trimmin,’

They’ll like to think of us just as usual.”

Sentiments along similar lines from Elizabeth Harland’s Diary of a Country Housewife. Her Christmas Day entry for 1950 reads: “In the endless struggle to keep alive, we have far too little time for the things that really matter.

"But at this season, whatever our private preoccupations, however black and cloud-banked the international sky. we know a blessed relaxation. Work can wait, worries be postponed, quarrels forgotten.

"Today belongs to peace, to joy and kindliness, to goodwill and giving.”