Historical Notes

Heron Pudding, Raccoon Coats, and Muskrat Holes: Historical Notes from “A Murder Before Christmas”

As always, I began “A Murder Before Christmas” with research. The fact I wanted to establish first, even before I thought about the plot, was whether there was snow in England in 1925. As luck would have it, 1925 was a snowy year. Below are some of the more entertaining historical research notes that went into the book.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

Stravinsky’s 1913 masterpiece, The Rite of Spring, made its way into the book unexpectedly. I was reading up on Stravinsky (can’t remember the reason), and discovered that the overarching goal of his musical compositions was to break away from the Germanic legacy of Classical music—Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner—and to return to the primordial, in his case Russian, roots of music. I found the parallel with Young Mr. Nithercott’s attempt to return to the pagan roots of the Christmas season, and reject the influence of Germanic traditions, rather fitting.

I also worked into the text a deliberate anachronism. When Young Mr. Nithercott says that “art is not for the people”, he’s paraphrasing Arnold Schoenberg, who didn’t make this pronouncement until 1928. But as the quip was so delightful, and so appropriate for Young Mr. Nithercott’s, and as Mr. Schoenberg happened to be Mr. Stravinsky’s greatest critic, I decided to include it in the book.

Snow Lore

All the superstitions mentioned in the book are indeed ones that people believed. From the list below, the only one I’d ever heard of is the halo around the moon. But I’m a city child. 

Here is a full list:

Cats sit with their backs to fire before snow.

If Michaelmas (September 29) brings many acorns, Christmas will cover the fields in snow.

A ring around the moon foreshadows snow or frost. 

If ant hills are high in July, winter will be snowy.

If the first week in August is unusually warm, the coming winter will be snowy and long.

Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry will cause snow to gather in a hurry.

As high as the weeds grow, so will the bank of snow.

If there is thunder in winter, it will snow seven days later.

See how high the hornet’s nest, ’twill tell how high the snow will rest.

The higher muskrats’ holes are on the riverbank, the higher the snow will be.

And also, bread doesn’t rise before snow.

I wish someone, like an ecologist, would make a record of these observations and see if they really do foretell snow and the height of snow. I aways think that there is a grain of truth in old-wives’ tales, based on the experience of innumerable generations who’d lived in immediate proximity to nature, and whose lives were intimately tied to their understanding of it.

Snow fall

As stated above, I began the book by looking up historical records of snowfall in the UK. While there is no exact record of a snowstorm on December 21, 1925, the 1925-26 winter season was a snowy one. Also, all the snowfalls and amounts mentioned by the women at the party are historically accurate. You can look up the records here: https://durhamukweather.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/bonacina.html

Herron pudding

The delicacy that Uncle Albert mentions is indeed something that the Victorian ate. It never ceases to amaze me what things the Victorians deemed edible.

Train Journeys

In 1925, the train journey from King’s Cross to York would have taken 4 hours. 

The unnamed Market Town in Yorkshire where Lady Caroline and Uncle Albert alight is in the approximate location of Helmsley, which sits a the foot of the Yorkshire moors. To complete this journey in 1925 by train, a traveler needed to travel from London to York, then to Thirsk, change here to the Thirsk to Malton line (T&M), get off at Gilling and change to the Gilling to Pickering line, and finally alight at Helmsley fresh as a daisy.

The Gilling to Pickering line is long gone. 

Third Class

When railway travel was first introduced, the railway companies offered three classes of travel—First, Second, Third—similar to ships. However, under pressure from Parliament, accommodations in Third Class were so improved that by 1975 some rail companies began phasing out Second Class. There were not enough passengers interested in traveling in Second Class. Those looking to economize found the comforts of Third Class adequate. With time, all railway companies phased out Second Class. That’s why Wilford travels in Third.

Sunday Mail

As stated in the book, Sunday mail delivery existed in the UK, and was not phased out until WWI. P. G. Wodehouse, in his 1915 book Something Fresh, mentions Sunday post delivery. By 1925, however, the practice would have been eliminated. But since, as Mrs. Stapleworth laments in the book, the modern age had not reached the moors, it seemed fitting that the village had retained the practice of Sunday post delivery.

London never had Sunday delivery.

Continental Drift

The theory of Continental Drift was proposed in 1911 and became accepted—people saw much evidence of it. However, geologists could not understand how this happened in practice. The mechanism of a “spreading seafloor” was not proposed and accepted until the 1960s.

Charles Lyell

Charles Lyell was a renowned geologist who did indeed oppose Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. But only for a little while. Once he began understanding the evidence, he accepted the theory. Uncle Albert’s claim of Mr. Lyell’s notoriety might be somewhat exaggerated. 

Corinna

Unless you are as ardent a fan of Ovid as the Vicar, you probably did not realize that the name of his daughter comes from a famous love poem that Ovid wrote to a fictitious lover named Corinna.

Alfred Leete and Charles Frederik Herrick

Both were famous artists and designers in the 1920s. Both designed posters for the London Tube. That’s why Lady Caroline, who is a connoisseur of Tube travel, instantly recognized their work on the chocolate biscuit tins. 

The poster Alfred Leete designed for the London Tube is rather famous, and much reproduced, with little people scurrying about. You should look it up. 

However, even more famous than that, is the poster which he designed in 1914 as an army recruitment poster. It features Lord Kitchener pointing a finger at the observer, commanding them to join the army. Three years later, it was copied by an American artist, and became the now world-famous Uncle Sam poster telling the viewer that “your country wants you”.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

For those who did not have to suffered through Introduction to Humanism lectures, Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who is recognized as the original brooder and the forefather of Existential Doubt. Long before Jean-Paul Sartre was questioning life, the universe, and everything, Kierkegaard was looking for a way to reconcile his Christian faith with objective proofs of God’s existence. He famously took a metaphorical “leap of faith” to reconcile his beliefs with objective reality.

Hiding Notes in Chimneys

In addition to the likelihood of snow in 1925, the other crucial point I needed to research was whether items hidden up chimney burn. It turns out many don’t burn and survive unscathed. 

All the facts mentioned in the book with regards to personal belonging hidden up in chimneys to ward off witches are historically accurate. People really did believe that the only way to stop evil spirits from entering through the chimney was to hide personal items, or animal hearts with nails through them, in the chimney. 

Furthermore, the story that Wilford recounts of his nephew’s letter to Santa is based on a story I discovered during my research. A man in Dublin, while cleaning his fireplace, discovered a letter written in 1912 to Santa hidden in a fireplace. The letter had survived, sitting on a shelf inside the fireplace for over a 100 years, despite constant use of the fireplace over the intervening time period. 

Raccoon Coats

Muskrats and herons are not the only animals to get a mention in the book. Raccoons also make an appearance. Raccoon fur coats were a fad that swept through the United States in the 1920s, with every young and fashionable man wearing one. Thus, a man wearing a coat made out of raccoon fur would have been instantly recognizable as an American. 

Silver Prayer Spoon

It probably will not surprise you that all the antiques and curios mentioned in the book are ones that I found for sale at antique dealers online, from the mother-of-pearl carting silver emu, and the silver pig with a hinged lid on its back, to the narwhal horn on a silver base, with a lot of George III English silver hinged slices, pepper pots, and decanter coasters in between. It would appear that sliver was produced in great quantities during the reign of King George III.

And of course, the silver prayer spoon.

Decorating Christmas Trees

And on a final note, Christmas trees in 1925 were not decorated until December 24, Christmas Eve. In fact, the Christmas season did not begin until December 25, Christmas Day. The Twelve Days of Christmas are the days after Christmas Day, leading to Epiphany on January 6. This was the original Christmas season. 

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