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Nicholas Rhea's Diary

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The mail coach at the inn

From the accounts of the birth of Christ, along with the stories and carols that feature in our Christmas celebrations, we know that the humble inn has for centuries featured in the life of travellers. Indeed, it was specifically constructed for people who were travelling long distances.
From ancient records, it is evident that inns were considered vital components in the world of merchants and travellers in addition to being places of entertainment, but it is difficult to know when the first was created. It was probably in ancient Egypt – what could be the first mention of an inn appears in Genesis 42.27 in the account of the return of Jacob’s sons from Egypt.
The establishment in question, known alternatively as a khan or karavanserai, was usually sited close to a town and comprised a hollow square with compartments around it, and a large gate as the entrance. Very secure, it accommodated both people and animals.
Some khans were provided from public funds, but most were built by wealthy merchants for use by fellow businessmen upon their travels – at a cost! As one would expect from private enterprise, the latter were far more spacious and luxurious than those funded by public expense. Without exception the keepers of these inns were women.
There are few references to inns in the New Testament, the most famous being Luke’s "no room at the inn" story of Christ’s birth; Luke makes another reference to an inn in the story of the good Samaritan who took a sick wayfarer to an inn and cared for him. However, it is felt by Biblical scholars that those inns were identical to, or at least very similar to, the khans of ancient Egypt.
The tradition of inns being an integral part of the highway network continued in this country. Just like the inns of the Bible, the precise early history of our hostelries is not known. We cannot, with any precision, date Britain’s first inn, but it was probably established some seven or eight hundred years ago. It is known that inns were present in London and some larger towns prior to the fourteenth century whilst our rural highways and byways supported a sprinkling of taverns and alehouses. Both were merely drinking establishments and did not offer accommodation.
In medieval times, some inns appeared on pilgrims’ routes, established either by the lord of the manor or the church and a charge was made for staying there. This was often beyond the reach of poor pilgrims who found themselves sleeping on the rush-covered floor along with many others, but as the great monasteries flourished, so they began to include inns within their boundaries. And as the roads became more widely used (terrible though they were), so more inns were established, often by the monasteries and the churches in our villages, and so began the tradition of the rustic inn.
Inns were also established near busy places such as ferry terminals, main thoroughfares or on crossroads, town centres, markets, pilgrimage routes and places of business. Unfortunately, they attracted low-life customers, described as "robbers, quacks, mountebanks and undesirables of every kind." In the fourteenth century, the situation had become so bad that the king imposed closing hours on inns "because such offenders as aforesaid, going about by night, do commonly resort and have their meetings and hold their evil talk in taverns more than elsewhere, and there do seek to do mischief." That sounds very familiar today!
It was around the fifteenth century that inns began to improve with high class establishments being constructed for travellers and merchants. These were not part of monasteries or the church but were built by private enterprise in all our major towns and cities, with smaller inns blossoming in villages. It was perhaps the famous Golden Era of Coaching which led to the creation of some splendid inns along our glamorous coaching routes and many of these remain today.
Not only did those coaching inns provide food and accommodation, they also catered for the teams of horses which were needed to haul the stage coaches. Many coaches changed horses at these inns and so the coaching years brought immense wealth and prestige to many of our coaching inns, and indeed to many village inns along their routes.
With the festive season well under way, our inns and hotels remain a focal point for a range of activities, including parties by office workers, businessmen, villagers, families and others. In many cases, the inns will have no spare accommodation – just like that first Christmas when there was no room at the inn for the family whose Child has given us more than 2,000 years of constant celebration.

One of the older traditions at Christmas is the use of candles. In our modern times, of course, they are not an essential part of the domestic scene as they were in some rural areas, even within living memory. They were necessary to provide light both indoors and in outbuildings, but now they have become popular as decorative items. I am sure there are now more varieties of candles than ever before and they make excellent Christmas gifts.
Giving candles as Christmas gifts is not a new idea. In many rural areas, the gift of a Yule Candle was considered ideal for any person one wished to impress. Yule Candles were massive – the idea was that they were cheap to buy but lasted a very long time, consequently poor and humble workers would give them to their bosses, hoping to make a good and lasting impression, and some children gave them to their teachers. Tradespeople would also give them to special customers, hoping to maintain their custom during the following year. I have a record of such a worker presenting a Yule Candle to his boss’s family as recently as 1926.
The notion of having special candles for the Christmas period is by no means new. They were used by the ancient Jews, Greeks and Romans for special occasions and it was a theologian called Simeon who described the Child Jesus as "A Light to lighten the Gentiles." It was probably his reference that led to the increased use of decorative candles at Mass during the Christmas festivities.
Before the Reformation it was customary to set up a massive candle within the church so that it burned throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as a reminder of the birth of Christ. In Scotland it was believed that if this candle went out before midnight on Christmas Eve, it heralded a great calamity. If it continue to burn after midnight, it was eventually extinguished on Christmas Day and its remnant preserved for use at the eventual funeral of the head of the local great family.
In Ireland, a massive candle was also featured at Mass over Christmas but this had to be sufficiently large to be used also on New Year’s Eve and again on Twelfth Night. Before being lit, it was decorated with holly and I believe a similar custom existed in Germany and Finland.
I like the custom in Norway where Christmas candles are sited so they shine in the polished silver dishes used on Christmas Day, whilst in Switzerland, lighted candles are still used on Christmas trees, rather than electric lights. It all means that Christmas continues to be a world-wide celebration – and so I wish all readers the happiest of season’s greetings.

Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 04:45 PM GMT [Link]

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