I was thinking of the old folk, men and women sixty years and upward, who were to be assembled to-day in the Oddfellows’ Hall to partake of what is known as the “Old Folks’ Christmas Dinner and Tea,” with whatever entertainment of reading, recitation, song, and speech should make time pass pleasantly between three and seven o’clock. (p. 189)
I had an invitation to be present, and as I wished to see an old-fashioned ‘Cumberland “Do,”’ I made my way thither towards 3 o’clock in the afternoon. ’Bus load after ’bus load came rumbling up, bringing out of the countryside the guests from distant hamlet and farm. Not less than 400 invitations had been sent out, no less than 180 old folk had responded. The institution was unique in its way. Thirty years ago it occurred to the writer of one of the best guide books that exists in the English Lake District, Jenkinson by name, an enthusiastic Yorkshireman who was domiciled at Keswick, that it would be a very pleasant thing to have a social gathering to which all classes might be invited in Christmas week, and to which all who came should feel that they were there, not as it were by charity, but simply met together to chat with one another and enjoy themselves on equal terms as friends. Jenkinson’s idea was warmly taken up by the leading townsmen, and from that day to this, the annual ‘Old Folks’ “Do”’ has been looked forward to all through the year, and looked back upon with pleasantest memory. Surely it is no small thing that opportunity should be given not only for the neighbourhood to subscribe its small mite to the cause of neighbourliness, but that the young men of the town should all work harmoniously together with the landlords of the various hotels and the principal tradesmen, to make arrangements for the proceedings and to wait upon their older guests. (pp. 190-191)
Arrived at the entrance of the Hall, I found the local band making brave music. Passing up the steps by kitchens whose steamy fragrance filled the air, I was ushered into a large room decked with much Christmas evergreen. Five tables reached from end to end, daintily decorated with ferns and flowers. The Vicar of Crosthwaite, the County Councillor of Keswick, the local lawyer, the local bank managers, and some of the leading hotel keepers were seated in the place of honour as carvers, and after a whistle was sounded by the master of ceremonies all rose to their feet, grace was said, and the Chairman begging no one to hurry, impressed upon the company that the oldest and youngest were to take time to-day, and then the soup was served. The leading tradesmen of the town were told off to various tables again. To the sound of the whistle of the master of ceremonies they advanced and served their guests. At another whistle, soup was removed and the meats were borne into the room. Beef, turkey, mutton, goose were all there piping hot; potatoes, peas, pudding, turnips, and all other vegetables steamed on the tables. The Secretary, as I suppose he was, said something in a solemn way to the Chairman. The Chairman called for order, and announced, as it were a matter of most urgent importance, that giblet pies innumerable were downstairs, and anybody who wanted giblet pie had simply to say the word. There was plenty to eat, plenty to drink. For those who cared for it, there was beer, but a very large proportion seemed to prefer lemonade, which was served side by side with the beer, and which was also seen in syphons all down the table. There was not much talking. Three o’clock was a late hour for many of the old folks’ dinner, and they were hungry, but as hunger passed away the talk grew, and very pleasant it was to see the old folk who had not met for a whole year cracking with one another, and to hear the little bits of family gossip, to ask how So-and-So has fared and what So-and-So is doing now. (pp. 191-192)….
After the meats, came plum pudding. Again the Secretary solemnly approached the Chairman, and the Chairman as solemnly assured the company that for those who had few teeth in their heads or had eaten so many plum puddings that they had ceased to care for them, there was an abundance of rice pudding prepared, which was very much at their service. Mince pies seemed to be a kind of necessary second course to this plum pudding and rice. Then the whistle sounded again, and cheese and butter and biscuits were the order of the day. So after about an hour the tables were cleared and grace was said, and the bulk of the old folks left the hall for the carpenters to make their arrangements for the concert staging. They returned in half-an-hour and took their seats again at the tables for the entertainment, which was broken half way by an interval for tea and cake. (p. 193)
I saw the programme and knew that I was in for a long sitting, but it was so varied that it all passed along without fatigue. It was begun by the elementary scholars of one of the Keswick schools, under command of their master, singing four glees and reciting the ballad of the “Revenge.” Then a stalwart fox-hunter mounted the platform and gave with admirable voice and spirit, “We’ll all go a-hunting to-day.” At the end of each verse, he shouted “Now all together,” and one felt the roof would be lifted, by the way the 180 guests of 60 years and upwards joined in, with full accord, to assure the singer, “That they would all go a-hunting to-day.” One or two songs followed, and the Chairman gave his address. He begged them to remember the founders of the feast, and spoke of the thirty-one old folk who had passed away since last meeting. (pp. 193-194)….
An excellent Cumberland dialect reading was given, and the tea was served. Another Cumberland dialect poem followed, then a fiddler mounted the platform, and the Chairman solemnly begged the company to remove their clogs. I did not know even what a clog was, but I soon found out the point of his remark. Hardly had the fiddler begun than the feet of all those aged people were heard keeping time to the fiddler’s tune. That love of dancing and sense of rhythm is native to Cumberland, and although days are past when the elementary schools had to be closed because the dancing master had come into the neighbourhood, dancing is still a passion with the people, who seem better able to express themselves in that way than in any other. Suddenly the fiddler changed his tune to an old-fashioned eight-reel, and an aged woman rose from her seat and with the accustomed cry was seen to begin to dance as she had danced it seventy years ago. (p. 196)….
The proceedings ended with the National Anthem and a verse of “Auld Lang Syne,” which filled the room and echoed out into Keswick streets, and then, after many a hand-shaking and “Ye’ll be hear next year likely,” “Ay, ay, I whoape sea,” they passed back to the town and back in the omnibuses to the far-off farms and hamlets, and the Old Folks’ “Do” of 1901 was past and over. (p. 198)
(A Rambler’s Notebook at the English Lakes, pp. 187-198)