VISITORS to Southampton in late November and December can enjoy the German Christmas market in the shadow of the Bargate and Christmas performances at the Mayflower and MAST Theatres - plus the wonders of Christmas shopping.

On Saturdays and Sundays in the run-up to Christmas, tales of Christmas past will be recounted on 90-minute guided tours by SEE Southampton tour guides, departing the Bargate at 10.30am.

There will be references to some of the Christmas celebrations of past years at the Churches of St. Michael’s, Holyrood, All Saints’, St. John’s, St. Lawrence and Southampton’s mother church, St. Mary’s.

The latter of course is remembered in a song that features on arguably the finest Christmas record ever produced. Released on November 22, 1963 – the day that President Kennedy was assassinated – A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector sees The Bells of St. Mary’s sung by Bobb B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans.

It was just over 300 years ago that Southampton’s ‘Father of English Hymn Writing’ Isaac Watts, published one of today’s best-loved Christmas hymns – Joy to the World, sure to be sung heartily in churches throughout the world this Christmas. And it was exactly 50 years ago that local comedian Benny Hill reached the top of the Christmas charts with his novelty record Ernie, whilst Southampton’s Jona Lewie had a Christmas hit single with Stop the Cavalry in 1980.

The Christmas walk will recall the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1154, following which Southampton became a mainstay of the wine trade, with convoys of ships bringing back wine from France to Southampton, a trade especially busy prior to Christmas when demand for wine was at its peak.

The King had his own warehouses for wine in the form of Castle Hall and Castle Vault, part of the former Southampton Castle.

The Castle would have witnessed a joyous scene in 1194, where Henry II’s son King Richard I (The Lion Heart) spent his only Christmas in England, following payment of a ransom for his imprisonment during the Crusades.

Elsie M. Sandell in Southampton Cavalcade imagines "...the feasting, the wassail bowl, the songs of the minstrels". A likely guest would have been the merchant Gervase le Riche, a burgess of Southampton and later founder of God’s House, who contributed towards the King’s ransom sum.

Back in the early 19th century and during author Jane Austen’s residency in Southampton, a favourite Christmas pastime was ice skating in an area to the east of God’s House, today occupied today by Queen’s Park.

In Jane’s letters written in Southampton, she recalls her brother Frank skating on "the beach". Jane herself did not participate, but does recount in her letters the Winter Ball she attended at the Dolphin Hotel, where "The room was tolerably full, and there were perhaps thirty couples of dancers;- the melancholy part was to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders!" 

Jane was resident in Southampton when the current statue of King George III was unveiled at the Bargate. During Christmas 1819 it is recorded that the King spoke nonsense for "58 hours non-stop" – he was to die in January 1820.

The last Southampton tram passed via the Bargate on December 31, 1949. Today the Bargate lends an historic backdrop to the German Christmas Market.

A survivor of the Blitz in 1940, the Bargate too has witnessed centuries of Christmas celebrations. Following the Blitz, the Echo recorded: “War is the very opposite of the spirit of Christmas and all that it means; yet amidst the strife and the struggle, the Christmas spirit lives in the hearts of the British people. The prelude to the second Christmas of the Second World War has certainly been strange, rather unreal and difficult.

“Rationing... the shopping rush to beat the blackout... the ever increasing need for care in balancing domestic budgets... dispersal of families... uncertainties...

“If it is less of an occasion for feasting and self-indulgence and more a welcomed opportunity to be self-less, we may count it amongst the happiest days of our lives.

“Let us then be cheery as we know how; let us determine to make others cheery; let us make it a real Christmas Day.’’

Christmas 1940 however saw no pantomimes, whilst blackout regulations meant there were no singing choirs in the streets.

To hear more of these tales – plus a smidgeon of Christmas Cracker worthy jokes – join the SEE Southampton team over the coming weekends!

SEE Southampton Christmas Walks take place on Saturdays and Sundays until December 19, departing the Lions at the Bargate at 10.30am. Walks will conclude at the Westgate, on the Western Walls, at approx. 12 noon, where visitors are welcome to view an exhibition on the Mayflower and Speedwell (and hear about the origin of Thanksgiving in America) and enjoy a complimentary mince pie.

Tickets for the Christmas Walk are £6. Payment may be made to the guide with cash/credit card ahead of the walk. Accompanied children under 16 years are free of charge.