The worst Christmas ever?

Apparently, storm Barbara is heading for the British Isles just in time for Christmas with the risk of disruption to transport and power supplies and some possible structural damage. The one thing we all share, wherever we are in the world, is our powerlessness in the face of severe weather. For our ancestors, the consequences were far more devastating.

It’s a sobering thought, but exactly 200 years ago, running up to Christmas of 1816, people were in the midst of a famine right here in Britain thanks to a volcanic explosion on the other side of the world.

In 1815, the effects of the massive volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, Sumbawa island, Indonesia,  were felt across the world and led to devastating crop failures across the Northern hemisphere in 1816. It has been dubbed ‘the summer that never was’.

The summer of 1816 was so severely cold and wet it led to one of the worst famines of 19th century Europe. Red snow fell in Italy, Eastern parts of North America were under a cloud of volcanic fog, snow fell in Albany, New York in June, and riots broke out in Britain and Europe following the cataclysmic failure of crops.

Families in Wales are said to have traveled great distances begging for food, such was their hunger.

I may not have learned of this extraordinary disaster if I hadn’t been recently researching some unexplained deaths in my family history.

My 5 x grandparents, born in Ceredigion, both died within a month of each other in the summer of 1818. They were younger than I am now. Also, one month later, their oldest son died at the tender age of 30, in the same house. In the neighbouring house, another two relatives had died in that summer; aged 28 and 36. The obvious nagging question was why had so many died before their time and over such a short period?

Causes of death were not entered in the parish registers, so any one of many diseases such as smallpox or typhus may have been responsible. In Cardiganshire, even malaria was not uncommon in marshland areas. But looking for possible diseases led me to the historical occurrence of’the summer that never was’ in 1816.

People weakened by hunger are more susceptible to disease, and disease follows famine as surely as night follows day. In Ireland, also affected by the famine, a typhus epidemic ran from 1816 to 1819.

I will never know for sure what killed those ancestors of mine in 1818 but one thing I can be sure of is that they suffered unimaginable hardship and hunger in the two years leading up to their demise. Luckily for me, their son, my 4 x great grandfather and his wife survived and my 3 x great grandfather was born in 1820.

I’ve discovered many tragedies in my family’s past but this one has shocked and saddened me more than most. It brings home to all of us, I think, how powerless we are against the forces of nature.

We in the Western world live in an age of excess and never is this more evident than in the weeks running up to Christmas. This year more than ever following this most recent research, I am giving thanks for and appreciating how lucky we all are not to be enduring the hardships our ancestors did and which too many people across the world are enduring as I write.

In wishing a Happy Christmas to all my followers here on this blog, I particularly wish you a stress-free holiday in which you and yours do not angst over whether everything is perfect but simply enjoy and celebrate our great good fortune not to have been born in a time or place of great hardship.





6 thoughts on “The worst Christmas ever?

  1. So true, Jenny. Many people do not appreciate their good fortune to be living in better times nowadays – or in a country currently in turmoil. That is truly what we must give thanks for. I hope you have a lovely, peaceful Christmas with your family.

  2. A very thought provoking post as always.
    My little motto for all seasons is: “Accept what is – Let go of what was – trust in what will be.”
    Thanks Jenny and a Happy Christmas to you and yours.

    • I love that motto, Paddy – not easy things to do but well worth the trying. Thank you for that, I think I shall post it on my wall to remind me at all times. Wishing you a happy Christmas. x

  3. What a story, Jen. I have never heard of this catastrophic event, or the fact that it affected the world for so long after its occurrence. Awful. I hope Barbara reins herself in and doesn’t give you too much trouble there in Wales! Love and best wishes xxx

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