'...and the goose is getting fat': Roger Bingham looks back at Carnivorous Christmas fare.

THE seasonal jingle 'Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat' may also conjure up alternative images of the Cratchit family's stingy Christmas dinner as immortalised by Charles Dickens in 'A Christmas Carol'.

For Scrooge's starveling, London-based clerk, Bob Cratchit, even a thin goose was a gastronomic luxury. Country folk were luckier as they fattened their geese on common grassland.

Ackenthwaite Scroggs was Milnthorpe's free goose pasture until the Poor Law 'Guardians' commandeered it as the site for a Workhouse.

This action illustrates an historic gibe that 'the law locks up the man and woman who steals the goose from off the common, but lets the greater villain loose who steals the common from the goose'.

Yet, on Christmas Day, when the paupers were gathered to dine for the Workhouse Treat, they were bestowed with roast beef.

In 1828 Charitable 'benevolences' were even extended for lags in Kendal's House of Correction 'who begged leave to give thanks to an unknown friend, for a supply on Christmas Day of good fat mutton and a pint of ale for each individual'.

For the rich-man, in his castle full of carcases of 'barons of beef' were combusted in cavernous chimney pieces.

Beyond the gentry's gates, cottages preferred geese, not just for cheapness sake, but, also, because they fitted being spit-roasted in front of smaller, peat or log fires.

It was only around 1800 that coal fuelled ranges began to enable 'joints' to be 'baked' in an oven.

Even so, during Christmas week in 1848, oven-less folk were doled out, with 5,565 quarts of subsidised sustenance, at a halfpenny a helping, from soup-kitchens in Kendal.

Middling folk often considered a goose to be too meagre for Christmas. Traditionally it was reserved for Michaelmas, on September 29, when most summer goose-grass would have already been gobbled up.

For probate purposes poultry rated insignificant values. In 1706 sheep bequeathed by Robert Thompson of High Leays, Crook, were valued at £12 but his poultry, was assessed, along with 'fewell and dunghill' at only 12 shillings.

Similarly, Rowland Thompson's will, proved at Milnthorpe in 1686, assessed his 'poultry and dunghill' at 15/6. By 1859, Walter Berry, also of Milnthorpe, sold his geese at 9 pence a pound compared to six shillings a pound commanded by his 20 stone Christmas porker.

Turkeys came late to the local board. In 1841, only two turkeys were included in a gargantuan, seven feet-wide pie, proffered at the Commercial Travellers' Christmas Eve dinner held at the King's Arms in Kendal. Other ingredients comprised two geese, four fowls, two pheasants, four rabbits, three tongues and eight pounds of beef steak.

A century later, 'The Goose' could still grace wartime Christmas dinners. With meat rationed (between 1940 and 1954) at four shillings per adult, per week, a £5 turkey was out of the question for most families.

Consequently geese were preferred with prices ranging from 15 to 30 shillings, available, for instance, from a 'registered poulterer' in Stramongate, Kendal to cheaper or dearer black-market birds at a rural 'back-door'.

Our family's first post-rationing Christmas dinner was delayed when at noon, over demand caused Milnthorpe's gas works supply to break down.

Next year, to avoid a repeated disaster, we opted for a 25 shillings a head 'Christmas Banquet' at the Heversham Hotel. All 14 of us chose Turkey for the main course, though we wondered why they served it with 'red-jam'.

Even so, I, with pubescent gluttony, also extracted from the cold side-buffet, a slice of goose.