In defence of Cardiff’s Christmas tree (and a brief history of civic trees)

This article was first published in the South Wales Echo.

Cardiff Council’s Christmas artificial tree has come in for some stick in the last couple of weeks. First, it was late appearing. Then, it turned out to be forty-foot-high rather than the promised forty metres. And then some people didn’t like it or complained that money was being spent on a tree at all.

Cardiff isn’t the only council to suffer such woes.  In Leicester, the civic tree was accused of first being half finished and then a gaudy mess. Some of the complaints seem rather petty or are perhaps down to people trying to be clever. Did anyone really care exactly when Cardiff’s tree went up or expect something nearly as tall as the 46m Statue of Liberty?

The gripes that it is ugly or comes from China rather a Welsh forest are more substantive. They also reflect a much wider sense that Christmas trees are symbolic.

Whatever kind of tree we choose for our own home is a more than a matter of simple taste. Christmas decorations are statements about ourselves.  Whether we go for something natural or plastic, whether we adorn it with gaudy multicoloured decorations or a simple colour scheme, our Christmas tree is a way of exhibiting our taste or sense of fun.

Yet leaving the curtains open so neighbours and passers-by can see our lit tree is not primarily about showing off our personal taste and style. It is also about sharing the joy that Christmas decorations can bring. Even the grumpiest Scrooge might admit there is something pleasant and even magical about Christmas lights on a cold and dark winter night.

Public trees have the same function. We might argue over what they should look like, but the civic tree is there as something for people to share and enjoy

The first public trees in the UK probably date to the inter-war period and were seen on village greens and town centres and at railway stations.  By this time, most middle-class families erected trees in their homes, but the ritual was still establishing itself amongst the working-classes who concentrated their limited resources on presents for the children and a good meal.

Public trees were far more common on the continent and after 1945 around twenty towns and cities in the UK were gifted trees by European communities as thanks for their assistance during the war.

The most famous was the Trafalgar Square tree, an annual gift to London from the people of Oslo. It quickly became something of a Christmas icon, encouraging more towns and cities to erect their own trees from public funds.

This new trend was not without its problems.  Like the other gifted trees, the Trafalgar Square tree had to receive special exemption from a ban on importing trees for fear they might bring disease. In 1958 and 1959, the police even refused to approve its lighting after 11pm for fear it would lead to drunks assembling around it.

Such concerns were not unfounded. In 1953, a Royal Navy officer was charged with being drunk and disorderly after climbing the thirty-foot tree in the centre of Bristol to take the star from its top.

But more generally public trees spread Christmas cheer and became part of what many enjoyed about the season. Thus in 1949 one local newspaper, while noting how common public trees had become in the southwest of England, argued they were ‘the centres of colour, life and laughter in the market places of many towns’.

Public trees, however, were more than just public celebrations intended to raise festive spirits.  The 1950s and 60s saw most towns and cities also start decorating their retail centres with displays of electric lights to promote Christmas shopping and the public tree became part of a wider civic display.

Making Christmas shopping pleasant mattered because so many people also found the expense, decisions and crowds stressful.  The ambience a tree and decorations generates compensates for that and helps make Christmas shopping a special experience.

Indeed, with consumers expecting shopping at Christmas to be different from the rest of year, any town or city that does not spend money on decorations risks losing custom to a nearby rival or, increasingly, to the convenience of online shopping.  A study of Manchester in 2012 found that the council’s festive lighting had cost £339,000 but that the city’s Christmas markets alone had generated £71 million in spending.

Unhappy people are always more forthcoming with their views on the world than those who are content.  Cardiff Council should thus take some comfort in the likelihood that their derided tree will generate more quiet cheer than vocal complaint.

They should also take comfort in the fact that putting the sparkle of a Christmas light onto a winter street is not only something of a tradition in itself, it’s also good for the local economy. Online retailers have many advantages but they don’t provide a tree and lights to enjoy.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University. He is the author of a new book, Christmas and the British: A Modern History, published by Bloomsbury.

Christmas in October

xmas-coverIn 1958, a writer in The Times remembered that before the war older people were complaining how tawdry and commercial Christmas had become ‘but in their most disgruntled moments they had never imagined anything like this steam-roller, gathering momentum all October and November, with the London streets disguised as toy bazaars, and false Father Christmases popping up in every store’.

Complaints about the commercialization of Christmas date back into the Victorian period but one of the most persistent was the claim that it was appearing in the shops earlier and earlier. Yet actually proving that assertion is not easy. What is certain is that Christmas in November is not a twentieth-century development and Christmas in October dates back to at least the 1950s.

In as early as 1824, the compendium Forget Me Not was being advertised as a Christmas present at the beginning of November, complete with the claim that many people had been left disappointed the previous year when stock sold out a few days before the festival.  The commercial Christmas was still very much in its infancy at this time but over the course of the nineteenth century it grew as people indulged themselves in the pleasures of food and presents, and appreciated how the festival reaffirmed social bonds. It was thus as much in response to consumer demand as a shopkeepers’ hunger for profit that advertisements for Christmas goods became very common in November in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

However, there was never any agreed date among retailers about when festive displays and advertising should begin and by the early twentieth century the Christmas shopping season was something that arrived gradually in November rather than suddenly at a set date.

selfridges-8-nov-1926
Ad for Santa Claus’ arrival on 8 November 1926. Includes the suggestion to ‘shop early’.

Consumers, of course, did not have to respond to advertisements and displays but even early in the century, November Christmas shopping was not uncommon. In November 1921, for example, Christmas shopping was reported to be in full swing in Knightsbridge by the middle of the month. Some started well before this. On 30 October 1933, The Times was reporting early Christmas displays in large London shops and that the Queen had begun her shopping. Shops explicitly encouraged this, not just for the sake of their profits but also to relieve the workload on their staff in December.

The war and subsequent austerity curtailed this, at least temporarily.  In 1952, it was noted that Christmas was now concentrated in the week or two before the day itself and the time of its stretching back into November was gone. That did not last and the return of affluence renewed and enabled people’s desire to spend at Christmas.  Just a year later, there were reports of a Christmas tree being put up outside a Leeds store in October.  In 1959, the first decorations in Oxford Street went up on 22 October.

Even some children were put out at the fact that Father Christmas was in some stores in October. ‘Christmas is lasting too long these days’ remarked one lady to a television reporter in October 1959. In the same year, Coventry City Council responded by banning shops putting illuminated trees up outside before 1 December.

Christmas in October may have been thought by some to be too early but the logistics of supplying and storing festive goods encouraged shops to erect October displays.  Local authorities too had played their part in pushing the date back into October by deciding when to erect their street decorations. In 2008, when town centre decorations went up in Coleford (Gloucestershire) on 12 October, even some traders were upset but one shopper told a paper that the decorations were ‘splendid’ and it was better to enjoy them for three months than three weeks.  Although some hated Christmas shopping, more saw it as a fun, pleasurable and exciting activity, something to be indulged in over a number of trips rather than cramped into a one stressful day. A vocal minority complained about the early Christmas but the silent majority shopped away.

Throughout the 20th century, retailers thus claimed that early starts were a response to consumer demand.  In 1926 Selfridge’s were justifying Christmas preparations in November by saying that anticipation was a central part of the season’s enjoyment. In 2002, Debenhams, who put up its Christmas display on 20 October, claimed that if they did not do this they would get hundreds of complaints, while Marks and Spencer claimed that half of their customers wanted to buy Christmas items in October.

In fact, for some people Christmas shopping was a year-round activity. Even in the 1930s there is evidence of people making lists  throughout the year of anything they saw in the shops that would make a suitable present. As pockets deepened after the war, this extended to some people actually buying presents all year round. This was partly because they enjoyed buying presents but it also spread the cost and avoided the pressures of shopping in December. A 1973 survey found that 56 percent of respondents had started thinking about Christmas shopping by 8 November and 28 percent had actually bought some presents.

15-nov-1933
Shop early ad, 15 Nov. 1933

There may not be much evidence that Christmas in the shops has got earlier since its clear encroachment on October in the 1950s but it is undoubtedly the displays and advertisements that mark the arrival and approach of the season in the public mind. Not everyone approved but there was little they could do about it when consumer demand was big enough to make the October and November efforts of retailers worthwhile.

Martin Johnes is author of Christmas and the British:  A Modern History (2016). Available all year round and not just at Christmas.

Twelfth Night

There is some confusion about when twelfth night actually is. If you count the 25th as the first day of Christmas, then twelfth night is 5 January. However, others have regarded 6 January as twelfth night, partly because the day is sometimes also known as twelfth day, a celebration of importance in its own right. The 6th of  January is certainly Epiphany, the date the Three Kings are said to have visited Jesus.

Before the Victorian re-imagined what Christmas was, twelfth night marked the second most important day of the Christmas season. It was a night for parties and jollity amongst all the classes and associated with drinking, eating, visiting neighbours and a brief respite from some of the normal conventions of public behaviour. A special cake with a lucky pea and bean inside it was common, the roots of both modern Christmas cake and the coins in Christmas puddings. In some parts of Britain, there were local traditions such as sporting contests, wassailing at orchards and even burning bushes or trees. It was essentially a celebration of the end of the Christmas holiday.

https://austenonly.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/keeping-christmas26546-correction.jpg?w=1076&h=913
Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruickshank 1794

The shift to the Gregorian calendar in the middle of the 18th century added to the significance of 6 January. Eleven days were removed from the calendar in 1752, which meant the new 6 January was the old Christmas day and some of those angry at the change continued to celebrate Christmas itself on this day. The anger may have faded but even in the early 20th century there were people whose grandparents had celebrated  the family Christmas on the sixth. Right through the Victorian period, twelfth night was also a popular date for civic Christmas balls and children’s charitable parties.

However, the Victorian period was also the time when Christmas was invented as a commercial festival and the shopping associated with this led to Christmas day becoming the culmination of celebrations rather than the start of them. The needs of an industrial society also meant people returned to work far quicker than they once had, with 25 and 26 December generally being the only days off in the late 19th century. Cakes were still eaten by some in the middle classes, and sometimes accompanied with funny rhymes and games, but the whole significance of the day was fading fast.

12tnight
Lincolnshire Echo, 8 Jan 1935

By the First World War, there were complaints from those who remembered the parties of their youth that twelfth night no longer meant anything but that was not true. In some areas there were conscious attempts to uphold older local traditions associated with the day. Some interwar towns continued their balls, whilst other communities shared cake and wassail bowls; folk culture was becoming widely valued, just as it was in its last throes.

Most commonly, twelfth night was associated with taking down Christmas decorations. Before the Victorians, when decorations were ivy, mistletoe and the like, it had been regarded as bad luck to either take down decorations before Candlemass (2 February) or before they had begun to wither. This superstition was a hangover from the belief that there was some kind of sprite in the decorations who would escape if not removed correctly and bring bad luck. Some people believed that the decorations should be burnt to avoid this.

As paper, glass and then plastic decorations became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the superstition was transferred to these new forms. However, knowledge about why this was done could not be assumed and a 1921 magazine article felt it had to explain the superstitions to readers. There was also disagreement about whether decorations should come down on the 5th or the 6th. Nor did everyone stick to the idea of twelfth night and some decorations were taken down quickly after Boxing Day.

Walking around any town or city suggests that the majority of people no longer leave the decorations up until twelfth night and the night before returning to work or school is probably now the most common date, although not all even wait until then. Twelfth night has thus lost all its real significance but in the confusion surrounding when it is and what it signifies it is actually quite typical of Christmas traditions. We might imagine they are static and historic – and indeed that is part of their attraction – but they actually shift and alter with our changing tastes and culture.

My book Christmas and the British: A Modern History will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in October 2016.

 

 

Disco for the Eyes: NME’s review of Star Wars

I stumbled on this last week whilst reading through the NME’s incessant hatred of Christmas songs. The NME thought it was far too cool for its own good but this is unusually perceptive.

“Star Wars is the only movie I’ve ever seen which captures the unique feeling of reading comic books while stoned. … The ‘70s are a time of coping with psychic defeats and the deadening of our collective nerve ends, and Star Wars is an entertainment built around spectacle: it tickles, dazzles and delights the senses while leaving the intellect and the emotions as undisturbed as possible. Finally, it’s disco for the eyes.”

New Musical Express 24 December 1977

Television, comedy and the historian

ImageI’m writing a book about Christmas since 1914 so I’ve been watching a lot of Christmas specials from the 1970s and 80s recently. Television has been rather underused as a source by contemporary historians because old programmes have always been difficult to get hold of.  However, the growth of people using Youtube to share things they buy on DVD or find on old VHS tapes (and television companies’ apparent willingness to overlook the copyright infringement) mean there is now online a wealth of ephemera from the small screen.

Just as with novels, the historical riches come not from the highbrow but from the popular.  The light entertainment of the past is an important source because it says so much about what people found funny and their everyday attitudes. It also reminds us just how much these attitudes have changed. The 1970s and 80s doesn’t seem that long ago but watching its television shows is a reminder of a world where sexism and racism were rife; pretty girls were there to be openly leered at and jokes about buses being like Calcutta were funny.

Humour is a complex phenomenon to study. Just because a script writer thought a joke was worth telling and a studio audience subsequently laughed doesn’t mean the audience at home reacted that way. Nor should we just accept viewing figures as measures of which shows reflected popular tastes. In a world of three channels, there wasn’t exactly much choice and many a person found themselves forced to watch something at Christmas to compromise or to keep the peace.

Then there’s the issue of how we escape our own tastes and, in the case of recent television, our own memories.  I did not find a 1970s Tommy Cooper Christmas special remotely funny. But was that me or was it always very silly? In contrast, the Good Life and the Two Ronnies have held up well and made me laugh. But then they did in the 80s too.

In contrast, as a kid I never liked repeats of Steptoe and Son. It’s still not very funny but it’s been far the most interesting watch in my research because it’s full of sociological comment. Yet interpreting that is not easy. When Albert sings ‘Enoch’s dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know’, are people laughing at or with Powell’s racism? In a society where race was a divisive issue, it was probably both.

Alas, I’m not sure that I’ve learnt too much about Christmas itself from these programmes but they were an integral part of the Christmas experience for the majority of the population. The research is thus probably more about getting into the mentality of the past rather than about finding out specifics, even if that does mean I need to try to lose the traces of that mentality that still exist in my memory.   If nothing else, I’m learning why light entertainment was so important on Christmas day.  At its best, it was very funny but it also enabled people to escape the kind of domestic quarrels that they were watching depicted on screen.  And in some families that was probably worth putting up with a bit of Tommy Cooper.

Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!

 

1950-lion-witch-wardrobe“The White Witch? Who is she?”

“Why, it is she that has got all  Narnia under her thumb. It’s   she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”

CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).

 

Christmas in Wales 1900

The Victorians reinvented the idea of Christmas. Although they were drawing upon and reinvigorating older traditions of festivity and generosity, by the late nineteenth century Christmas had become a celebration focused on home and family and its now-familiar trappings – cards, trees, turkey, and Father Christmas – were all well established. Indeed, sending Christmas cards was so popular by 1900 that there were repeated deliveries of mail by hardworking postal staff in Cardiff throughout Christmas Day.

Taking note of the moral of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843), the Victorians were determined to make merry. This was as true of Wales as of England.  Although the Boer War, the price of coal and wet weather were all causing concern, the Western Mail felt able to proclaim that Christmas 1900 would be as ‘if one great wave of joy were sweeping over the face of the land, invigorating our emotions, tickling us into smiles, making our limbs dance and our whole being thrill in an epidemic of gladness.’

Central to such joy was the establishment of Christmas as a time for family.  This was not always straightforward.  The migration of men to the coalfields of south Wales and girls to towns for domestic service and shopwork meant that families were not always living in the same place.  Christmas was thus a time for reuniting families, something helped by the provision of a fairly comprehensive rail service on Christmas Day itself.  There were, however, complaints that limited Christmas services to rural west Wales were preventing some young men and women from returning home for the festivities.

At the heart of family gatherings was Christmas lunch.  Roasted turkey, goose or beef, accompanied by vegetables and followed by plum pudding had become the expected Christmas meal but this was beyond the means of all.  There were even claims in London that some Welsh people ate mutton at Christmas but pretended it was beef and supplemented it with roasted blackbird.  This was angrily denied by the Western Mail but poverty was very real.  State pensions were nine years away and some old people relied on local donations of Christmas food.  Many poor children’s only proper festive meal came courtesy of a charitable dinner at their school on Christmas Day itself.

That local dignitaries and churches funded such events was clear evidence that the religious and charitable ethos of Christmas was strong.  Llandaff Cathedral held Christmas services at 7am, 10am, 11am and midday. Churches were adorned with greenery for the day but chapels were more puritan.  Not only were they not decorated, some did not even hold Christmas Day services.

It was not just religious bodies that held public appeals for the poor and ill.  In Swansea, for example, the Cambrian newspaper organized the distribution of 2,000 toys to children in charitable institutions in the town. Even the inmates of the workhouses were given special dinners courtesy of the Poor Law Guardians and other donors.  In Cardiff, this consisted of roast beef, plum pudding and a pint of beer for the men and half a pint for the women.  There were, however, limits to Christmas charity.  In Denbigh, there were Christmas complaints that poor relief had been given to people brought up like hooligans and who lived liked fighting cocks.

Christmas had also begun to develop its commercial overtones thanks to the growing tradition of gift giving. Shops were brightly decorated and busy advertising presents for children and adults.  To increase sales after Christmas advertisements began to talk of New Year’s gifts.  The most common presents were fancy goods and toys, clothes and bedding, and food and drink.  But for the better off there was photographic equipment, bronze work, cutlery and clocks.  A store in Swansea was even advertising ‘Useful and Artistic Furniture suitable for Christmas presents’.

Christmas Day was also a time for entertainment and people traveled to towns to take part.  Most shops were shut and the pubs had short hours but eisteddfodau were held across Wales and senior football and rugby matches were played.

In theatres and music halls, there were few performances on Christmas Day itself but Boxing Day in Cardiff held plenty of treats from Aladdin at the Theatre Royal (which promised ‘pretty music, pretty dresses, pretty dances, pretty songs, and pretty girls’) to the Dowlais Male Voice Party at the Park Hall. At the Philharmonic Hall on St Mary Street, there was a pantomime called ‘The Christmas Dream’.  An advertisement described it as an elaborate production in twenty scenes portraying a Christmas of ‘Ye Goode Olden Tymes’. If that was not enough, the theatre also had roller-skating and a waxwork exhibition.

There was less cheer in the Rhondda where local magistrates rejected an application for the pubs to stay open to 11.45pm rather than 11pm on Christmas Eve.  In the same area, a 73-year-old partially-crippled peddler was arrested on Christmas morning after his wife was discovered having been beaten to death.  They had apparently argued over his drinking.  In Cardiff, however, police and magistrates reported a quiet and sober Christmas week, with not a single case of cutting and wounding or violent assault.  Yet the fact that this was a matter for comment at all shows the danger of imagining that all Christmases past were simply a matter of peace and goodwill to all men.