Christmas and Mass Observation: Studying Traditions, Emotions and People

By the time Mass Observation was established in the 1930s, Christmas had become an integral part of British culture. Although its form and meaning varied between individuals and classes, it was something that everyone interacted with in one way or another. It upset and angered some but more often Christmas was a moment of joy, extravagance, and togetherness. In 1947, in Miracle on 34th Street, undoubtedly the greatest Christmas movie of all time, Santa declares ‘Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind’. By this he meant that the festival was an outlook on life, a way of thinking.  He was right and this means that investigating it can provide insights into the nature and structure of society.

But investigating this is not easy, despite the festival’s pervasiveness in British culture. At one level, the historian is overwhelmed by the number of sources that exist.  Every newspaper and magazine was full of Christmas at December. This went beyond adverts, recipes, and advice on how to enjoy the day, into sometimes quite philosophical ruminations on the nature of Christmas. But the extent to which these reflected the lived realities of the day is less certain.  Film and fiction can be important entry points to such lived experiences, and there is certainly no shortage of festive examples, but they are fictional and more importantly they tended to either deliberately live up to the expectation of Christmas as a time of happiness or tried to subvert it.  Moreover, because Christmas was so known to the readers of such fictions and the press and magazines, much is taken for granted and there is often no attempt to describe the basics of what actually happened.

Thus, in writing my book on the history of Christmas in the UK since 1914, Mass Observation was a key source. It helped me look beyond the public narratives and into the private lives of individuals, to see what Christmas was like in reality rather than in rhetoric.  In this paper, I’m not going to go through all the things that Mass Observation reveals about the British Christmas.  Instead, I want to draw out some more generic points about what Christmas in Mass Observation says about both using the archive and doing history more broadly.

First, an overview of the kind of festive material that exists in Mass Observation. Given the organization’s interest in the everyday, it is not surprising that there is much there. The richest vein of evidence comes from the use of the 25th of December for a day survey in 1937 but Christmas also appears in a great many of the diaries.  This is not a universal picture because the special nature of the day appears to have led some diarists not to write that day.  But, unlike with most topics, the historian of Christmas is not reliant on the archivists’ indexing of diaries. We know when Christmas is and thus all we have to do is to turn to the 25th of December and, hey presto, there should be something there.  The Worktown project also took some interest in Christmas. It spoke to traders, ran a writing competition about Christmas shopping and conducted a small questionnaire on how people spent the day.  During the Second World War, Mass Observation made Christmas the subject of a number of file reports that focussed on shopping and dinner, the two topics that exercised the population in their desire to carry on celebrating during the conflict. 

What will you have for your Christmas dinner? (%)
Game / poultry42
Meat (pork, beef, rabbit)20
What you can get10
Sausages3
Miscellaneous8
Ordinary meal1
Don’t know15
‘Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1941’. Mass Observation File Report 1030

As this table shows, this material does allow some reconstruction of the actual practices of Christmas but assessing its accuracy means using the archive in conjunction with other sources. For example, between the wars, there was much press comment on the growing popularity of Christmas trees, giving the impression of a very widespread practice.  Yet Mass Observation offers a more nuanced picture.  In the 1937 day survey, a London teacher recorded that he had seen a large number of trees through people’s windows on his Christmas day walk. But the fact that he thought this worth recording suggests it was not a deeply engrained or automatically expected habit.  Of the 30 respondents to Mass Observation’s Bolton Christmas 1938 questionnaire, 21 had put up decorations in their home but only five had trees.  Such evidence is indicative more than definitive but it does offer a more nuanced picture to press commentary on a growing tradition.

A wealth of wider evidence from the press and magazines all suggest that affluence meant that the 1950s were a key decade for the expansion of Christmas celebrations.  Nowhere does Mass Observation say this specifically but it does offer indirect evidence that this was happening and that Christmas trees were becoming more widespread as part of that trend. In 1951, a Sheffield accountant recorded in his diary:

“For the first time in our married lives we have bought a Christmas tree, and Ida has decorated it most tastefully with trinkets of all kinds, candles, little woollen Father Christmases from Sweden, glittering artificial icicles, all topped by a shiny silver and golden spire. It looks really well.”

The neighbours were invited around to see it, again suggesting that a tree was still relatively unusual at the start of the 1950s.

The key point here is that Mass Observation gives indications of a particular trend in festive traditions, sometimes, as in the 1950s, in line with the weight of evidence from other sources but sometimes, as in the 1930s, contrary to it.  Mass Observation may give a human voice to wider processes but triangulation with other sources is still required to make sense of the material found. 

However, this is not always possible. One of the joys of Mass Observation is the quirky material that’s not replicated elsewhere. But its representativeness is difficult to ascertain.  In 1937 a Scottish steelworker recorded that his workmates were joking they were going home to stuff their wives’ stockings. In the same year, a Yorkshire worker recorded that his workmates were saying they were looking forward to Christmas because they would have sex.  Are these two isolated examples enough to conclude that the interwar Christmas was an important occasion for sex?  If not, how many examples would we need? Is the absence of other examples indicative that Christmas and sex did not go together or simply that people just didn’t write about this?  Of course, the problem of fragmented evidence extends far beyond Mass Observation and there is no magic formula on how many pieces of evidence a historian needs to be able to make a judgement.  We tend to try to get around this with a swathe of airy-fairy qualified comments such “It would seem….” or “There is limited evidence…” but the fact remains that some of the most interesting material in Mass Observation is the most difficult to interpret because it is so unique.

Where Mass Observation is most important, certainly for the study of Christmas but in many ways at a wider level too, is in how it takes us behind closed doors and challenges public narratives and discourses.  Historians can never assume that cultural products were consumed in the way their creators intended. For example, the King’s annual Christmas radio broadcast was intended to and celebrated by the press for bringing the nation together. Historians have bought into this idea too. David Cannadine has argued that the royal broadcasts ‘enhanced the image of the monarch as the father-figure of his people’.

However, when we look at what people wrote in the 1937 day directive a more complex picture emerges that suggests a less deferential, more cynical society. While some were clearly respectful of the broadcast and even touched enough to cry, others ignored it, forgot it was on, thought it said nothing of importance, or worked away in the kitchen whilst listening. An 18-year-old student recorded that he was not interested enough in the speech to stop eating his dinner.  What struck many listeners was the King’s stammer. While some respected his efforts, others were embarrassed and one woman even wondered how a man with a stammer could be King. At a gathering in Bradford, the men refused to listen and the women did so for entertainment, treating it as a joke and standing up in mockery for the anthem. But once it began, the women were all rather moved by the King’s ordeal and they stood in seriousness for the anthem’s second playing.

In considerations of the speech, or indeed its depiction in popular culture, little attention is ever given to the fact that the national anthem accompanied the broadcast, being played at both its beginning and end.  But Mass Observation returns show that the question of whether to stand for the anthem clearly perplexed some people.  It forced them to do more than simply listen because in other contexts one always stood for the anthem.  Some families, stood for both playings, even if they were in the middle of dinner or listening in a hotel, and could even get annoyed with members who did not stand straight.  Other families had mixed responses, sometimes standing for the first playing but not the second. Yet it was not always easy to stand. One man noted that the solemnity of the anthem, for which his whole family had stood, was rather spoiled by the dog getting very excited because it thought everyone was going out.

While Mass Observation thus reminds us of the dangers of interpreting the reactions of an audience through studying the text of what they listened to or watched, it is also important in broadening historians’ focus beyond studying events or concepts in isolation.  The diaries and directives of Mass Observation allow the historian to look at people’s lives in the round and move beyond the uncontextualized testimonies that litter the file reports. Once we do that, we start to see how Christmas was so much more than a big dinner and presents. It incorporated fairly mundane activities too and was structured by wider circumstances and relationships. At a 1937 gathering in Peterborough, for example, a 27-year-old secretary discussed the state of the cotton trade with his brother in law, while their wives talked about children’s education, gas cookers and sewing. One London woman was even told by her grumpy teenage male cousin that Christmas was like Sunday, there was nothing to do between the eating. Women in contrast sometimes pointed to the housework, although this could also be an unrecorded given.  In Norbury, a 32-year-old housewife wrote of her annoyance at the amount of washing up. Another woman recorded she could not enjoy her dinner because after cooking it she was sick of the smell. Yet, as Claire Langhamer’s work on happiness has shown, many women’s happiness was tied up with their role as a provider and a carer.   This was not explicitly said in 1937 Mass Observation returns, an example perhaps of how the reasons behind the emotions expressed were often unspoken. Nonetheless, there was clearly some pride taken in the meals prepared and much happiness.

Even when they grumbled, most 1937 returns portrayed and described pleasant days.  A 34-year-old housewife summed her day up: ‘No quarrelling. No discontent, No spite. No disappointment, A happy Christmas.’ Joanna Bourke has argued that emotions are ‘a language game’; they need to be ‘made visible’ for historians to be able to examine them.  What the descriptions of Mass Observation do is make this happen. Mass Observation isn’t just people expressing their emotions; it shows why people said they were happy or sad and how a diversity of experiences could lead to similar emotions.  We thus see that even though the press and church celebrated Christmas as a festival of the family, people not celebrating with their families could be happy too. In a Ramsgate boarding house, the inhabitants had lunch together and gave each other presents. The owner said it was very exciting, that everyone got what they wanted and were all ‘well satisfied’. In Farnborough an unmarried 31-year-old electrician spent the day with friends, recording ‘There was much laughter’. The family he was with were‘somewhat religious’ and Christmas was one of the few times they allowed themselves ‘to have a bit of fun’. Even a 59-year-old Luton chemist, who spent Christmas alone, said his day of pottering, reading and doing experiments, had been the most satisfactory for years.

In contrast, others were clearly very unhappy, sometimes because of their family but also because of the wider state of their life or even the world. In Essex, a 48-year-old housewife was glad when her husband went out to the football in the morning and later ate her beef dinner in a different room to him.  She had not received a gift from him or her son. Nor was she impressed with her mother’s card, which was accompanied by a present but not a letter. In Barnstaple, the weather was foggy and a 33-year-old teacher recorded that she did not feel Christmassy but depressed and gloomy, unable to stop thinking of the wars in Spain and China. Her mood was not helped by the fact that the radio was on during dinner, annoying her with its light music. Afterwards, she would have preferred to be dancing, singing carols and playing charades with her friends but instead was playing darts with her family.

Mass Observation is thus a reminder that everything from entertainment to the sex lives of individuals were multifaceted diverse phenomenas that took place within wider contexts. They were influenced by the structures of work, family and economics but also by the weather, and by personality, temperament and expectation. Historians, of course, already know this but we still tend to sometimes put our subjects into boxes, contextualising them within broad social and economic forces, but not the complex, messy lives people lived.  The history of emotions often stresses how feelings are framed by the contexts they are experienced in but it also often emphasises individual agency and thus the importance of personality in shaping experience and perception of experience.  Indeed, because Mass Observation involved a degree of conscious self-presentation, the personality of subjects shines through strongly. The people of the past were as diverse as the people of the present and the different ways they spent their Christmas day, and the different ways they reacted to the festival, said as much about their personality as about social and economic structures. This does not mean class and gender do not matter but nor are they deterministic categories that exclude everything else or mean that the entirety of the past should be interpreted through the lenses of inequality.

That is evident in how large sections of the working class enjoyed Christmas. Entries to a Mass Observation writing competition in Bolton noted the beauty of shop displays, the enjoyment to be derived from seeing so many happy faces, choosing gifts and thinking about the delight the presents would give. It was a chance to forget daily cares and one woman described Christmas shopping as a ‘land of make believe’.  Entries also noted that the most enjoyable thing was having money to spend, something that was simply not a norm for the working classes but which Christmas saving clubs enabled. 

Of course, these essayists were entering a competition and they might have espoused the joys of shopping to win a prize.  But other evidence, including from within Mass Observation, points in a similar direction. ‘Money may be short but it is always found at Christmas’ said a Bolton sweetshop owner in 1938.  A toyshop in the town even claimed that poorer customers – ‘clog and shawl types’ – spent more than those with cars.  The reality might not have been quite so straightforward but the desire for a bit of fun meant people saved and made sacrifices to ensure Christmas treats.  A Yorkshire miner recorded in his day survey that after twelve months of regular work, Christmas was much looked forward to as a time for treats and a rest.  He could not afford chocolates, cake, turkey, pudding and pork pies all year round but he always had a change of fare at Christmas and he felt he deserved it.  In such testimony, we see why the histories of leisure and pleasure matter.  Like a drink, a good film or a nice cuddle, moments of happiness made life more tolerable. Their history should not be peripheral but rather at the heart of our social histories in the way they were at the heart of our subjects’ lives. Pleasure was what people lived for. It came from material things but also from being with friends and family. Christmas offered both.

Mass Observation thus paints a picture of the diversity of Christmas and by implication of the past, a past where class and gender still had influences but which interacted with circumstance and personality and might not lead to the negatives experiences that could be expected. Yet there was more diversity to the celebration of Christmas than Mass Observation suggests. Users of the archive have long grappled with the question of its representativeness and the relative paucity of first-hand working-class voices. It is not that the working class are absent, but rather that the section of the working class who existed on the breadline ‑ the unskilled workers, and the poor ‑ very rarely took part in the writing of diaries and day returns. After all, when you’re struggling to feed your family, pen and paper were never going to be a priority.

The interwar left-wing press was full of comment about how the poor suffered at Christmas.  Oral testimonies and other observers also paint pictures of families not able to afford any festive treats. Yet the only place that really emerges in Mass Observation is in the Worktown project. It found unemployed couples unable to give each presents, and who shied away from visiting friends or family because they could not take anything with them.   But it also found that even the unemployed did not necessarily quite have the sad day that charities and Labour’s politicians predicted or recalled by those who compare the material affluence of today with the paucity of the past. One Bolton woman reported that she and her unemployed husband had no money for presents for each other but still got a little something for the children, who also got a charitable present from the local paper.  They put up a few decorations and thought the day a small moment of happiness for the children. Unfortunately, this kind of testimony about the everyday experience of the unemployed is exactly the kind of material Mass Observation is very short on and thus whether it fully counteracts the evidence from some other sources of the unemployed’s festive misery is difficult to say.  Again, it may simply be the case that what kind of Christmas the interwar poor had depended on what they expected, relationships with family and neighbours, who they spent the day with, and their general outlook on life. Personality matters.

So, to bring this all together.  Mass Observation is quite simply one of the most important sources for the history of Christmas that exists. It is a source of factual evidence for how people celebrated, although interpretation requires comparisons with other sources of information. It demonstrates how beneath public narratives are complex pictures of diverse experiences. These are not free of the influence of gender or class but nor are they entirely shaped by them, although the lack of testimony from the very poorest within the working class means the experience of those most vulnerable to their economic position are least visible in the archive. Most importantly, the archive’s Christmas evidence is a vivid reminder of how the people of the past were just that, people, with foibles, traits and temperaments. At Christmas, like all year, they loved and they laughed.  They moaned and they grumbled. As feminist scholars and historians of emotions have argued, such feelings could be a source of power and agency, giving people a sense of control over their lives. Expressing an emotion helps control it.  The happiness and sometimes anger that Christmas generated mattered to people at the time because it was a symbol and reminder to them of how their lives were going.  It matters to historians because it is an example of how those lives were lived and felt about.  As Santa put it in Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas is a frame of mind and those minds are there to be examined in all their diversity in Mass Observation.

This paper was presented at the Mass Observation 80th anniversary conference, University of Sussex, July 2017.

Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

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