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
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.

A brief history of work Christmas parties

This is an extract from Martin Johnes, Christmas and the British: A Modern History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)

One reason for the ebbing of work was excitement over Christmas parties. These were not new phenomenon – some late nineteenth-century factories had held them for example – but they undoubtedly increased in number in the middle of the twentieth century and by 1978 one historian suggested that the office or works party was ‘almost universal’. 

Some were put on by the workers themselves without the support or sometimes blessing of the employers. For example, some post-war miners held their own underground parties when they were supposed to be working. That would probably have been unthinkable before nationalization, when workers were more controlled through the enforcement of regulations and payment by performance. But, after 1918, there was gradually more emphasis on both workers’ rights and rewarding their hardwork and loyalty. This might be through a festive party or outing for employees or even their children. One of the family of Farmiloes, a prosperous lead and glass merchant, remembered that the firm’s interwar Christmas dinners in a hotel as ‘something that was looked forward to very much … [because] for many people it was a fairly drab sort of life’.  Indeed, for shy people who did not socialize, such occasions could be rare opportunities to talk to people. 

There was always, however, a danger that staff might not respond in the way intended.  Attempts to get different grades and sections to mingle could lead to some awkward social situations. In 1938 one young Yorkshire man told Mass Observation he was not attending his works’ pantomime party because as a socialist he did not like his employer organizing his private life. Furthermore, he objected to having pay for it, did not like panto, and did not want to use his own time up seeing people he could see any day, especially when he loathed some of his fellow workers. 

After the war, company celebrations grew more elaborate. The 1952 Christmas party of the Welsh Directorate of the Forestry Commission, for example, took place at an Aberystwyth hotel and featured a concert given by staff, dancing and games. There were prizes too, including a bottle of sherry, a duck and a pair of nylons. By the late twentieth century, people were even wearing festive headgear, such as Santa hats, reindeer antlers and tinsel halos, for their Christmas dos. 

Embed from Getty Images

But the more elaborate works and office parties became, the more they developed a reputation for excessive drinking. In 1970 the Health Education Council warned of the hazard of office parties for young females who might not be used to several quick rounds of free drinks and claimed it was the duty of senior staff to make sure they did not become hospital or police statistics. The reputation of office parties was not helped by the fact that some happened early in December, partly because venues could actually be difficult to book close to Christmas. In 1984 one writer claimed he had seen his first drunk secretary with tinsel in her hair on 12 November.  That was untypical but it did not help the office party’s cause. Nor did what the drinking could lead to. In 1970 one magazine joked that office parties could be an ‘unbridled riot’.

An anthropologist claimed ‘misbehaviour is what office Christmas parties are all about’; it was expected and customary. In a survey for her research, 90 per cent of respondents confessed to some form of office-party misbehaviour. Eating and drinking too much was the most common misdemeanour, although kissing and flirtation (especially amongst those under 40), as well as telling rude jokes, saying things that would not normally be said and acting a little silly were common behaviours too.

None of this was the debauchery that was often imagined. Indeed, there could positive outcomes to it; feuds were made up and long-held attractions brought out into the open. But those attractions were sometimes between people married to someone else and by the 21st century many companies had moved away from having an organized party because of concerns about excessive drinking, bad behaviour and sexual harassment. In 2004 a joint report by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the TUC advised that mistletoe should not be provided at such parties. Some estimates put the number of firms not willing to have Christmas parties as high as 80 per cent but a 2005 survey in London found that 65 per cent of companies were having one.  Some of those were probably meals or receptions rather than parties and a 2004 survey suggested that over 80 per cent of businesses were doing something for their employees.  Indeed, the state sanctioned this and by 2013 companies were allowed to spend up to £150 a year on Christmas (or other) entertainment or presents for staff without it being regarded as a taxable benefit.  

Business researchers have argued that Christmas parties helped create a sense that organizations were fun and caring places to work and that a temporary relaxation of rules and powers structures meant those same hierarchies could be maintained in the rest of the year without challenge.  In some organizations, the coming together of different grades was formalized through festive role reversals such as officers serving the men in the armed forces or surgeons carving the turkey in hospital. Christmas thus perhaps played its part in maintaining workplace discipline and upholding the morale of staff often caught up in dull and repetitive jobs. Indeed, those firms that did nothing for their staff at Christmas risked demoralizing staff and encouraging a sense that they were not valued. So, too, could those who gave derisory festive benefits. A woman who worked for a chocolate manufacturer complained to the Daily Worker in 1938 that while she got an additional day off she received no overtime or bonus for all her hard work in the busy run up. There were accusations in 2004 that one cleaning company had given its workers a miserly £3 voucher for a local cafe as a Christmas bonus.

A brief history of Advent calendars in the UK

Advent calendars, like so many British Christmas traditions, have their roots outside the UK.

They are an evolution of a practice found in Germany of counting down through the Christian festival of Advent towards Christmas. This was often done through the lighting of candles on each of Advent’s four Sundays.  In the nineteenth century, a different form of this tradition emerged, with the days being chalked off or counted by hanging a picture on a wall, a practice recorded as early as 1851.

In the decade or so before the First World War, this led to the first commercial production of advent calendars in Germany, a sheet of different festive pictures, sometimes arranged as a clock. One early producer was allegedly inspired by memories of his mother making her own calendar with sweets or cookies for him to eat each day.  In 1926, he brought out a calendar with chocolates.  Another interwar development was doors that opened, revealing a festive picture beneath.[1]

For illustrations of early German calendars please click here

The four-Sunday Advent has a different number of days, according to when Christmas falls in the week, but early commercial calendars counted from 1 December, allowing them to be reused each year.  This shift away from a strict religious character reflected the fact that in Germany the two final Sundays of Advent were already established as shopping days where laws around what was permissible on the Sabbath were ignored or relaxed.[2]

It was not just the timing of Advent that was changing. The religious festival of Advent is a time of contemplation that looks forward to not just the birth of Christ but also his second coming, a time of judgement. That sense of reflection has been lost as Advent has become a time of excitement and anticipation.

The first advent calendars in the UK were gifts from Germany or Scandinavia or brought in by immigrants.  In the wake of the Second World War, there were examples of them being sent to Britain as tokens of friendship from communities on the continent. By 1956, there were being commercially produced and advertised here. Their novelty is indicated by the explanations of what they actually were.

Bucks Examiner,  16 November 1956

From 1956, the idea seems to have caught on and other producers, including charities, started selling advent calendars.

The 1950s was an important decade for the development of the British Christmas. It saw the first mass wave of working-class affluence and many parents wanted to give their children what they had never had.  Spending on presents rose dramatically and traditions such as Christmas trees, which had previously been concentrated amongst the middle class, spread across the social scale.

The appeal of the Advent calendar was rooted in how it framed and shaped the anticipation of Christmas. Whereas Christmas day was the beginning of the religious festival, since the late Victorian period shopping and other preparations had shifted the secular focus to the weeks before the big day. The enjoyment that children derived from this anticipation was a significant reward and motive for parents’ spending and the Advent calendar simply gave some shape to a feeling already there.

Chocolate advent calendars were being made in the UK in the 1950s and 60s but do not seem to have caught on and right through into the 1980s the standard British calendar was a cardboard sheet of festive images with a picture of the nativity scene on the 24th, its last day.  Cadbury’s did not manufacture its first chocolate calendar until 1971 and did not put them into continuous production until 1993. The fact that it was not until the 1990s that chocolate calendars become the norm is evidence of both how quickly new traditions can become established and how recent some of our Christmas practices actually are.

It is tempting to see the move to giving children a chocolate every day as another sign of the commercialisation of Christmas and ever growing levels of festive consumption. The emergence in of the past few years of luxurious calendars with toys and even food, drink and gifts aimed at adults has added to this sense and led to accusation that religious ideas are being ‘trampled on and colonised’.

Yet advent calendars of perfume or designer beer are not the norm and most in the shops are cheap and affordable.  Moreover, the primary function of Advent calendars remains their countdown to the big day and children probably get more joy from seeing Christmas get closer than from the small chocolate.  It is easy for cynical adults to forget the happiness that Christmas brings the young.

[2] Joe Perry, Christmas in Gemany: A Cultural History (2010), p. 166.

Martin Johnes is author of Christmas and the British: A Modern History (2016)

10 random facts from the modern history of Christmas

  • In 1914, Christmas caused a break in the fighting in many places on the Western Front but at home there was disagreement over whether it should be celebrated at all. In Burnley, a mill manager tried to stop the Christmas Eve tradition of halting work for a while for ‘a little jollification’ and was punched in the face for it.
  • The government has acted at times to keep Christmas special. The 1934 Betting and Lotteries Act outlawed gambling on Christmas Day. The 2004 Christmas Day (trading) Act prohibits large shops from opening at all.
  • In 1940 the government decided not to bomb Germany on Christmas Day, unless there was a German attack the day before. It did not announce the truce for strategic reasons but it still hoped to get credit for the decision and had feared looking bad in American eyes if the British carried out raids but the Germans did not.
  • Although many of our traditions date back to the Victorian period, it was not until relatively recently that they became standard practice. It was the 1950s when Christmas trees and turkey dinners became the norm for working-class families.
  • The Trafalgar Square tree has caused a number of political controversies. In 1958 and 1959, despite protests from the public and press, the police refused to approve its lighting after 11pm for fear it would lead to drunks assembling there. A ban on importing trees after the war meant the government had to give the tree a special licence, despite the risk of bringing disease into the country.
  • Cuts to Christmas day rail services caused problems for football fans and players in the 1950s. This meant a full Football League Christmas day fixture list was last scheduled in 1957. By 1960 there were no league games that day at all in England and Wales.
  • In 1959, the Queen’s pregnancy meant her speech was recorded for the first time. The BBC broadcast it at 9am and it was repeated at 3pm on ITV. At 3pm the BBC instead showed ‘Chipperfield’s Circus Festival’. The challenge of scheduling against Her Majesty meant that by 1961 both channels returned to showing the Queen at the now traditional time.
  • In 1966 the Royal Mail held a children’s competition to design a Christmas stamp. Some stamp collectors thought this undignified and wrote to the press to complain about the disgrace.
  • In 1968 the Queen and Prince Philip decided to write the Christmas speech themselves and their draft included a reference to Britain’s ‘serious economic difficulties’. The government was unimpressed and the sentence was deleted.
  • It was 1974 before Boxing Day was made a bank holiday in Scotland, a century later than England and Wales.

All taken from Martin Johnes, Christmas and the British: A Modern History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). 

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.

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.

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.
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.

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.



People, home movies and their ordinary histories

I spent my afternoon watching Christmas family home movies from the British Film Institute’s newly expanded archive player.

1937Not much happens in any of the films and the absence of sound adds a rather surreal feel. The people featured are not named. We can only guess at their ages and what they are saying. They are all clearly aware of the camera but they are also carrying on pretty much as normal.

Everyone gives and receive presents, they eat meals and play games and most people laugh and mess around a bit. There are some nice shots of living spaces, furniture and seasonal decorations and some touching hugs and thank you kisses. It’s all very ordinary. Although Christmas is the most unusual day of the year, some of what makes it special is just doing everyday things with the people you love.

Some of the films come from the same family and watching them in order allows you to see fashions in dress and furnishings evolve, adults age and lose their hair, and their young children grow into teenagers. A slightly grumpy looking grandfather appears in the first of the sequence but not in any of the subsequent ones. By the last one, his wife is in a wheelchair and looking frail. Christmas always reminds people of the passage of time but these films actually chart it, in all it sadness and joys.

There has been much talk online recently about the need for radical histories that challenge and confront the present. That is, of course, important but so too is history that is more mundane because, for most people throughout history, daily life has been just that.

People eat, drink, sleep, travel, work and play. They love and they lose. Histories of such things do not have to have a political relevance, a challenge or a lesson for the present. But they can remind us that the past, like the present, is about real people. As historians we make people into numbers, categories and classifications but they are still are individuals too and watching them celebrate Christmas is a vivid reminder of that.

My favourite of the home movies can be watched here:

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

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.