The Spirit of Christmas Past

Listening to working class stories from the North West to rework ideas of Christmas

Christmastime, as most of us know it today, is primarily associated with family, friends, food and gift-giving. The need to ‘save and spend’ differentiates the modern Christmas from that of 100 years ago. The creation of waste from the purchase of short-life or single use products has replaced the practice of giving essentials to the poor and needy without expectation of receiving anything in return.

Some may feel that a loss of religious belief has resulted in these charitable values slipping and therefore the real meaning of Christmas no longer exists. I think it does and by using oral history in the archive we can pinpoint just how much has changed in the last century. If this allows a rediscovery of the underlying message of Christmas, it could in turn promote a return to goodwill and empathy, no matter what background we come from.

Image 1 – m68197 – Cinderella Club, Manchester, 1910 – Founded in Manchester at the end of the 19th century, the Cinderella Club movement was established to address the failure of church and government to support the working classes at Christmas.

Aspects of modern lived experience can create a stronger sense of belonging to our immediate circle rather than our wider society which, in these polarised times, may be important to change. Historically, Christmas has been a time for religious reflection and celebration.  Poorer communities were dependent on the church (as well as local government) and, as a result, spent more time strictly observing conventions and values.

As in Image 1, the upper classes felt this too, a pressure of polite society perhaps, when they created ‘Cinderella Clubs’. These were places where young children from the poorest communities could come and receive food, warmth and charity over the Christmas period. Beginning in Manchester in the late 19th century, they are a sign of philanthropy that could be repeated in times of austerity.

Image 2 – m16646 – Cheetham, Cheetham Hill Road, 1900 – The amount of snow in Central Manchester can be seen in the image taken in 1900. High embankments have had to be created in the centre of the road and pathways to allow traffic to move through easily.
Clip 1 – Taken from a BBC Radio Manchester interview with a local man who discusses Christmas at the turn of the 20th century in one of the poorest parts of Salford (23/12/1972). In this excerpt he compares the White Christmases of the time with his experiences of less severe weather up to the 1970s. (BBC Radio Manchester RMAN/1142)

North West Sound Heritage at Archives+ provides access to a rich oral history that can teach much about the lives of the working class in the region. Christmas 2019 as a time of reflection and change could be aided by hearing voices from the past talk about their experiences. One difference often mentioned is the change in weather.

Many of our oral history interviewees talk about the amount of snow in the region as well as the extreme cold. Poorer families will have struggled to cope with this due to poor housing, lack of warm clothing and proper sustenance. Hearing the speaker above talk about the clear shift during his lifetime poses real questions about climate change before it became a more widespread societal concern. Viewed in line with Image 2, it makes a real case for reassessing the way we spend at a time of year when we consume more than any other.

Image 3 – m79042 – Retail Fish Market, Manchester, unknown – The activity of a Mancunian fish market is captured in this image from around the turn of the century. One can imagine the bustle of the same scene at the height of the Christmas period.
Clip 2 – An excerpt from ‘Voices in the Crowd’, BBC Radio Manchester (18/08/1973). A ‘Fish Wife’ recalls the fun side of working in retail during the Christmas period at a market stall in Manchester circa 1910-20. (BBC Radio Manchester RMAN/1163)

The pre-Christmas rush is something we will all be familiar with. Busy shops, long queues and high levels of stress are common features, especially in large cities like Manchester. Those who quietly endeavour during this time are retail workers who have to stay calm whilst maintaining a polite demeanour.

The woman in the above recording speaks about her experiences on a fish market stall in Manchester, the difficulties of the role and how, in spite of this, she enjoyed working in the festive peak. It shines a light on a time when interaction between patron and customer could provide entertainment and pleasure for both parties. If adopted more readily today, this could minimise feelings of dread as Christmas approaches on both sides of the counter.

Image 4 – m55960 – Shops, Abel Heywood and Son, Stationers and Bookshop, 56-58 Oldham Street, 1910 – A snapshot of the famous Mancunian book sellers and potential customers window shopping. As described in the recording, the upper classes commonly bought Christmas gifts from shops like these.
Clip 3 – An excerpt from ‘Voices in the Crowd’, BBC Radio Manchester (30/09/1972). Peter Everett, a retired book seller from Manchester, recalls some of his clientele at Christmas. (BBC Radio Manchester RMAN/1105)

Another example from the archive of Christmas in retail comes from a bookseller active in the early 20th century. He describes the different types of clientele that used to frequent the shop, their buying habits and his experiences interacting with those from a completely different background. Some of his experience seems to be positive whilst others not so much. Both memories he mentions are nothing if not memorable. This again cements the importance of the human touch for both parties and the value of face-to-face interaction in an online world.

Image 5 – m59718 – Smithfield Market, Market, Goods presented by tennants of wholesale and retail fish markets to old folks home in Culcheth, Newton Heath – In a country with an aging population, it is very important to consider the needs of the elderly at Christmas.

Christmas as a season of hope for everybody could have far reaching implications throughout the year. For the final clip, a return to the speaker from the first in which he delivers a seasons greeting to listeners today. His clear message of being happy, thinking outside of the self and doing unto others what would be acceptable for you shows that, in the grand scheme of things, Christmas hopes and wishes haven’t really changed that much at all.

Clip 4 – Taken from a BBC Radio Manchester interview with a local man who discusses Christmas at the turn of the 20th century in one of the poorest parts of Salford (23/12/1972). In this second clip, he describes his hopes for Christmas in the future. (BBC Radio Manchester RMAN/1142)
Image 6 – m68413 – Manchester Central Hall, Christmas Delivery of Coal to the Poor, Manchester, 1930 – An example of Christmas cheer is shown here as bags of coal are donated to the poor. This occurred most commonly during periods of economic hardship such as in the early 20th century and 1930’s.

Blog by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Rights Officer Kirsty Jukes.

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