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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blog by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Rights Officer Kirsty Jukes.