Update – December 5th 2012
Last night I took the old address book down in readiness for the annual Grogan Christmas Card Writing Ritual. For my poor husband it is something of a chore and probably the one time in the year when he picks a pen up and writes for more than ten seconds. Some of his old college friends, now in their late forties, get cards more suitable to a four year old, although he spends a little time on those few who actually still associate the Holy family with this time of year. I like to spend a little more time over it, choosing cards for individuals, but even I have to admit there are a number of people who are perhaps used to getting something from the end of the box from us.
Anyway, as I sat to write a blog post this morning on the very topic of Christmas cards, I remembered this one from last year. I hardly promoted it at the time but had some lovely tweets and comments from those who also enjoy Diary of a Nobody and appreciate the difficulties poor Charles Pooter faces at the festive season. I plead for forgiveness therefore as I re-post this, hoping that it can still brings a little festive cheer.
Christmas makes me come over all Victorian. Not for me the silver tree with black baubles or - horrors – the ‘tree in a bag’ from B&Q. No; short of lighting little candles on the tree and causing the first ‘Great Fire of Wellington’ I want a real fir tree covered with red and gold baubles, and decorations brought out year after year to please the kids. I want traditional crackers, all the sweets, nuts, mince pies, puddings, cakes and bearded (non Coca Cola) Santas; Christmas stockings, silly games, mulled wine and a festive feast.
Don’t get me wrong. I loathe the crowds grabbing at everything on the shelves to get the Christmas gift buying over as quickly as possible. I hate rows upon rows of cheap plastic toys and the Argos catalogue makes me come over all queasy. Shop staff are stressed and less inclined to spend time helping at this time of year and the new idea of asking at the till if I would like to add a pound to my bill ‘to help sick children’ is simply extortion by guilt in my view. However, with the room lights dimmed and the lights on the tree sparkling it is lovely to sit with a packet of peanuts and a glass of Bailey’s (OK, not very Victorian) and let the commercialisation of the season pass me by for a moment.
The BBC has a wonderful website to tie in with The Victorian Farm at Christmas. There are loads of hints and tips for a traditional festive season, none of which cost the earth. I will direct my friend Jo of SlummySingleMummy fame to the recipe for Wassail Punch (complete with ‘how to’ video), having experienced her attempts to concoct something similar at her Christmas party on Saturday. I am sure this brew will not end up tasting, as hers did, rather more washing up than wassail. I don’t know whether we will try any of the parlour games – getting my mother into ‘strange poses’ is likely to end up with a trip to A&E. However, the site is a mine of information on the history of Christmas and although it is quite clear that the seeds of the commercialisation we so hate in the 21st century were sown in the 19th, we could have stopped feeding them.
Another Christmas landmark for us – I posted our Christmas cards today. We used up every one of the sixty second class stamps we purchased last week, and there are fifteen to deliver by hand. By my calculation this is ten more than last year, so far from friends and relations ‘dropping off’ as we get older (I hasten to add we are only in our forties) we are acquiring new ones. However, I am not actually sure why we send so many cards. I am not being ‘bah humbug’ but I think we send to some people just to ensure that they don’t wonder if we are divorced, or dead. Some we have not seen for more than twenty years and there are relations whose married surnames I have completely forgotten. This year I have sent one addressed to ‘Cousin Barbara’, largely because I know I asked for her surname last year and am too embarrassed to admit I didn’t bother to write it down.
Discussions on twitter with tweeps @Amateur_Casual and @KithandKinUK (who blog at The Victorianist and Kith and Kin Research respectively) have recently encouraged me to re-read the fictional diary of Charles Pooter, resident of The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway. For anyone who has not yet read ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ by George & Weedon Grossmith (published as a book in 1892) I heartily recommend it, especially if as I do, you have a family history firmly rooted in suburban London. ‘What’s the good of a home, if you are never in it?’ states Pooter in his first diary entry, and he goes on to chronicle his rather tedious late Victorian life as a clerk in the City of London in pompous and unwittingly hilarious detail. He battles with impertinent tradesmen and cheeky junior clerks that don’t treat him with the respect he believes he deserves. He dotes on his wife, is infuriated by his son and for all his attempts at dignity the joke is inevitably always on him.
Anyway, Christmas is a source of some anxiety to Pooter, and thinking about the number of cards we have sent this year reminded me of this entry:
December 20.—Went to Smirksons’, the drapers, in the Strand, who this year have turned out everything in the shop and devoted the whole place to the sale of Christmas cards. Shop crowded with people, who seemed to take up the cards rather roughly, and, after a hurried glance at them, throw them down again. I remarked to one of the young persons serving, that carelessness appeared to be a disease with some purchasers. The observation was scarcely out of my mouth, when my thick coat-sleeve caught against a large pile of expensive cards in boxes one on top of the other, and threw them down. The manager came forward, looking very much annoyed, and picking up several cards from the ground, said to one of the assistants, with a palpable side-glance at me: “Put these amongst the sixpenny goods; they can’t be sold for a shilling now.” The result was, I felt it my duty to buy some of these damaged cards.
Haven’t we all felt in that position in a shop? I have all sorts of unused stuff bought out of one embarrassment or another. Pooter continues:
I had to buy more and pay more than intended. Unfortunately I did not examine them all, and when I got home I discovered a vulgar card with a picture of a fat nurse with two babies, one black and the other white, and the words: “We wish Pa a Merry Christmas.” I tore up the card and threw it away. Carrie said the great disadvantage of going out in Society and increasing the number of our friends was, that we should have to send out nearly two dozen cards this year.
Vulgar and politically incorrect Christmas cards are clearly not a new invention. Give me a Renaissance angel or chubby Santa any day.
The Diary of a Nobody has been dramatised for television, most recently in 2007 when the quite lovely Hugh Bonneville delivered monologues to camera as Charles Pooter. However, there is nothing quite like reading of escapades with red enamel paint, attempts to impress the Lord Mayor or Pooter’s inability to understand his sons engagement to the unsuitable Daisy Mutlar. It is not only wonderfully funny it is also a painfully accurate record of late Victorian manners and suburban self-importance.
So bring on the mulled wine, the carols and the turkey and all the trimmings. If I could cook the dinner in full Victorian dress without passing out I would. I realise that this is a tough season for many, but I love it and miss it when it is over for another year. So in answer to the question ‘What did the Victorians do for you?’ I say – they gave me the Christmas I always dream of. It never quite comes off, but in the next two weeks I will be trimming everything in an attempt to come close….