Season’s Greetings: Christmas in the Irish Popular Press

Newspaper columns decrying the commercialisation of Christmas are as seasonally-predictable in December as the arrival of tinsel and mince-pies. This is ironic, given that the popular press has, historically speaking, played a particularly important role in the development of Christmas as a commercial festival. It is not at all a coincidence, for example, that the season began to develop its popular appeal in Britain and Ireland – complete with the widespread adoption of decorations, gifts, cards and seasonal foods – at exactly the same time as the massive expansion of the popular press. Prior to the early 19thC, Christmas was little more than a minor date in the religious calendar for most people, and although banks and other offices closed for the day, for many manual workers New Year was a far more important holiday, and they worked on Christmas Day.

When its popularity began to expand rapidly during the 1830s and 1840s however, it was not as a date of religious significance, but as a secular holiday from work, until by 1875 not only Christmas Day but St Stephen’s Day were official holidays for almost all workers. Its increased prominence was marked by the purchase of trees, cards and other non-religious markers of the season. It was during the same decades that the popular press – spurred by improved printing technology as well as the reduction (and eventual abolition) of the stamp duty which had made most newspapers prohibitively expensive for ordinary readers – also began to expand. Not only newspapers, but journals and periodicals multiplied during the middle decades of the 19thC, as the market for mass media expanded and segmented, and competition for readers became fierce. And as the industry grew, it adopted Christmas as the pole around which the publishing year orbited. This began with the publishing of seasonal ghost stories (long part of a European folk heritage of winter story-telling, when cold and dark nights provided an opportunity for people to work shorter hours and gather together around the fire) as either expensive gift books, or in expanded Christmas ‘special issues’ of periodicals. Charles Dickens (whose contribution to festive traditions reached its zenith in the form of A Muppet Christmas Carol) not only wrote Christmas ghost stories, but also embedded the holiday into the rhythms of industrial publishing. As editor of the very successful periodicals Household Words and All Year Round, he developed the practice of publishing special Christmas double issues, with extra stories and competitions as well as a range of seasonally-themed articles, columns and jokes.

Just like their British counterparts, Christmas was also the most important time of the publishing year for the Irish press, with many titles producing special issues to mark the occasion. Story papers, in particular, tended to publish a double-issue with many more stories as well as other seasonal features. Although Christmas holidays were only two days for most ordinary workers, any holiday at all was significant in an era when most people worked six days a week. And a two-day holiday shared by almost all workers allowed for family gatherings complete with celebratory food and drink as well as family entertainments around the fireside. Special Christmas issues of story papers were designed to complement this by providing stories for reading aloud – the old folk culture of fireside story-telling reimagined for the industrial age.

Almost all commercial publications printed Christmas-themed material throughout December, even if they did not produce a special issue. The most common form this took were seasonal stories such as Clara Mulholland’s story ‘A Christmas Betrothal’ (Lady of the House, 1900), ‘Christmas Roses’ by Haddie McMahon (Ireland’s Own, 1911) and ‘Kilnahoura Cottage. A Christmas Story’ by Justin McCarthy (Irish Packet, 1903). There were also poems and factual articles, especially ones which dwelt upon the origins of Christmas customs such as decorating trees, carolling, or serving plum pudding.   Much of this was ‘filler’ material, as editors with twice as many pages as usual to fill sought out suitable copy. Some of this was bought from the syndication bureaux such as Tillotson’s Fiction Bureau who supplied stories, poems and other periodical content to publications all over the world at a range of prices depending upon the fame of the author and the word-count of the work. But the need for extra material at this time of year was also an important opportunity for lesser-known writers to get their material published, if they could produce competent, seasonally-themed copy in time to meet publication deadlines. Some of the jobbing writers and journalists whose work appeared quite frequently in Irish publications appear to have built much of their publishing career on producing the seasonal material necessary to fill out Christmas double issues. Maud Sargent from Cork, who published both stories and articles in a variety of Irish newspapers and periodicals over several decades, was an inveterate writer of these pieces.   She published short stories, such as ‘Xmas Eve in the Fairy Tower of Knockshee’ (Weekly Irish Times, 1895) and ‘The Banshee of Kildearg’ (Cork Weekly Examiner, 1899), and an array of themed articles, of which ‘Wren Boys in Ireland’ (Weekly Irish Times, 1901), ‘Holly and Ivy Lore’ (Irish Packet, 1906), ‘The Christmas Tree’ (Weekly Irish Times, 1906) are just a few. These articles were largely ‘filler’ material to complete the necessary extra pages for Christmas double issues, but by their nature they also helped to define and reinforce the secular rituals of the season – rituals of which the special issues were themselves an important part.

Story papers and women’s magazines in particular were also keen to suggest their Christmas special issues as gifts, with the clear hope that the recipients of such gifts might then be encouraged to buy the paper themselves in future. In 1908 for example, the editor of Ireland’s Own commented in early December of the forthcoming Christmas issue that ‘I want all my readers to do their part and help along the number to the best of their power. There is no doubt but that Ireland’s Own would form a most acceptable gift to friends across the sea. ..There may be some of your friends at home who are not yet numbered among our readers. Now is a most excellent time to enlist them as such.’ It isn’t clear how successful these attempts to boost circulation were, but it does indicate the extent to which the commercial press was entangled with the increasing use of Christmas as a festival of consumer culture rather than a serious religious holiday.

Not only newspaper and periodical producers, but also other branches of the printing and publishing industry had an investment in Christmas as a shopping season. Books were a popular gift for a wide cross-section of society, and at a variety of prices. As was discussed in a previous post, there was a voracious appetite for leisure reading of many varieties, but although books were no longer luxury items by the end of the 19thC, they would still have been a purchase of some significance for working-class or lower-middle-class readers, and would therefore have been welcome gifts. Many Irish book publishers advertised heavily in advance of Christmas, often stressing their suitability as presents. In 1903 for example, Blackie & Son (who were based on Talbot Street in Dublin) advertised a list of ‘The Best books for Christmas Presents and School Prizes’ in the Irish Figaro. The list included With the Allies to Pekin by GA Henty, and In Search of the Okapi by Ernest Glanville for boys, and The Handsome Brandons by Katherine Tynan and The Girls of Banshee Castle by Rosa Mulholland for girls. But of even greater importance to the printing and publishing industries’ investment in festive celebrations was the Christmas card. Like many other ways of marking the season, cards began to become popular in the early-to-mid-19thC, becoming more affordable and more varied as the century progressed. By the end of the century, the sending of Christmas cards was as widespread as it is now, with the Irish Times reporting in December 1904 that the GPO in Dublin had hired 300 temporary sorting staff to deal with the increased volume of post they created.

These cards were printed and sold by commercial printers, who were often based in the vicinity of the GPO where many publications also had their offices, and were themselves intrinsically connected to the wider world of bulk printing and publishing. Some of them printed newspapers and periodicals, but all of them also produced the posters, business cards, circulars and headed paper which were themselves central to the era of mass printing. Christmas cards were just another addition to the paper-saturated world of print-culture, but they were obviously a lucrative one for producers. In 1896 JJ Lalor, a printer on North Earl Street, took out a large advertisement in the Irish Emerald to detail the selection of Christmas cards he was producing that year. The list of approximately 100 different designs ranged from the relatively simple ‘neatly cut card, fancy border, leaf-shape embossed flowers’ priced at 6 for 5d including postage to the extremely elaborate ‘padded white satin Harp, oxford plush frame, white satin and gold corner, silk ribbon, gold strings, forget-me-nots’ presented in an individual box and costing 2s 9d each. The variety of cards on offer, and the size of the advertisement Lalor placed for them, indicates how important a market Christmas cards were by the end of the century.

The Christmas shopping season went hand-in-hand with the Christmas advertising season. The popular press, dedicated to keeping its cover price as low as possible in order to expand its readership, became more and more financially dependent upon advertising as the 19thC progressed. The newly popular Christmas festival, with an ever-greater number of seasonally-themed products attached to it each year, provided a welcome increase in advertising revenue during December, as manufacturers and retailers competed for readers’ seasonal spending on gifts and festive food. This encouraged newspapers and periodicals to ‘boost’ Christmas as an event by publishing themed stories or relevant articles, which in turn made it a more and more conspicuous event for readers, and encouraged them to buy more Christmas products. Thus the newly-fashionable holiday season and the newly-popular commercial press developed in tandem, each supporting the other in a rising tide of commodification.

As the 19thC progressed into the 20thC, the commercial culture of Christmas both widened and deepened, so much so that in 1904 the Freeman’s Journal remarked that ‘…even the least romantic of callings seem to claim kinship with the time. There be Christmas ironmongery, buxom gas fittings, pre-eminent pawnbrokers, and even the apothecaries’ shops set forth their festive boluses and fragrant mixtures “specially suited to the season”’. Far from criticising these developments however, this comment was made in a column headed ‘Christmas Shopping’, which surveyed the shops in Dublin and the special festive goods they were stocking. The Irish Times also ran such columns throughout December each year – it is likely that shops paid to be included in these surveys, although in a typical example of blurred lines between advertising and journalism, neither newspaper ever acknowledged this. In just one column in 1904 the Freeman’s Journal publicised Pim’s Department store as well as a jeweller’s and an upmarket grocer’s selling preserves, tea and ‘all sorts of liquors of the finest brands’. Women’s magazines eagerly described the winter fashions, ‘household hints’ columns gave tips on preparing Christmas food, and all of the newspapers reported approvingly on crowded shopping streets and colourful window display. From the august Irish Times, through to women’s magazines and the story papers for office boys, all of the Irish press participated enthusiastically in the Christmas season, and far from decrying its commercialisation, they were actively involved in its development from a low-key date in the religious calendar to being the biggest secular holiday of the year.

References:

Nicholas Daly, The Demographic Imagination and the Nineteenth-Century City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2015).

Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions:Leisure and Pleasures in Victorian Britain (London: Harpers, 2007).

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