Irish Times Christmases: editorials from the archives

Joe Joyce mines The Irish Times Christmas archive from 1859 to 1952


1859: The young people are coming home to us

In its first editorial on Christmas, in 1859, The Irish Times set the pattern for many future ones

The young people are coming home to us. From school, or college, or busy life, they come once more to visit the old nest, and make us young again by the sweet infection of their cheerfulness.

Precious is the freight – the living freight carried on to us by ship or rail – radiant in health, buoyant in spirit, full of anticipated enjoyment of that holiday which comes only to youth. We long for the presence of those who are to push us from our stools, and to whose keeping our fair name is to be entrusted.

Gentle, and yet anxious, will be the questioning. What has been done? What has been left undone? How much better are they fitted now to endure the stern realities of life, than if Providence had taken us from them a long year ago. Nor will they be alone.

This is a season when friends who seldom meet greet each other once again. Old estrangements are forgotten, and Christmas is a season of mutual forgiveness as well as endearment.

So vast is the debt we all owe to the Babe born in a manger that, in comparison with it, those troubles which worry life sink into insignificance, and all is forgotten except that memorable song, “Peace on earth, good will to man.”

But when the curtains are drawn close, and the lamps are lit, and the fire bright, when the domestic animals bask in the genial warmth of our hearth, and the very air is redolent of comfort, if not of luxury, it is right and grateful to think of the homeless wanderers outside.

Many there are to whom Christmas brings no note of gladness, except the promises of an hereafter. Multitudes there are who look upon the anniversary of our Saviour’s birth as the tell-tale time of suffering and hardship. True is that saying, “The poor will never cease out of the land.”

True, also, this other, “The poor ye have always with you.” Much has been done, we know, but who can limit how much remains to do? It would seem that human endeavour to lessen human misery only opens up the fearful current of misery which runs for ever under the crust of society, and baffles all our zeal in exhausting it.

Poverty, sickness, death – three insatiable demons – rule in the lanes and alleys of our city. There is privation, cold, hunger, sorrow – much of it known, much also unknown to the rich.

Despair sometimes drives troops of unclad creatures from their festering abodes into our highways, but only he who is called on to administer what comfort he can give in the last hour of time can estimate the extent of the wretchedness which exists in the heart of this great city. […]

Think you, when your table is surrounded by glad faces, and the young whom you so longed to see, that your feast will be less happy, less joyous, less cheerful, if you think upon the forlorn being who cowers in the darkness outside?

Be hospitable, for the Master born at Bethlehem told you to be so, but in all our hospitality we should bethink us of the poor, and spare something of our abundance for the sake of Him who became poor for our sakes, and thus consecrated poverty for ever.

1884: ‘We hate Christmas – beastly time, horrid bore’

The newspaper’s London correspondent tried to distil the spirit of Christmas 1884, perhaps with the help of some spirits of the bottled variety

Father Christmas is at hand. The old boy is just around the corner. We wait his appearance with a pleasing fear.

We know he brings the proverbial good cheer; but we have also a suspicion that he brings doctor’s stuff for the dyspeptic.

He has sold us that way so often, you know, that we feel towards him pretty much as the Prodigal Son might be expected to feel had the forgiving parent put something that sickened him in the fatted calf.

We mean, however, to take our chances again, so we challenge Christmas to come on and do his worst. We are aware of his presence before we see himself – if such a bull may stand.

The festival is everywhere. It is in the air, in the streets, in the windows, in the markets, in the public countenance and carriage; we feel in ourselves, without having invited it, the spirit of the time.

A Londoner who knows London – and such is a rare bird – can see the Yule King coming, and mark every step of his march, from the first flutter of almanac and annual banners waving in front of the procession, to the bravery of the butchers’ shops, the uncertain fanfare of the midnight waits, the green and white glories of the mistletoe, and so on, to the thick rotundity of the plum pudding – that convivial cannon ball wherewith the treacherous Christmas shoots big votaries in the stomach and the last hiccup of the last victim who falls floored by the holiday. […]

Christmas, you can see it in transit from work to play. It passes into a new atmosphere, and you can mark the gradual change.

There is something contagious in the altered aspect of things. Everything seems brisker and brighter; there is vague but pleasant sense of partial relaxation.

We are on the verge of leisure and pleasure, and we already begin to nibble, and, perhaps, to peep, at both. […]

Some of us are inclined to remember it indignantly in Dickens’s epitaph that he made Christmas a good deal a season of sentimentalism and goody-goody enthusimusiness [sic].

However, we, generally speaking, feel good at this time – we have a hazy, agreeable idea of something pleasant ahead of us, and we don’t stop to examine what it is.

I think myself it is the everlasting child cropping up in us. But don’t run away with the notion that we are all in an attitude of welcome at the approach of the grand old cornucopia player.

Tens of thousands of us would scorn and despise ourselves could we by any possibility be betrayed into a silliness essentially pertaining to the odious vulgar.

We hate Christmas – beastly time, horrid bore. We must go to Paris, to Brussels, to Nice, to avoid the nuisance. And we do, at least we are apt to go as far on the road as our club or our pub, where we protest against the season in extra deep potions. We are a queer folk in this as in other things.

1905: Bees on Christmas Day

The weather at Christmas 1905 was spring-like but the retailers were not happy as revellers shed their furs and bees thought it was May

Seldom indeed in this fickle climate of ours has a lovelier Christmas been vouchsafed us. The weather was such as to bring back memories of midsummer frolics by the seashore or the budding exultant life of spring. It was a Christmas of radiant mornings, of mild and gentle afternoons.

Truly was the old order changed for those who on Saturday mustered in Grafton Street to see all their friends and neighbours and rejoice in the season’s greetings.

It was quite a spring scene. There was no frost to bite pretty noses, no snow to crumple under the tread of winter boots, no pretext at all for donning the cast-off wear of seals, sables, foxes, skunks or beavers.

But it was not a good day for business. Shopkeepers prefer a hard and frosty day, which drives home to the heart the delight of warm furs, and yet will not prevent the prospective wearers from venturing out to buy, or otherwise procure, them.

Your shopkeeper will have none either of your snowy days, for the weather therein maims its own use and purpose. The will to buy is there, but, alas, the slushy streets forbid.

And, the other extreme prevailing, we feel how beautiful and pithy is the adage, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”

The favours so genially bestowed on Christmas Eve were continued during the great day itself. Christmas dawned, as in ye olden time, amid the clamour of church and chapel bells.

Some were noisy clangorous bells, with apparently no mission save to create noise in the world; others dealt forth gentle melody, stealing softly over housetops, and through the city’s streets; others again simply tolled monotonously in placid announcements of the dawning Christmas morn.

We do not know whether our ear has become dulled and blunted since this time last year, but it did seem that the fog horns and steam whistles were less obtrusive than usual in their clamour.

If so, for that relief much thanks, and may it long continue. The last tramcars brought home some heavy and difficult loads, and “Auld Lang Syne” genially floated in the breeze at many a street corner. […]

[Christmas Day] was essentially a day for country or seaside walking, and many a man with a sluggish liver strode manfully forth to cover an appetite-raising 20 miles.

It is worthy of note, as illustrating the remarkable mildness of the day, that outside beehives, bees disported themselves gaily, in the fond belief that the merry month of May was at hand again. So, at any rate, they did at the Albert Model Farm, and people who passed through the grounds were much amazed at the sight.

All this blissful moralising may hereafter have its sharp sequel. However, sufficient for the day is the weather thereof, and of such Christmases as this we may well and truly write in epitaph “the more the merrier”.

1923: Christmas Day, a respite from ‘ambushes and shootings’

Christmas 1923 was the first after some nine years of wartime Christmases from the first World War through the War of Independence and the Civil War

Not for many years have people been so disposed to enjoy the Christmas as they were this year. At this time last year it was with trepidation that one ventured beyond the doorstep.

In the streets of Dublin, ambushes, raids, shootings, “hold-ups”– the hideous vocabulary is already coming less freely to the pen – were occurring thickly every day. In the country things were no pleasanter.

On Christmas Day there was, indeed, a respite from actual occurrences, but people’s nerves were too frayed for the freedom to be appreciable.

In the previous year there had been a Christmas of rejoicing consequent on the signing of the Treaty on December 6th; but there were still causes for apprehension, and, besides, people were feeling a reaction from the tension of the long preceding period of internecine conflict.

This year people had better chance to prepare with equable minds for a Christmas celebration untinged by the anxieties which had for so long beset us. Not everything was rose-coloured for all: there has been this winter a great deal of distress due to depression of trade and consequent unemployment. Even when resources are meagre, however, the frame of mind is all-important; and, generally, it was a happy Christmas – happier, so far as public affairs affect the matter, than people in Ireland have had for many a year.

Christmas Eve was a day of activity in the shopping quarters of Dublin. The pressure in the central streets and shopping resorts was not so great as on the Friday and Saturday of last week: it was rather a day of afterthought business and last-minute provisions.

Food providers were busy, and the fancy goods and toy shops encouraged a renewal of active purchasing by announcing drastic reductions in prices. First thing in the morning, in spite of a cold drizzle, the streets were already as crowded as at the height of an ordinary afternoon, and the more popular stores were busy almost from the moment of opening.

Towards midday the sun appeared for a while, and, although actual sunshine was brief, the rest of the day was mild and pleasant enough. Everybody seemed to be out of doors. Tramcars and trains in every direction were crowded. The night turned cold, and from the bay the sound of sirens and warning signals told of fog around the coast.

Early on Christmas morning a fine hoar frost made a glistening white on ground and roofs, and children, jumping out of bed betimes to see what gifts had arrived mysteriously beside their beds during the night, looked out on a world that was quite pleasantly in accord with Christmas card depictions. It was a brave little effort of the weather-ruler, and rejoiced all but the sluggard.

1952: ‘Sharp increases in the cost of living’

In his “Aknefton” political column trade unionist, and friend of Jim Larkin, Chris Ferguson noted how often conversations over the Christmas period in 1952 turned to politics

So it’s over – Christmas, of course – and even “Aknefton” felt mellow. Yet, I could not help noting in the bus, the hotel, the tea-shop, or the family party, how often the conversation turned to politics and how odd were the views expressed.

Certainly this “brass curtain” or “paper wall” that we in Ireland have erected around our little island seems to be most effective.

The world may be in a sorry state of convulsion: two big Powers may be dividing our globe in half, each cherishing the idea of a world dominated by its own particular philosophy, but why should Ireland worry? Maybe she isn’t part of the modern world.

One might think that sharp increases in the cost of living would induce a little realistic thinking.

Heaven knows that Government spokesmen have shouted themselves hoarse on the subject of the increased cost of imported raw materials and the, therefore, increased price of consumer goods. Yet, how often does one hear that: “It’s all a racket: they share it out among themselves.” [...]

Then there was the man who claimed to be a member of the executive of a very important Irish trade union. He was firmly convinced – and no argument would move him – that the recent electricians’ strike was caused because “they were asked to handle batteries that they oughtn’t to.”

Anybody who has ever glanced at a newspaper knows full well that the strike was caused by a demand for 1½d. an hour extra.

“There should be one union to one job,” he continued, “and all the workers in the job, whether they were fitters or carters or waitresses or clerks, should be in the one union.”

“What about ‘one big union’?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “why not?”

“But I thought you wanted a vocational set-up – one union to one job.”

“You’re caught there, Jem,” laughed his wife. “Lord, how the men love a bit of an argument!” […]

The conversation went to the general decadence, corruption and crookedness of everyone in authority – Deputies, Senators, local authorities and trade union officials. One little man, hidden behind a newspaper looked up and spoke for the first time. “When you have intelligent men at the bottom you’ll have honest men at the top.”

Aknefton felt that here was a true summing-up of the problem confronting democracy – how to produce the intelligent men at the bottom who would, in turn, bring forth the honest men at the top.

Even before Plato that question was in the minds of man. It is a most pertinent one in the modern world, and do not let us forget that Ireland is part of this world, however near she may be to heaven.