Friday, 2 March 2012

A Chartist Christmas to one and all

“This is Christmas-day, but no holiday for me,” declared the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor in his 1845 Christmas message “to the Imperial Chartists”.
Writing in the 27 December issue of the Northern Star that year, he continued: “However, the work that I have to perform is of so cheering a nature, that I consider it is a valuable Christmas-box – more valuable than anything you could have conferred upon me. It is the work of praising you to yourselfs. In the outset, I wish you not many happy returns of such a day as many of you will spend, but I wish you many such happy Christmases as I hope and trust are in store for you...”
Chartism was at its height during the invention of the modern Christmas. The first Christmas trees were introduced into Manchester by German merchants in the 1830s, but would not become popular for another decade. The start of the penny post in 1840 enabled Christmas cards to become a seasonal feature. And the author Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in December 1843. The picture shown here is from the original frontispiece of the book.
As O’Connor’s message implies, most Chartists would have had little to celebrate and few resources to celebrate with in the 1830s and 1840s. These were desperately hard times (as Dickens would later title his 1854 novel about working conditions in “Coketown”), though ironically the mid 1840s were a relatively prosperous interlude between the wage-cutting that had engulfed the North of England in 1842 and the economic downturn of late 1847 and 1848.
At the beginning of the Chartist period, though, Christmas was a time when it was possible to hold conferences and public meetings with at least a good chance that working people would be able to attend. After all, even Scrooge gave his workers the day off on 25 December. So, on Christmas Day, 1838, for example, George Julian Harney was among the speakers at a “monster meeting” of 80,000 Chartists from the North East of England on Newcastle’s Town Moor.
As Chartism developed into a social as much as a political movement, Chartists began to hold celebrations of their own on Christmas Day – in much the same way as the Owenite socialists and other radical, often avowedly non-Christian groups. Local Chartist organisations would organise events at which with tea drinking, concerts and dancing took place, though in deference to the temperance sympathies of many Chartists, alcohol would have been a less common feature.
The historian Eileen Yeo notes that unlike Robert Owen’s socialists, Chartism faced both ways on religion, having both its own Christian Chartist churches in some areas and a secular, even anti-religious wing (“Robert Owen and Radical Culture” in Robert Owen: Prophet of the Poor, ed Sidney Pollard, John Salt,  Associated University Press, 1971). Harney’s address to Leicester Chartists at Christmas 1841 (reported in the 1 January 1842 issue of the Northern Star) was apparently “particularly felicitous in describing the cant of priests: roars of laughter interrupted parts of his lecture, wherein the farcical pathos of parsons was depicted”.
By the end of the decade, much of the mass support for Chartism had melted away in a mixture disillusionment and, for some at least, greater prosperity. However, even the politically serious Friend of the People (another of Harney’s ventures) marked Christmas 1850 by republishing in its 28 December issue an article from Dickens' Household Words on the non-Christian origins of Christmas regulars such as plum pudding, mistletoe and yule logs.
It concluded with a poem...
Hail! to the monarch without a stain,
Who reigneth a short but jovial reign!
Bring us a crown for his hoary head,
Form’d of the holly so bright and red;
Homage pay to his thirsty soul
In a draught from the mantling wassail bowl,
Hail! to the monarch: shout and sing -
Joy to the jolly Christmas king!
For now he is king on his frost-built throne,
We are the subjects he loves to own;
But difference none will he endure,
For he loveth alike the rich and poor;
And though perchance but once a year
Many partake of his lusty cheer,
Let’s scatter out bounty, that all may sing
Hail! to the generous Christmas king!
Oh! long may the Christmas rites remain,
To gladden each English home again;
May many a blushing maiden now
Yield to the mistletoe’s pearly brow;
May the Yule-log crackle and blaze once more,
And the carol sung as in days of yore;
May happiness reign, that all may sing
Hail to the jovial Christmas King!