A Londoner's Reflections On Christmas : Its Costs And Consequences
( Originally Published 1917 )
AFTER all these many days of rejoicing, what a change has come over London and the Londoners ! Gone, out of shop windows and houses, the colour, light and mirth of festivity. Gone, out of our hearts, the cheerfulness and gaiety that made even the austerest and most pompous of us commit all kinds of follies. It was no time ago that I beheld stout, elderly men and tall, bearded men, spectacled sages and grey-headed old fellows ; burning their fingers at " Snapdragon," and singeing themselves over the coloured candles of the Christmas tree, and vehemently pulling crackers, and themselves playing with the toys they had lavished on the children. And then how they laughed at nothing, and how they smiled for no reason, and how charming and affectionate they were to everyone—in a word, what an assembly of grown-up, irresponsible children !
But a very different assembly to-day. Not only is it a matter of back to work and responsibilities, but it is a case of recovering from last week's dissipations. Indigestion is about. Diets of Vichy water and plain foods are being rigidly observed. The odour of plum pudding is intolerable, the spectacle of a mince-pie unbearable; and who could believe that these taciturn, discontented-looking gentlemen in the tube, or in the elephantine motor omnibuses, or by the side of the fire, were beating drums and blowing shrill whistles, and otherwise rejoicing in grotesque paper caps a few nights ago ?
No ; the faces of fathers and uncles, and their tempers and their feelings, are now anything but radiant. Better leave father alone, and keep clear of uncle. They have had enough of folly ; they desire peace. It is even an effort for them to speak ; they want silence. And how early they retire to rest, and how soundly they sleep, and how loudly many of them snore !
Hush ! Let us speak in whispers, let us steal about on tiptoe, on no account let us laugh, and for heaven's sake don't let us bang the door. For the Londoners, after all these many days of rejoicing, are undergoing the inevitable dread reaction.
If father and uncle look exhausted and seedy, so too does the home. Despite the ministrations of the servants, the dining- and drawing-rooms have a decidedly tired-out and dissipated air. Pictures are crooked, through having been decorated with, and disturbed by, holly and mistletoe. Red and white berries have been stamped into the carpet, and the festoons or bunches of holly are shrivelled, and the mistletoe droops.
" Aggravating, filthy stuff that ought never to have been invented," cry the maid and the cook, both of whom are suffering from indigestion " something crooel."
Still, there were lively jokes about the mistletoe between the maid and the grocer's " young man " a dozen times last week ; and the cook informed her mistress she would never feel it was like Christmas and 'orne " unless she had a hand-some bunch of holly for the kitchen. But, alas ! the grocer's " young man " has cooled, and the temper of the kitchen is rebellious and stormy. The least reprimand—and an outburst. So let us avoid the housemaid ; and beware of the cook.
Even the nursery is indisposed. One might trust Ethel and Harry with a dozen boxes of chocolates, any quantity of oranges ; I don't believe they would touch one of them. And the handsome, costly presents we bought them and locked up in a dark cupboard until Christmas Eve, and then in the dead of the night bore stealthily into the bedrooms where the children at last lay asleep, their faces flushed with anticipation ? Alas : Ethel and Harry have already become indifferent to those toys; or, if they be not indifferent, they are not—well, active enough to rejoice with them. Not even this miniature motor car is put in motion. If wound up, it should pant noisily, very much like the real thing. But it panteth not ; it lieth on its side in a corner, disabled, abandoned. Then the baby aeroplane, whose first flights about the nursery aroused such shrill cries of delight : in another corner reposes the aeroplane, discarded, a wreck. And still and silent, too, is a fine, speckled chanticleer, which heralded Christmas Day with a resounding cocorico. Chanticleer has lost an eye. Chanticleer has shed a prodigious quantity of feathers. Worse still, poor Chanticleer will never, never cocorico again.
Very languid, very subdued are Ethel and Harry. Now and then, sighs. And occasionally such indictments as these :
" You've been taking the windows out of my doll's house."
" If I've been taking the windows out of your doll's house, you've been dropping sticky caramels on my motor car."
And languidly, wearily, to bed ; so that the nurse, short of temper like the cook, cries sharply :
Now 'then, be quick, and none of your nonsense, or I'll fetch up your ma."
In humble, dim homes the same lassitude.
Here, pJ course, there has been no elaborate, pro-longed feasting; and no handsome, fantastic toys have aroused the enthusiasm of the children. Still, an unusual amount of dusting, scrubbing and washing was done ; paper flowers and artificial sprigs of holly and mistletoe were requisitioned and up went the children's stockings on Christmas Eve—stockings very much darned, or in urgent need of darning. But, darned or no, humble stockings in humble homes were exhibited just as conspicuously as any elegant, silk stockings in spacious, prosperous houses and thin, pale-faced, struggling Mrs Jones slipped an orange and a cracker into the old, battered stockings when Billy " and " Maudie " were asleep—for mothers happen everywhere.
" If children didn't 'ang up their stockings once a year-well, they wouldn't be children at all, and their mothers ought to be ashamed of their-selves," declares a woman in a mean, confused shop in Hammersmith. " Confused because it is a newsagent's, a tobacconist's, and, further-more, deals in cough mixtures, needles and thread, lurid-coloured sweets, grim biscuits, sallow cake, and nuts, oranges, fireworks, candles and boot-laces.
" I 'ad three stockings 'anging up. And if they wasn't exactly-well, crowded in the morning, they wasn't empty neither, I give you my word," continues the woman.
"Can't do more than our best, can we ? " asks another woman. " As you says correctly, Mrs Jee, Christmas Eve and the children's stockings was meant to go together, and together they've got to be. I 'ad five of 'em up, and that didn't cost nothing. More than I likes to think of. But what's done is done. And it was done from the 'eart, and nice and tidy as well, I'm 'appy to say."
" Certainly, it don't cost nothing," assents the first woman. " As I said before, my lot of three stockings wasn't crowded, but they was stockings with something inside of 'em all the same."
Thus afterwards, light purses, indigestion, exhaustion ; but it has been worth it. And so farewell, admirable, cheerful, humanising Christmas ; and good-night, dear, excited, shrill-voiced children, who make us grown-ups, at least once in the year, gay, irresponsible and childish ourselves, in spite of our embonpoint and spectacles, our beards or grey hair.