Sunday 11 December 2011

Christmas For Sale

In anticipation of the liberal expenditure of ready cash - the most interesting consideration of the season to a London trader - and which expenditure every shopkeeper is dutifully anxious to engross as far as possible to himseld; a thousand different persuasive devices are already placarded and profusely exhibited. "Christmas presents" forms a monster line in the posters on the walls and in the shop-windows. Infantine appeals in gigantic type cover the hoardings. "Do, Papa, Buy Me" so-and-so; so-and-so being blotted out in a few hours by "The New Patent Wig," so that the appeal remains a perplexing puzzle to affectionate parents, till both are in turn blotted out by a third poster, announcing the sacrifice of 120,000 gipsy cloaks and winter mantles at less than half the cost-price. Cheap Christmas books are a part of every bookseller's display; Christmas fashions fill the drapers' windows, and stand on full-dressed poles in the doorways. There are Christmas lamps, lustres, and candelabra; Christmas diamonds made of paste, and Brumagem jewellery for glittering show, as well as Christmas furniture for parties and routs, to be hired for the season-carving, gilding, hangings, beds; everything which, being wanted but once a year, it may be cheaper to hire than to purchase or to keep on hand.
    The slopsellers especially are in a state of prodigious activity, taking time by the forelock, and pushing their unwieldly advertising vans out in every direction, freighted with puffs of their appropriate Christmas garb - Hebrew harness for a Christian festival. These are a few of the broad palms thus early stretched forth to catch a share of the golden shower about to fall.
    But these and such as these are very minor and subordinate preparations. Eating and drinking, after all, are the chief and paramount obligations of the Christmas season. As the month grows older, the great gastronomic anniversary is heralded at every turn by signs more abundant and less equivocal. Among the dealers in eatables, one and all of whom are now putting in their sickles for the harvest, the grocer, who is independent of the weather, leads off the dance. Long before the holly and the mistletoe have come to town, he has received his stock of Christmas fruit, on the sale of which, it may be, the profit or loss of the whole year's trading is depending. For months past, he has been occupied at every leisure hour in breaking to pieces the rocky mass of conglomerate gravel, dirt, sticks, and fruit which, under the designation of currants, came to him from the docks; and it is not before lie has got rid of near half the gross weight, that the indispensable currants are fit to meet the eye of the public. This is one of the nuisances of his trade, and forms a ceremony which, as every housekeeper knows well enough, is but indifferently performed after all. The currants, tolerably cleaned and professionally moistened, occupy a conspicuous place in his window, along with the various sorts of raisins- Sultanas, Muscatels, and Valencias - dates, prunes, and preserves in pots, and candied lemons and spices, built up in the most attractive and gaudy piles and pyramids, edged round with boxes of foreign confections, adorned with admirable specimens of the lithographic art, and all ticketed in clean new figures at astonishingly low prices. The gin-shops, or, to speak more politely, the wine-vaults, now begin to brush up. They wash and varnish over their soiled paint, cleanse the out-sides and decorate the insides of their faded saloons; and concocting new combinations of fire-water, prepare for thirsty poverty new incentives to oblivious intemperance. Every third-rate inn and back-street public-house is the centre and focus of a goose-club, the announcement of which stares you in the face twenty times in the course of a day's walk. They owe their existence to the improvidence and want of economy of the labouring and lowest classes. A small weekly sum subscribed for thirteen weeks, entitles each subscriber to a goose; and by increasing his weekly dole, he may insure, besides the goose, a couple of bottles of spirits. The distribution of geese and gin takes place on Christmas-eve; and in large working establishments, where the goose-club is a favourite institution, and where, for the most part, the innkeeper is not allowed to meddle, the choice of the birds is decided by the throw of the dice, the thrower of the highest cast having the first choice. We will drop in at the hour of distribution, and witness the consummation of one of these affairs.
    But time rolls on, and the great cattle-show in Baker-street has come off. The pig of half a ton weight has held his last levee, and grunted a welcome to the lords and ladies of the aristocracy, and to hundreds of thousands of less distinguished visitors. The prize animals are all sold, and marched or carted off to their new owners. The periodical insanity of the butchers has been developed as strongly as ever. The love of fame glows beneath a blue apron as fiercely as beneath a diamond star; and determined to cut a respectable figure in the carnival which is approaching, Mr. Stickem does not hesitate to purchase a beast, which he knows well enough will hardly cut up for five-and-thirty pounds, at the cost of seventy. What of that? The bubble reputation outweighs the love of lucre, and if he is satisfied with his bargain, who shall complain? Happy is the butcher who has been enabled to purchase a prize-ox; he is not disposed to hide his candle under a bushel. If he have room in front of his shop, he will tether his dear bargain, during the short hours of daylight, to a post in front of his doorway-where, a good fat ox being a special favourite with the public, lie is patted and petted by them as they stop in groups to admire his vast proportions. The unwieldly beast, ornamented with ribbons and favours, gazes moodily around him, now plucks a mouthful of hay, and now utters a sonorous bellow - a lament for the pastures of his calf hood.
    Let us now transport ourselves to Covent-garden on the eve of Christmas-week. It is late on Friday night, and to-morrow is the last Saturday's market before Christmas-day. The market, which for the last two months has been redolent of the damp odour of the sere and yellow leaf, is now to blossom for a few short hours with renewed brilliancy. The bells of the city have not yet struck the hours of midnight, when from the various avenues which lead into Covent-garden, the sound of wheels is heard on all sides, and a continuous stream of carts and waggons pours into the open space, which, in less than an hour, is rendered impassable to any but adventurous foot passengers. At the first glance, the whole burden of the numberless wains appears one mass of evergreens; it looks as though Birnam Wood had actually come to Dunsinane. Immense quantities of holly and fir, with here and there a bough of laurel, show the demand of the Londoners for winter verdure. The mistletoe-bough, which has hung like an inverted goose-berry bush from the old apple-tree all the summer long, and a fine specimen of which is good at this nick of time for half-a- guinea, to say nothing of the kissing, which we don't presume to value, appears this year in quantities truly enormous, and, we should think, unprecedented. The market now presents a noisy and interesting spectacle. The bawling and roaring of drivers, the backing of wails to make room for privileged new-comers, the chaffering of dealers, who are not at all angry, passionate as they seem, the grappling feet of horses, and fifty minor sounds, perplex the ear, as much as the dim vision does the eye, of dark figures flitting rapidly about hither and thither, by the light of a hundred lanterns constantly dodging up and down, and the steady glare of the gas overhead. In the midst of all this apparent confusion, however, business is doing and done by wholesale. By three or four o'clock, a good half of the various wares, prickly as well as palatable, brought to market, are transferred to new proprietors, and are already off, most of them without breaking bulk, to different quarters of the town. Long before the dawn, the din has ceased altogether, and the cause of it has vanished. The traders of the market are mostly on the spot before four o'clock, and are now active in preparing the show of winter fruit, which is to adorn the tables of the wealthy in the coming festival. Before ten o'clock, the arcade is in trim for visitors and customers, and a tempting array of all that the depth of winter can produce is ranged in artistic order. There are apples of all hues and sizes, among which the brown russet, the golden bob, and the Ribston pippins, are pre-eminent. Among the pears are the huge winter-pear, the delicious Charmontel, and the bishop's-thumb. Then there are foreign and hot-house grapes, transparent and luscious; large English pine-apples, pomegranates, brown biffins from Norfolk, and baskets of soft medlars; Kent cob-nuts, filberts and foreign nuts of outlandish shapes, all gaily mingled and mixed up with flowers of all hues, natural and artificial, and both, and neither; bouquets of real grasses tinted to an unreal colour, immortelles that were never green, stained into evergreen; weeds and wayside flowers dried to death, and then dyed of various hues to live and blossom again, scented with delicious odours which nature never gave them; flowers cut from coloured paper, flowers modelled in wax, flowers of tinted cotton fabrics, flowers carved delicately from turnips and beet-root- all in bright and brilliant contrast with the dark-green holly and the sere and russet hue of the winter fruit. Notwithstanding this artificial attempt at colour, the show is, on the whole, much more suggestive to the palate than captivating to the eye. You cannot help noticing a prodigious number of sapling firs, some transplanted into pots, and trained, cropped, and clipped into regular shapes for Christmas-trees; most of these are sold naked as brought to market, but some few are loaded with fruit, oranges, lemons, and clustered grapes, and liberally adorned with imitative flowers and wreaths. The confectioners purchase these trees, and load the branches with choice delicacies under various disguises, and will present each member of a customer's family with an appropriate token of affectionate remembrance. This practice of plucking fruit from the Christmas tree, which is growing more and more prevalent in English families, is of German origin, and is said to owe its increasing popularity in England to the custom of the, royal family, whose Christmas-tree is pretty sure to be fully described in the fashionable journals.

Charles Manby Smith, Curiosities of London Life, 1853

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