Your Guide to Christmas in 1884

It can be tricky to navigate the maze of gifts, food, entertainment, cards, and relatives that make up Christmas – how can you know for sure you are making the perfect purchasing decisions? This month’s Special Collections blog post picks the best bits from the 1884 Pall Mall Gazette Christmas Extra Edition, which offers the definitive answers to your festive dilemmas.

Front page

Gifts

If you’re struggling to find an appropriate present for your hard-to-buy-for aunt, look no further. The Pall Mall Gazette has the complete guide of what to buy for whom, along with some recommendations for the most fashionable gifts of the season. The Gazette notes that “poodle paper weights have already attained to a great popularity”, as have “weapon shaped thermometers”, particularly the battle-axe design.

Whoever you are buying for, you certainly can’t go wrong with a book. Books are universally popular and reasonably priced – indeed, “a bookworn calculated some years ago that you could buy every book worth reading that came out in the year for the cost of the keep of a carriage and pair”. The Gazette suggests that “loyal subjects” might want to purchase patriotic books such as ‘My Holidays in the Highlands’ by Queen Victoria.

The Gazette also provides extensive guidance on the matter of Christmas cards. Snow-covered houses and robins are out, but there is still a huge variety to choose from: “cards printed on ivory, on gelatine, on satin; etched cards, photographic cards, cards of seaweed, ferns, natural flower,” and more. Whatever type of card you choose, there is one essential: “the hearts of the fair ladies who receive them must be taken by storm”. For Christmases yet to come, “the Christmas card of the future is to be the photograph, which never fades, and remains a thing of joy and beauty forever.” For the time being, however, you can’t go wrong with this season’s favourite comic card: Mr. Frank Paton’s design of dogs at dinner.

Cards 1

When going out to shop for Christmas gifts, be prepared to contend with crowds and carry your many purchases. The Gazette notes that “some prudent families take a perambulator for the purpose” of transporting their newly bought gifts around the busy streets. Of the many shops in London, the Gazette writes that: “You may get almost everything – for money; and if you have no money you may at least see everything without paying for the sight, and that goes a long way for some people.”

Childrens’ Gifts

The Victorians were very fond of children’s books, and this is reflected in the Pall Mall Gazette’s recommendations. They emphasise foundational collections of fairytales and epics, as “no better gift books can be suggested for intelligent children than those of beauty and of romance that have fascinated the human mind from the infancy of our race.” Not only will the recipient be immersed in a world of reading and imagination, there is the added benefit that “you may enjoy Christmas, knowing that you have done a good work.”

If books don’t appeal, there is always a back-up option – after all, “where exists the family of rollicking youngsters in which the rocking-horse does not prove a much prized present?”

Entertainment

All sorts of festive entertainment are available to the Pall Mall Gazette reader, not least the short stories contained in the magazine itself:

  • The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Nuggets and Dust, or, a thought reader’s Christmas
  • When thou makest a feast: a story for the charitable

Other games and activities to enjoy at home include magic tricks, Christmas crackers, and Mr. John Ruskin’s recent Oxford lectures.

Outside the comfort of the home, the best entertainment is undoubtedly found in the theatre. The Gazette offers a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations for Drury Lane’s performance of Dick Whittington, costing £12,000. We even obtain a peek into the requests made for the clown’s act. “Please get ready for me the following,” he writes:

  • One large eel, six inches thick.
  • Six codfish, large and stiff, with strings from flies to take them up.
  • Eight lobsters, dead (ie red).
  • Eight lobsters, alive (ie blue).
  • Six crabs.

If you do intend to be out and about during the Christmas season, it is essential to follow fashions. In particular, “for the ballroom there is but one single fabric which reigns supreme, and that fabric is tulle.”

Food

Be sure to prepare your Christmas dinner with only the best, and to look glamorous while doing so in the latest aprons and caps. You can even get a personalised Scotch shortbread, with a message to a loved one written in peel or sugar.

Social Conscience

Among the adverts and fashion, the Pall Mall Gazette interestingly finds space to consider the social and ethical aspects to the choices people make leading up to Christmas. It criticises businesses which participate in the slave trade or treat workers poorly, writing that those working in shops “deserve more consideration than they generally get” and calling on its readers to boycott shops that don’t allow employees breaks. It celebrates its own employees, particularly its female researchers: “we are proud to say they are ladies – indefatigable, tenacious, unwearying”. The Gazette mixes its undeniable and often comical consumerism with moments of social conscience – a surprising and admirable choice.

Thank you for reading. St John’s College Library wishes all readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Santa

You can explore thousands of issues of the Pall Mall Gazette on the British Newspaper Archive, including an ‘On This Day’ feature, or the Gale Group.

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