Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 20, 2024
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Christmas Cheer

Christmas past in the pages of the Gazette

Most of us think of Christmas in terms of the Victorian 19th century. We get all sentimental about bells on sleighs, top hats and overcoats, candles. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” was first published in a New York state newspaper on December 23, 1823. Santa Claus as we know him first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1863.

It is a religious holiday. Many of the stories we tell are about redemption, such as that of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843).

In commemoration of the Bible story, we also think about it as a time of gift-giving. Of course this has been utterly commercialized, as in the retail countdown of “shopping days” until Christmas.

I thought it might be informative to look at some 19th-century issues of the Picton Gazette to see for evidence of a Victorian Christmas in the County.

If it is mentioned at all, the holiday does not receive special coverage. The 19th-century publishers of this newspaper were far more stalwart than the current ones. There are several years in which the Gazette came out on the special day itself, 25 December. One wonders if they were actually cranking the presses late into Christmas Eve. The Hallowell Free Press edition published December 25, 1832 contains no mention of Christmas at all.

In general, the New Year is more important in these early papers.

The idea that the day is an important social occasion develops over time. It still arrives in the context of a “business-as-usual” world. On December 23, 1833, the publisher advertised that his regular reading group, “The Hallowell Lyceum” would meet on the evening of the 24th to discuss the question, “ought the present system of imprisonment for debt to be abolished?” (One hopes that they came to a seasonally appropriate conclusion). In 1856, the Mayor was elected on the 24th.

There are glimmers. The paper of 25 December 1857 notes, “To-morrow being Christmas, we publish a day earlier this week.”

On 19 December 1862, the only mention of the holiday is tucked away in half a column-inch at the bottom of the editorial page: “As we do not issue the Gazette again before Christmas, we take the liberty at this early day, to wish our patrons one and all a very ‘Merry Christmas.’”

The paper of 25 December 1857 notes, “To-morrow being Christmas, we publish a day earlier this week.”

Amidst these slivers of recognition, there are glimpses of playfulness and pleasure. The editorial of 24 December 1856 marked Christmas only by way of a weather report:

“We had convincing proof last Thursday that winter was upon us in earnest, the day was without wind, yet the mercury reached 20 degrees below zero. … On Monday evening we had a fall of snow of 6 or 8 inches, just sufficient to make the sleighing as good as could be wished. Yesterday and to-day our streets are full of sleighs from the country bringing in the good things so necessary at this season of the year; and supplying themselves with the needful goods of the merchants. Every thing betokens a merry Christmas. We hope our friends when enjoying the fat of the land will not forget the PRINTER. In our opinion nothing can add more zest to a Christmas Dinner, than the thoughts that the Printer may enjoy—his own.”

Said PRINTER may have already been keeping himself warm and festive if the number of typos in the advertisements on the front page is anything to go by.

A still short, but more fulsome, editorial greeting was made 20 December 1861: “As the Gazette will not appear again before Christmas day, we now take this early opportunity of wishing our patrons and friends, one and all, a very merry Christmas. Who does not enjoy a good Christmas feast, especially in the country where everything is to be had, and where the people have everything of the best quality? And who does not gladly and right joyously usher in a day long looked forward to with feelings of emotion? May none be disappointed. May their happiness be complete, and when in the height of their enjoyment, may they remember the early associations connected with the day they are commemorating.—This is important, and how few realize it.”

As was its custom, the Gazette of 25 December 1863 published a short story on the front page. They chose “The Two Christmas Eves,” By G. S. Stevens. It is a generic romance story concerning a young woman who rejects a suitor on one Christmas Eve, but gets the opportunity to reconsider the following year. Although one imagines readers relaxing on Christmas day and enjoying this read, is not especially “Christmassy,” except for some descriptions of the setting: “The winter snow lay piled deep in the streets. At evening the sleigh bells rang merrily out in the frosty air, and the lamps of the shop cast a bright light on the new fallen purity which covered all things. There were many pedestrians about, and the shopkeepers were gathering rich harvests from the disciples of good St. Nicholas.” (Read it complete here.)

By December 25, 1906, the short story was much more specifically a Christmas one: still a romance, but all tied to the season and its decorations: see “Polly and the Mistletoe” here.

It is not until the early 20th century that the idea of Christmas really takes off. This is when Santa Claus takes over from old St. Nick. By 1912, a time when advertising images of Santa Claus had taken over the December issues, a full editorial was dedicated to reflecting back upon earlier traditions, linked to fond childhood memories. There is nothing more modern than nostalgia.

Whereas the December 25, 1919 edition excitedly notes “It wasn’t a green Christmas after all.… Yesterday’s snow storm made sleighing for Christmas,” the modern age is upon us when we find an advertisement in the December 25, 1924 issue declaring, “SANTA CLAUS USES THE RADIO”! Apparently for the first time, children’s letters would be broadcast — and Santa would hear them. The C.N.R. Radio network also pointed out that the C.N.R. would lend Santa Claus an engine “if there is not enough snow for his reindeer…”

By 1924 special Christmas greetings feature across the front page, with a glamorous illustrations, and a Christmas Wish from the editor, explicitly quoting Dickens’s Tiny Tim, “God Bless us Everyone.” The Royal Hotel promised a lavish Christmas dinner for one dollar.

And so, in the tradition of the early Picton Gazettes, we take the liberty, at this early day, to wish our readers, every one, a very Merry Christmas and all the Christmas Cheer they could wish.

This text is from the Volume 193 No. 51 edition of The Picton Gazette
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