What was Christmas like a hundred years ago? Let’s look at the Cornishman newspaper in 1920 for a few clues.
Overall, it was generally quiet. At Penzance it was reported as ‘celebrated somewhat quietly’ while over and at Helston it also ‘passed off very quietly’. We might have expected that people would have been celebrating their recovery from the ‘Great War’ and the flu epidemic of 1918. But any hopes for the future were being thoroughly doused by the cold winds of a fast-approaching economic depression. This was throwing dock and coal porters, farm labourers, builders’ labourers, engineering tradesmen and local transport workers out of work, with the paper reporting that ‘men, women and children were on the verge of starvation’.
Nonetheless, in the run-up to Christmas, ‘very heavy traffic’ was reported by Penzance Post Office, with parcels up 20 per cent on the previous year. The Post Office was employing as many as 70 extra men in its Penzance district, which was useful (albeit temporary) help for the ex-servicemen taken on. Others had to wait to benefit from charities, such as the £38 raised by the Mayor of Penzance ‘to alleviate the distress and to bring a ray of sunshine to the dark homes’.
Christmas Eve had before the First World War been the principal shopping day. However, at Helston, the drizzle ‘kept the country people away’, while the ‘wet and the state of the roads was very inconvenient for yuletide shoppers’ at St Ives. ‘Nevertheless, the streets were thronged with holiday folk and some of the carollers were out and about’.
Parties of carol singers and brass bands were active in every town. Even at relatively small places such as Lelant ‘a few carol parties were about’ and the Lelant brass band was entertaining people by playing at various places in the parish. At Mousehole the carol parties were supplemented by ‘an old time carol service’. This featured early nineteenth century compositions from the great days of Cornish carols and ‘attracted many visitors from miles around’.
Carol singers were also out and about on Christmas Day itself, in addition to the usual Christmas church and chapel services. At St Ives in the afternoon and evening ‘the air resonated with sweet carols throughout the town (vocal and instrumental), and collections for charity’.
Boxing Day saw other amusements join the carollers. Although at Penzance in the early evening the rain ‘descended in torrents … making it impossible for anyone to find pleasure out of doors’, there were indoor alternatives. The Christmas pantomime of ‘Jack and Jill’ at the Pavilion was ‘crowded to its utmost capacity’, while the new-fangled picture house was also attracting good crowds. Meanwhile, the Penzance Rugby Club’s new ground at Treneere hosted a match against the ‘old rivals from Newlyn, which attracted a huge gate’, although unfortunately the paper didn’t think it worth giving the result.
The last word must go to the reporter at Camborne, who got quite carried away with his prose: ‘There were happy crowds in the streets at Christmas Eve; people with well-lined purses who purchased gifts for their relatives and friends. Mingling in the same happy throng were mothers with tears in their eyes. Their meagre dresses which were poor protection against the heavy rain, told too plainly a tale of poverty, and the ill-clad children clinging to their mothers’ hands presented a sad spectacle on such a festive occasion’.
Poverty and plenty, hunger and happiness. Perhaps Christmas hasn’t changed that much after all.