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How the Victorians did their Christmas shopping on Kirkgate

14:25 06 December 2015

Is somebody hinting they’d like a new hat for Christmas?

Is somebody hinting they’d like a new hat for Christmas?

©mike cowling

Come back with us to 1899 to meet a trio of York residents preparing for their festive feast. Words by Jo Haywood. Photographs by Mike Cowling

Carolling under the Christmas tree at the Castle Museum in YorkCarolling under the Christmas tree at the Castle Museum in York

Joyful carolling at the Minster, crowds of shoppers on Coney Street, merry revellers tripping comically on the Shambles’ cobbles and Dame Berwick Kaler in polka-dot bloomers. Christmas in modern-day York is a fun if somewhat frantic affair.

But what was it like in 1899? Prince Albert had already introduced us to Christmas trees, homemade decorations (most of them fiercely flammable) and gingerbread treats (mind your dentures, Grandad), but was the festive season of the late Victorian era as exhaustingly jovial as it is today?

We caught up with three upstanding York residents as they made a few festive purchases on Kirkgate in the Castle Museum.

Eliza is a well-to-do lady who doesn’t leave the house without her lace gloves and an army of servants to carry her parcels; Dolly is a down-on-her-luck washerwoman who’d give anything for a tiny morsel of turkey (a sniff of the stuffing would do) and Barnaby is a buttoned-up butler who doesn’t feel comfortable with the frivolity of the festive season.

So what does Christmas 1899 mean to them?

Eliza Mistletoe

a wealthy mother-of-two who lives with her moneyed husband on The Mount

We’ve been preparing for Christmas throughout December. The servants in particular have been working very hard to ensure our feast is a success.

The children are very excited as they know they can be a little more relaxed than usual. Although, of course, bad behaviour will not be countenanced.

They see very little of their father normally and I am a busy lady with lots of visits to make outside the household, so it will be nice for them to spend time with us on Christmas Day. They might even get a toy this year – between them, not each; that would spoil them.

On Christmas Day, the servants will, of course, be making sure we are happy. But they get a break on Boxing Day. They’ll still have to get up early to light the fires and prepare our breakfast, but after that the rest of the day is their own.

They’ll also get a nice meal of our leftovers – a much better prospect than their usual fare and, perhaps, a little gift box from us – well, it is Boxing Day after all.

Christmas is a day for family but we won’t be celebrating on New Year’s Eve – no one really does. And New Year’s Day is a work day like any other.

Dolly White

a washerwoman who shares a single room with her husband and son in one of York’s poorest backstreet snickets

I’ve been making bits and bobs for my boy as best I can. He might get a peg doll or something made from a broken chair leg.

We’re lucky that people are so charitable at this time of year. We usually get an orange and some nuts. Just imagine – an orange! What a sweet treat for my boy.

I know some families can afford turkey or beef on their Christmas table but we’ll be having rabbit. How we get it is our business, so don’t go prying.

We live quite close together on the snicket so the children can all play together on Christmas Day. And we’ll have fun together as a family, playing games and singing.

The best thing though is that we all get the whole day off work. We’re blessed, really we are.

Barnaby Jingle

butler to Lord Fairfax at Fairfax House in Castlegate

I am top of the ladder when it comes to the serving classes which puts me in a very privileged position. I will still be working on Christmas Day, however, ordering the staff around and ensuring the family are completely satisfied with their celebration.

Christmas is a very long day. I will be up at 5am and will probably not see my bed again for at least 16 hours. Lord Fairfax can be quite demanding and if he needs me to pour his brandy at three in the morning, so be it.

I’m always the last to bed as I have make sure everything is ready for the morning, but at least I get a lie-in on Boxing Day.

We servants always spend Boxing Day together. We live and work in the house and are our own little family.

The problem with my position is that I’m essentially middle-management. I have to deal with complaints from the servants and complaints about the servants from the family. I suppose I’m not entirely loved by all the staff, but they dare not be anything other than welcoming on Boxing Day.

To be frank, Christmas is hard work for the serving classes and we are under enormous pressure to make it perfect for the family. Our priority is – and always will be – the family.

But we do let our hair down a little on Boxing Day, feasting on the family’s leftovers. It’s a treat to be sure, but we’re not used to such rich food and many of us will undoubtedly be paying the price of our indulgence in the ensuing days.

Many thanks to assistant curator of social history learning Lisa Coombs and learning facilitators Georgie O’Farrell and Mark Smith who gamely played the roles of Dolly, Eliza and Barnaby for us. They are all proper Christmas crackers!

Has Christmas in York changed much since Victorian times?

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