Article of the week: Our Christmas tree
11 December 2021
Steven Spencer looks at the way the Army presented itself at Christmas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
WHAT characterised a Salvation Army Christmas a century or more ago? The International Heritage Centre’s collection of Army periodicals gives fascinating insights.
A TEMPERATE CHRISTMAS
The Army has been committed to total abstinence since the 1870s and was embedded in the Victorian temperance movement. The traditional celebration of Christmas could be a riotous time, with heavy drinking a key feature of its celebration. The temperance movement set out to promote a Christian, teetotal Christmas in its place.
In 1892 William Booth commented on the state of Christmas celebrations: ‘The real old original Christmas … has been so thoroughly perverted and debauched as to make it a curse rather than a blessing… We should do better without any Christmas at all than with the social revelry which passes for it now.’
The Christmas issue of The Local Officer magazine advised the readers of its ‘Health hints’ column of the threat posed to the teetotaller by the temptations of Christmas. ‘Men who have signed the pledge and managed to keep teetotal right up to December 24th have often, on that date, yielded to pressure and flung self-control to the winds… There probably are, in every case, certain things which we know we are better without, yet we like them; and at Christmas we are more liable than at any other time to indulge and consequently to suffer.’
The hints then go on to give more surprising advice on avoiding the temptation to relapse into eating what it calls ‘flesh foods’. In this period The Salvation Army heavily promoted a vegetarian diet, and Salvationists were encouraged to ‘stick to your resolution’ in the face of friends urging ‘you must have a bit of turkey … it wouldn’t be Christmas without turkey’. It goes on to advise that ‘Yorkshire pudding, lentil or pease pudding [or] stewed macaroni … [can] so easily take the place of meat’.
A FESTIVE CHRISTMAS
The pages of Salvation Army periodicals are rich with advice and guidance on how to make the most of the Christmas period. By the end of the 19th century The Officer magazine recognised: ‘If at Christmas our hall remains dull and drab of aspect, and out of keeping with the general endeavour to embody the prevailing spirit of good cheer, it cannot be surprising if many of our own people should find their family gatherings and social reunions more attractive than Christmas meetings.’
Similarly, a 1904 article entitled ‘How to attract the Christmas crowds’ asked: ‘Can we not learn something from the world of business and pleasure that will help us on the question?’ Guidance was offered with suggestions for wreaths and drapery in the meeting hall. Thrift was the watchword here and advice was given to make wreaths from the discarded waste of evergreens and holly to be acquired by ‘an appeal to the friendly proprietor of an estate in the neighbourhood’.
A FUNDRAISING CHRISTMAS
The War Cry has had a decorative and eye-catching Christmas cover ever since its first Christmas issue in 1880, which carried black-and-white etchings of William and Catherine Booth. The first ever colour War Cry cover was for Christmas 1900, juxtaposing traditional European holly with a scene from India. The issues running up to Christmas carried advertisements for goods sold by the Army that could be purchased as ‘presents for Xmas’. In 1903 there was a full-page advert for books written by General Booth, a biography of his late wife and recent songbooks.
Christmas 1899 saw a page illustrating a whole range of articles available from the Trade Department, including singing clocks, slippers and mandolins. In 1911 Trade used its new, purpose-built premises on Judd Street to open its first Christmas ‘Giftorium’, where Salvationists could buy all their Christmas presents.
Such was the popularity of the Giftorium that in 1912 an advert asks the question ‘Will there be a Giftorium this year?’ and emphatically responds: ‘The answer is yes!’
Alongside the long list of toys that were available, the advert goes on to stress that, in keeping with The Salvation Army’s commitment to pacifism: ‘There will be neither guns nor fighting soldiers. The Army is against the kind of war that kills people.’ The 1912 Christmas Trade Journal even included images of Father Christmas shopping at the Giftorium for all his presents.
The 13 December 1913 issue of The Bandsman and Songster goes into detail about the Giftorium that year. ‘The showrooms of The Salvation Army supply stores are … tastefully and seasonably decorated… In addition to floral and rustic decorations, there is a fine representation of a waterfall coursing musically through a mountain crevasse. Another ingenious feature is the snow-covered windmill whose planes, illumined with multi-coloured lights, revolve by electric power. The good ship Santa Claus has arrived at Judd Street harbour with a cargo of excellent gifts from everywhere... The “rig-out” of the steamship, with its entirely marine setting, is very realistic. To port and starboard the lifeboats hang on their davits to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers, while members of the crew will give children a free swing in the boats… That good old mariner, Captain Christmas, paces the bridge… The SS Santa Claus can be boarded in the 1st-floor showroom.’
The Giftorium seems to have been a casualty of the First World War as it did not reappear in 1914 or afterwards.
CHRISTMAS TREE BELIEVERS
The theme uniting all these different Salvation Army Christmases is the celebration of Christ’s birth. The Local Officer in 1903 reminded its readers: ‘Do not let us regard Christmas as merely or chiefly as a time when we give one another gifts and eat, drink and are merry without stint… Jesus was born at Christmas. We are keeping his birthday. Let us then make him the central guest at our table.’
The 1889 Christmas War Cry carried a front cover illustration of the Crucifixion with a Christmas tree and the Christ-child in his manger. The article sustains a metaphor where the Christmas tree stands for Jesus and its cutting down for his death on the cross: ‘The Salvation Army have been Christmas tree believers for over 1,800 years. Our Salvation Christmas tree has never disappointed us.’
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STEVEN IS DIRECTOR OF THE INTERNATIONAL HERITAGE CENTRE