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In Days of Christmas Green

By T. L. EVANS, B.A.

Christmas in 1868 was heralded early in December by advertisements in the Carmarthen newspapers which offered an abundance of good things to ensure a festive season. There was, for instance, the invitation to visit Thompson & Shackell's shop in Guildhall Square and inspect Dressing cases, Travelling Despatch Desks, Pocket Books, Book Slides, the new game of Besique, Patent Perfume Pistol, Fan Expanding Almanack, the original Mrs. Gamp's Umbrella Needle Case, The Zoetrope or Wheel of Life (reduced to 3s 6d), the Fez Pen Wiper, Animated Clowns & Jumping Jim Crows, a One Donkey Power steam Boat (for 10s 6d), plus Christmas Tree decorations like filled acorns, Eggs and Walnuts, Perfumed Grapes, Perfumed Opera Glasses, Fruit Soaps, and Baskets, Rimmel's Magic Crackers each containing some article of clothing such as Nightcap or Fool's Cap, and to keep guests or children amused, magic lanterns and Bagatelle Boards could be lent or hired. Rees Evans, Guildhall Square advertised Christmas fruit—currants 3d to 4½d, raisins 3½d to 5d, lemon, orange and citron peel 1s a lb., figs, muscatels and French plums also 1s a lb. Good cheer could be obtained from Brigstocke's in St. Peter's Street, where good dinner Sherry cost 2s 4d a bottle and Port 2s 5d, Champagne from 32s 0d a dozen. Tea was not the drink of the lower classes; they had to rely on beer. Tea varied in price from 2s 4d to 4s 8d a lb. Wages were low — a weekly wage averaged between 8s 0d to 17s 0d (in the November hiring fair male farm servants were hired for £15 to £20 a year). Ladies with money could visit the new show-rooms of D. & W. Davies, 1 & 2 Guildhall Square, where they could buy an elegant assortment of Novelties in Bonnets, Caps, Wreaths & Artificial Flowers, Trimmed & Sealskin Hats & Bird Hats (no prices were given).

The Waits went round singing carols on Christmas Eve and got short shrift from many an indignant householder, if one is to believe the letters printed in the Carmarthen Journal. One old Carmarthen tradition on the eve of Christmas was a firework display in Guildhall Square with squibs, crackers and roman candles. On this occasion (1868) a rocket broke a window and set fire to a blind in the upper storey of a shop. It was a rainy night and it was reported that the display was not so good as last year when the traditional lighted tar barrels were dragged through the streets. There was a good deal of hooliganism masquerading as Christmas spirit and it was suggested that the firework display be held in the Cattle Market. There is no reference to any Guy Fawkes firework display in November. According to Mayhew, in his book on London (1851), the character of Guy Fawkes day had entirely changed, it being an occasion for the parade of gigantic effigies and clowns, with musicians and dancers to accompany them, the guy being made to represent any celebrity of the day, but bonfires and fireworks were seldom indulged in. Possibly the Christmas Eve fireworks replaced the November display in Carmarthen.

On Christmas Day there were services in all churches (obviously in all places of worship, but the local papers did not give details of the services in the chapels). As usual the Mayor and Corporation attended divine service at St. Peter's. At half-past-ten "an immense number of inhabitants of the town assembled at the Guild Hall to pay their respects to his worship (John Lewis) and accompany him to church. The Volunteers also of which he is an officer mustered under the command of Capt. Browne Edwardes and the Militia Band gave their services. After partaking of the Mayor's hospitality of biscuits and wine, the procession was formed and headed by the band walked to St. Peter's Church which was completely filled. Morning Service was read by the Vicar after which the sermon was preached by the Lord Bishop on 2nd Chapter of St. Luke and 7th verse. The musical portion of the service was conducted by Mr. Ap Rhys; the Christmas Anthem 'Behold I bring you glad tidings' was sung by the choir". All the churches and chapels were full for Christmas service.

As was the custom, all Churches were decorated in greenery — it was a Green Christmas not a white one, not at all like the present day Christmas card view of Victorian Christmas accompanied by snow. Snow was not that regular at Christmas, at least in Carmarthen. According to Mr. Watts, Schoolmaster of Water Street, Carmarthen had only one day with snow in 1868 and twenty-six days with rain in December, which was equally wet in Cardiganshire, where a local rhymester was moved to write:

"The South Wind always brought wet weather,
The North Wind wet and cold weather,
The West Wind always brought us rain,
The East Wind blew it back again,
If ever the Sun in red did set,
The next day surely it would be wet,
And if the Sun should set in grey,
The next day would be a rainy day".

But the following year there was a brief spell of snow just before Christmas and this gave an opportunity to the then Mayor to try out a Christmas gift from his timber agents in Canada, namely a Canadian sleigh, perhaps the first and last time that such a mode of transport was seen in Carmarthen streets.

Churches Like Theatres
To return to the Church interiors — they were a riot of decorations and texts, so much so that one indignant Church-goer wrote to the paper that the Churches looked like theatres. The decorations in St. Peter's were supervised by Mr. Armstrong and Mr. J. Buckley. Along the wall of the north aisle was displayed the text "I am the way, the truth, the life" and opposite, bordering the pillars "Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world". In the south aisle there appeared "Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given" and "Thou art the King of Kings"; in the chancel over the window, "Glory to God in the Highest"; above the communion table, "The word was made flesh and dwelt among us"; around the chancel arch, "Arise. Shine for the light is come" in blue, red and gold letters. The pulpit panels were inlaid with crimson velvet and decorated with crosses and double triangles. The interior was one mass of holly, berries, everlasting, laurel and flowers.

At St. David's Church the interior was also decorated. Over the south door was the text "Ac Eilwaith y dywedasant aleluia"; on the adjoining wall by the font, "One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism"; over the wall of the transept, "In Him was life and the life was the light of man"; under the west window a large crown surmounted by "Alleluia". The pulpit and reading desk were fringed with holly berries and adorned with crosses and double triangles. Within the altar was a gothic screen of evergreens and above in red letters bordered in holly "I bring you glad tidings of great joy". The Font was nearly hidden in holly, crosses, flowers and berries. The walls were literally covered with banners, crosses and ecclesiastical devices.

St. Mary's Church in Union Street was equally well decorated. The walls were festooned with holly garlands, and there were bunches of evergreens under the gaseliers. Over the altar was the text "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" in berries on a white ground; over the Blessed Sacrament, a fine canopy, richly interlaced with gold and behind the image of the Virgin Mary, 'Maria' in white. There was a brilliant array of lights in the sanctuary. On Christmas night there were Solemn Vespers and Benediction.

The detail given shows how bright and cheerful the interiors of Carmarthen churches were during the Christmas season. Many homes, too, were bright with good cheer; besides traditional dinner of roast beef and plum pudding, there were gaily decorated Christmas trees. The Christmas tree was the pine tree, mentioned in a German folk song from Swabia as the faithful tree of the forest, possibly because of the evergreen appearance in bleak mid-winter, unlike the stark bare branches of the deciduous oak, ash and elm. In a Christmas version of 'O Tannenbaum' it is addressed, "Oh, Christmas Tree, in Winter's bitter snow, how faithful are thy branches".

On December 31st a Grand Christmas Tree (Bazaar) was held in the Assembly Rooms (on the site now occupied by the Lyric Cinema) in aid of the fund for St. Peter's new School-Church in Priory Street (now housing Priory Street School — but the pictorial stained glass window at the east end indicates the building's former dual purpose). This was the first occasion of this popular annual event, which was later held for very many years in the Church House in Nott Square. At the original event there were two trees, with many stalls and refreshment — the purchase of a biscuit entitled one to a glass of sherry, port or champagne! It is no surprise to learn that a sum of £142 was raised. A musical programme included the first appearance of the new organist at St. Peter's, namely C. Videon Harding from Leeds.

The Lot of the Poor
The better off enjoyed grand fare, boasted a well decorated Christmas tree, exchanged festive gifts in convivial drawing rooms, gas-lit and cosy. Even the poorly paid lower orders were able to enjoy themselves. There were schemes such as the St. Peter's Visiting Society & Benefit Club for saving during the year; the Club had £112 for distribution in 100 homes. But it must have been very difficult for farm labourers, working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for a wage of twelve shillings a week, to save. The working classes of the town (the Tinworks were the main employer) could save for Christmas cheer and in addition they were able to pay a penny or twopence a week to educate their children (using slates, but writing books cost extra). However, there was a still lower class for whom Christmas was a cheerless time. These were the people who could not afford a penny a week and for them there were collections in town for the support of the Ragged School and Chapel held in a warehouse. Soup kitchens (three times a week) provided soup, bread and coal for paupers (many too old to work).

For the helpless, the weak and utterly destitute the unwelcome refuge was the Workhouse, where life was made as unpleasant as possible. Families and children were segregated — at this time there were 36 children in the Workhouse who were segregated from the rest of the Town's children and had their own Schoolmistress. Life for the sick and destitute can be imagined from the report of Dr. E. Smith in 1868: " . . . the sick wards had openings with iron gratings covered with shutters, ventilation aided by circular holes in the ceiling, but in some wards even these inefficient means do not exist. The water closet accommodation was very defective and offensive. There are not any fixed baths. The bedsteads are of iron with rigid laths and beds of straw. There are a few old chairs and benches but there is not much furniture. There are tin wash hand basins and two towels are supplied to each ward twice a week. Tin plates and pannikins are provided for the sick. There is not a paid nurse" (one was appointed in 1869 and she was expected to help with the cooking). A dismal picture, but, according to the local press, on Christmas Day at the Workhouse the "inmates were regaled with the annual dinner of roast beef and plum pudding. The Master and Matron spared no exertion to make happy those under their charge and responded with alacrity and delight to the eager and smiling countenances of the juveniles in particular"!

The Carmarthen Journal of the day had no time for tramps and printed returns of the workhouses in the Carmarthen Union to show the sharp increase in numbers — in 1860 there were 210 men, 20 women and 10 children, whereas in 1868 there were 3009 men, 196 women and 120 children. The Journal suggested that the punishment of a month in gaol in the Lake District had driven the tramps to the Carmarthen area "as we were too indulgent with them". According to the Editor the vast majority of tramps described themselves as of no trade and were registered as labourers, "which might be more correctly rendered — vagabonds — so viciously indolent are they that the Master of the Carmarthen Workhouse informs us a great many will rather lose their breakfast than break the prescribed bushel of stones". The Editor hastens to add that children were not required to break stones before they could have their breakfast. The tramps "luxuriate in a lucrative profession" of begging, alleged the Journal (omitting to add that if they were caught the miscreants were sentenced to seven days in the House of Correction with its treadmill). The Editor suggested "that it is well known that pauperism and crime are twin associates" and went on to say that "it is a monstrous grievance that the public should be burdened with the provision of even temporary lodgings for this class of people and any leniency to tramps in general will be of no avail". He favoured the scheme put forward by the Governor of Shrewsbury Gaol that any tramp guilty of disorderly conduct should be tattooed on his shoulder with a V and for the second offence an R under the V, to be permanently condemned as a Vagabond and Rogue. This was the other side of Victorian charity and Christmas could not have been altogether a season of peace and goodwill.

A popular event was the annual Musical Soiree of St. David's Church, which was held on December 30th in the Assembly Rooms. It is recorded that "the tea tables were neatly ornamented and upwards of 450 partook of the viands". After tea a Concert was given by members of St. David's Church Choir and accompanied by Mrs. Hancocke. Among the items sung were 'Our dear old Church of England', 'Dowch adref fy Nhad' and a soloist was E. Colby Evans. St. David's Church was for Welsh speakers and obviously a great deal of Welsh would have been used at the Concert and this probably inspired the reporter to write that "there is something intrinsically musical in the Welsh language — the oftener we hear it the more we love it".

On New Year's evening the Vicar of St. Peter's did his good deed by entertaining the choir "to a sumptuous repast in the Vicarage. About 30 sat down. The good ales and choice wines were duly appreciated"!

On New Year's Day, among certain classes, it was considered unlucky and an unfavourable omen if the first people met were of the same sex. There were instances where old ladies actually engaged police officers to be their first visitors on New Year's Day in order to be favoured with good fortune in the coming year.

It is fitting to end this account with a reference to one man's generosity to those less favoured. Archdeacon David Archard Williams, the incumbent of St. David's Church, on his 74th birthday invited to his annual dinner all those in the Parish over eighty, of whom nineteen attended divine service at noon and after prayers repaired to the Vicarage to partake, among other things, of roast beef and plum pudding. The Archdeacon, assisted by the Rector of Merthyr, "dispenced the viands while the different members of his family attended to the creature comforts of the veteran party". The average age of the guests was more than eighty-five. There were fifteen absentees from various causes and dinners were supplied to them at their homes, the eldest being ninety-five. After dinner, the Archdeacon, speaking in Welsh, addressed his guests in terms of affection, reminded them of the mercies vouchsafed to them during a long life and urged them to prepare for the inevitable change that awaited them soon. Some of them present had attended the Archdeacon's ministry for nearly fifty years. When the party broke up every one of the guests was presented with a florin, the considerate gift of two benevolent ladies of the congregation who had themselves passed the limit of four-score years.

[This reconstruction has come mainly from the files of the Carmarthen Journal and The Welshman of the period.]
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