A Winter's Evening - Copyright 2003 James Talarico

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From Circa Victoria



One seems to step back in time when reading the following 1891 Christmas Tide commentary. This wintry mix of nostalgia and contemporaneous criticism offers us an interesting Victorian perspective on holiday respites.



Christmas Tide

He would be a bold man who would venture to predicate anything of our English climate. At the moment of writing the icy thumb of King Frost is stamped upon at least some parts of England; but, as nearly a week must elapse before we celebrate Christmas, there is no knowing what changes maybe in store for us. The snow may lie "round about, deep and crisp and even," as the Christmas carol tells us it did when "Good King Wenceslaus went out on the Feast of Stephen"; or, on the other hand, we may have one of those Green Christmases which, it is said, make a churchyard fat, and will cause skaters to envy the lot of Smart, who will practice his art abroad at other people's expense. Our railway stations are liberally billed with train arrangements for Christmas. Early, at midday, and late, will travelers be borne to join their families to some more or less distant quarter of England, and this is possibly the merriest aspect of the season which is now upon us. Those whose chief difficulty is how to find something to do, and who, so long as money lasts, can flit whither they will, can scarcely understand how great is the pleasure to the bread-winner to leave his occupation at this time of year, and to spend a couple of days at home, there to meet brothers and sisters who may not have met for several years. These, at any rate, can well afford to accept with gratefulness the unsentimental, often uncomfortable, yet comparatively expeditious mode of traveling by rail. Their object is to gain their destination as soon as possible; they regard locomotion from a practical standpoint, and care not for the glories of the old coaching days. Nevertheless, with the advent of Christmas, the fancy, the pencil, and the brush of the artist delight to give us some reminiscences of olden days. It no doubt requires a considerable amount of imagination to transplant ourselves from the sitting-room of a villa residence to the hall of some Elizabethan house, such as we see in pictures. The modern grate, holding a thimbleful of coals, and given to smoke whenever the wind is in the wrong quarter, is in great contrast to the open hearth and its huge burning logs; while the great-grandfather who, with rosy face and black smalls, welcomes his guests on the steps of his mansion, certainly looks a more dignified sort of person than the modern host clad in a suit of "dittos." At first glance, too, the post chaise and four – in Christmas pictures all guests travel behind four horses – may seem a much more luxurious mode of travel than our prosaic railway; though if we knew of the cost incurred, the number of tips to be given, and the number of times the "bounder" stuck in snowdrifts, we might possibly become more reconciled to our modern conveyance and the conveniences of the station fly. We may, on the whole, be thankful that we have been "born so late," and content ourselves with reading of the olden times, and building castles in the air after looking at our picture books.
The winter coaches running in and out of London must look desolate indeed in the eyes of those surviving members of the old school who remember coaching as it existed before the railways drove stage coaches off the road. Full inside and out; luggage packed on the roof with a skill possessed by no modern coach guard; both boots crammed full; the cradle carrying as much as could be bound upon it; and with a fringe of game all round, the old coaches must have indeed suggested peace and plenty, and have taxed the abilities of the coachman. Snow played a prominent part in the old-fashioned Christmas, and it is rather more than possible that much of the credit given to the coachman belonged to the horses which tugged and toiled at their load with all the pluck characteristic of that noble animal, whether on the road, the racecourse, or in the field. The sight of the game, too, would remind us of the days when game dealers did not exist – for game was not allowed to be sold – and when, without recourse to the poacher, one could eat pheasants and partridges only when they were sent as a gift from some friend in the country. Here, at any rate, there was an explanation, if not an excuse, for the poacher's calling; and when the game laws were altered it was fondly hoped that by allowing game to become an article of commerce like beef and mutton, the poacher and all his wiles would be abolished. How fallacious that hope has been we all know; and one statesman alone foretold how widely the result would differ from the general expectation. Poachers have and increased and multiplied, and though game be bought as easily as bread and butter, the poacher finds an apparently remunerative market for his stolen property.
Prophets seem to be divided in their opinions whether we shall or shall not have a hard winter. Whichever it is, some will rejoice and some will grieve. The exponents of skating had their innings last year and the year before, while hunting men were getting the minimum of fun for the maximum of expenditure – horses invariably stand at the sign of the "Hand-in-Pocket," while there is no reduction of hunt subscriptions or servants' wages because the country is frost bound. Skaters, however, must on the whole envy those to whom mild weather and mud bring pleasure. They are as fond as gliding, with more or less grace, over the ice as others are of skimming over, or, as at present, of wallowing over the country; yet a week's skating off the reel is seldom obtainable, and just as one has begun to feel at home on skates, the ice is labeled "dangerous," and a thaw comes. Considering, therefore, the disadvantages under which our native skaters, amateur and professional, labor, they are deserving of every credit for showing as much ability as they do, and if the frost should hold over Christmas a good deal of cheap amusement will be afforded at a time when the majority will be able to embrace the opportunity. Skating by torchlight may be better than no skating at all; but skating in the crisp morning air, with all the day before one, is better still, and ten times more invigorating. Curling can scarcely be yet said to have become naturalized down south, though, as a recent publication shows, it is a pastime with a history and an attraction – in Scotland, at all events. It is the fashion, we know, to speak of Christmas as an unmitigated bore; but surely most of those upon whom dyspepsia has not laid its finger can find some cause for pleasure, if not actual merriment. Cynically-disposed persons may affect to lament that the time has arrived when the school-doors are closed, and Masters Tom and Harry return to the paternal household, ready to face without flinching the bilious attack which, an all probability, will attend the consumption of Christmas fare, following the less luxurious, if unquestionably more wholesome food, upon which they have, for the past ten weeks or so, been nourished at school. To English boys who are enabled to enjoy country life the Christmas holidays are pleasant indeed; and the evident enjoyment of the juveniles may surely make the blood of their seniors run a little quicker, and cause them to be thankful that there are some at least who can answer in the affirmative Mr. Mallock's question, "Is Life Worth Living?" For the boys and girls it most assuredly is, or should be. These embryo sportsmen and sportswomen have already made their appearance in the hunting-field; and in their joy at finding themselves once more in the saddle, they have ridden their ponies into and over obstacles in a manner which shows plainly enough that they are not blasι, and do not hunt only because it is the correct thing to do. To this younger generation a long spell of frost would mean bitter disappointment. For weeks past they may have been wondering what the new pony is like; is it a grey, a chestnut, a bay, or a brown? Is it faster than the old one now turned over to the younger brother? And, most important of all, can it jump as well, and is it as clever – possibly as wayward as the one which acted as schoolmaster to two or three of the family? In the event of a frost these weighty problems must await solution at the cost of much greater disappointment than will be felt by the seniors who can at any rate get their hunting later on when the schools shall have again "met," and the boys and girls shall be back to work again. It is to the children of the present day that we must look for our future masters of hounds; and for those who will hereafter have to maintain the honor of sport, and to uphold the positions of squire, host, and hostess; and well will it be if they are now able to undergo the requisite training. Their opportunity for indulging in field sports, other than the games played at school, is necessarily limited. In the summer their time is, as often as not, spent away from home, at the seaside for instance; so, in addition to pleasure derived, there is not a little social education in the Christmas holidays, which, for the sake of those most intimately concerned, we trust may be pleasant ones. In conclusion, Christmas commonly brings with it a modicum of pleasure to those whose lot is cast in anything but pleasant lines – to the very poor. Special appeals bring more or less satisfactory results; the much-abused squire generally manages to find something for his less fortunate neighbors; while the good old institution of Christmas boxes brings with it pleasure and profit to many.

From Circa Victoria



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