THROUGH THE ARCHIVES: The News Letter reflects on the ‘wholesome spirit’ of Christmas

From the News Letter, December 25, 1849

By Darryl Armitage
Friday, 25th December 2020, 6:00 am
Carollers John Shepherd (left), Ruth Turkington and Victor Sloan (right), practice their favourite Christmas songs ahead of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum's Spirit of Christmas Past in December 2010. Picture: News Letter archives
Carollers John Shepherd (left), Ruth Turkington and Victor Sloan (right), practice their favourite Christmas songs ahead of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum's Spirit of Christmas Past in December 2010. Picture: News Letter archives

On Christmas Day 1849 the News Letter published this fascinating insight into the “festive” period at that time.

Today, in Christmas Day 2020 amid the world wide Covid-19 pandemic in a time of uncertainty and isolation, it worth reflecting on the message of the News Letter 171 years ago.

“It gives us pleasure that, without depriving ourselves, or those in our employment, of the relaxation which custom has associated with this anniversary, we can send our journal to-day to the cheery firesides of our friends, bearing our annual salutations, and contributing, we should hope, pleasantly and profitably, to the sum of their enjoyments.

The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Picture: AP Photo/British Library

“We are not of those who consider that Christmas should be kept exclusively as a religious anniversary – that is, in the severe sense of the term – but that, while the all-important event which it commemorates should be held in profound reverence, governing our thoughts and actions to the exclusion of profanity and excess, it should also be a day of social festivity, of family delights, of household endearments, and joyous freedom from worldly cares and concerns.

“It is in this wholesome spirit that Christmas has been kept in these lands from time immemorial, and we do not find that either religion or morality has been injured by this mode of its observance. For a long period – during the reign of the cold and sinister philosophy which prevailed at the close of the last century and the first quarter of the present – the innocent rites of Christmas were fast going into disuse, and might have been consigned to oblivion, had not the literature of the day arrested the fleeting phantoms, and wreathed once more the palaces of the rich and the cottages of the poor with evergreen garlands typical of fadeless remembrances.

“It is this that Christmas, in its secular observance, links together the past with the present, the imaginative and the practical, the poetical charms of earlier days and simpler manners with the advanced refinements and more intellectual resources of our own times.

“But Christmas, as one of our national institutions, appeals to us with even stronger pleas than this. It is the season, not merely of enjoyment for ourselves, but of provision for at least the comfort of those whom want and sorrow preclude enjoyment. It is the season of charity, when charity is most needed -

Carollers John Shepherd (left), Ruth Turkington and Victor Sloan (right), practice their favourite Christmas songs ahead of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum's Spirit of Christmas Past in December 2010. Picture: News Letter archives

“‘See, Mercy, from her golden urn

“‘Pours a rich stream to them that mourn;

“‘Behold, she binds with tender care

“‘The bleeding bosom of Despair’

A depiction of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol

“And, though in all years, the depth of Winter besiege our sympathies with the wailing of want and the cries of distress, yet in these latter years, and in our own land, never was duty summoned to its task with sounds of more solemn warning to recognise the common brotherhood of our race.

“In the words of Coleridge –

“‘Tis the the sublime Man -

“‘Our noontide majesty – to know ourselves

The writer Charles Dickens

“‘Parts and proportions of one wondrous whole

“‘This fraternizes man; this constitutes

“‘Our charities and bearings; and ‘tis God,

“‘Diffused through all, that doth make one whole.’

“Since we last inscribed our ‘Christmas Carol’ to our readers; we have, as a community, received many severe lessons; but these will only the more cement the bonds of brotherhood among true patriots and Christians and should rather open the more than hand of charity.

“It is this which gives a zest to Christmas hilarity more potent than the odour of costly viands, or the strains of sweetest music. But we shall not dwell upon mournful themes, or jar by a note of discord the harmony of the Christmas chimes, already pealing in our ears. We have said our say, and conclude by our old refrain – ‘A happy Christmas to all our readers!’”

And so from myself in 2020, may I also wish all our readers a happy and peaceful Christmas.