Category: My English Diaspora Story

A Rose for St George’s Day

In April of 1889, the Montreal Daily Star featured a number of advertisements and articles discussing the celebration of St George’s Day in the city, or more particularly, the lack thereof.  In what can only be described as a campaign for St George’s Day, the newspaper offered its readers the opportunity to commemorate their English identity, and to drum up readership.

St George’s Day had been celebrated in Montreal since 1808, and regularly since 1835, with the creation of the St George’s Society.  The society, however, seems to have been less able or willing to create lavish celebrations in the 1880s, generally only holding its annual church service at a local Anglican church. To fill in the void, the paper decided to provide roses for those who wanted them on St George’s Day:

‘Next Tuesday will be St George’s Day.  In view of the very quiet and undemonstrative way in which Englishmen celebrate the day it might be expected that every Englishman and every English woman, every English boy, and every English girl would wear England’s emblem. Unfortunately they cannot always get roses for the occasion. The supply is often limited, and many have to go without. Just to show how many Englishmen and their descendants there are who are proud of the right little, tight little island, the Star has secured thousands of beautiful roses to give away for button hole bouquets on St George’s Day to everybody who wants one.’ [Montreal Daily Star, 20 April 1889, p. 8]

All the English in Montreal were thus urged to proclaim their heritage by wearing a rose on the day, especially as ‘there will be no special celebration . . . St George’s Day.’ [Montreal Daily Star, 22 April 1889, p. 3]  But why choose a rose campaign to press for the expression of English identity, and not organise an event along the lines of those celebrated in years past: a parade, a concert, a banquet, a ball? Such things could likely have cost about the same as providing free out-of-season roses for all who ask. The Star was unclear about why it chose to use the rose. But they were explicit about what it meant to be English, and the importance that they attached to the symbol of the rose.

‘The Scot is proud of his native heather, and a sprig of Shamrock or a leaf of Irish ivy moves the hearts of the Green Isle, but both alike may think of the share they have had in helping on the march of events which we specially celebrate on St George’s Day. But, after all, we cannot forget that had it not been for the men of the Rose, the descendants of the bold followers of the conquerors of Britain and the makers of England, the Empire of which we are citizens would never have risen from its cradle and grown to the dimensions of to-day.’ [Montreal Daily Star, 23 April 1889, p. 2]

The wearing of the rose was framed as being a part of a national duty: ‘England expects every man, woman and child of English descent to wear a rose.’ [Montreal Daily Star, 22 April 1889, p. 3]. To wear the rose, the person acknowledged their pride in their heritage, their pride in being a part of Canada, and ultimately a part of the British Empire.  ‘England expects to-day every one of her sons to do his duty and that being done, religiously and politically, though the England of to-day is not bounded by the same limits as she was when her great national poet penned his burning words, they will apply to that extended England of to-day with as much force as to the more limited power of three centuries ago.’ [Montreal Daily Star, 23 April 1889, p. 2]

The paper did not report on the success (or failure) of the rose-wearing campaign in its following issues, so it is unclear as to whether or not Montreal’s English took up the offer of free roses.  But it is most likely that the city’s English population did wear roses in honour of their English heritage, on St George’s day.  A few years later Allan’s, a retailer in the city, offered for sale roses to be worn on the occasion.

The English Christmas

By A.W. (Bill) Purdue

The modern English Christmas owes much to the repackaging of Christmas by the Victorians, who centred the festival on the family and on the indulgence of children, and, indeed,  much of our idea of a ‘traditional Christmas’, with Christmas cards, a Father Christmas bringing presents to children, and, that importation from German traditions , the Christmas tree,  date from the nineteenth century. It is to a family Christmas, the humble  celebrations of the Cratchit family,  that Scrooge, having been converted to benevolence,  brings good cheer. But behind this home and family concept of Christmas lie older Christmases, which exert an enduring influence, for the English Christmas is multi-layered.

The medieval Christmas in England represented a synthesis between Christianity and pagan festivals, in which the birth of Christ mingled with residual pagan beliefs in the need to eat, drink and be merry at the darkest and most barren time of the year, with greenery brought indoors and great fires burning in the hope of fertility to come. This Christmas was a gregarious and largely adult affair, held amidst the laden tables of baronial halls, and was imbued with the concept of a time of license and the suspension of the normal rules of society, with the festivities being presided over, not by the usual figures of authority, but by boy-bishops, jesters and, what were known as ‘Lords of Misrule’, whose name epitomises the anarchic nature of the celebrations, while mummers waited at the gate. Some dignitaries of the Church accepted this Christmas as a necessary release of energy but others condemned its emphasis upon merriment as encouraging pagan and lustful appetites.

The puritans of the Commonwealth attempted to abolish Christmas on the grounds that there was no biblical evidence for the date of the birth of Christ and that the festivities encouraged immorality, but Christmas was popular and was re-established with the monarchy. The Christmas which survived is the one of which an idealised version continues to be printed on many Christmas cards: laden coaches, making their way down snow-covered lanes or stopping at inns with jovial landlords , on their way to rural manor houses, where paternal squires entertain friends and tenants to the twelve days of Christmas, while wives and daughters administer  to the needs of the poor and sick . It was this ‘Old Christmas’, perhaps in its last years in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, that so attracted the American writer, Washington Irving, and is described so fondly in Charles Dickens’  depiction of Christmas at Dingley Dell in Pickwick Papers. It is ironic, that, if today we feel nostalgia for the Christmas that the Victorians did so much to create, a major strand in the making of the Victorian Christmas was the nostalgia that Dickens and other nineteenth century writers felt for the previous English Christmas. The gap between older versions of a more gregarious and more adult-orientated Christmas and the more sentimental family Christmas with its emphasis upon home and children is bridged in Dickens’s works, for, if the influential A Christmas Carol seems overall to contain a very different attitude to Christmas to that of Pickwick Papers, it retains a sorrow at the passing of the merrier Christmas past as portrayed by the description of ‘Mr Fessiwig’s Ball’.

The emergent Victorian Christmas was, no doubt, more suitable for an urban and commercial society and one which valued domesticity but the older spirits of Christmas kept peeping out with kisses under the mistletoe and the sauciness of pantomimes. Vestiges of the ‘Lord of Misrule’ and the ‘world turned upside down’, linger today  in the office party and the custom of officers waiting on other ranks on Christmas Day. That central figure of the modern Christmas, Father Christmas, is an amalgam of many traditions and he owes much to the poem, A Visit from St Nicholas, by the American writer Clement Moore,  but the  merriment, jollity  and good cheer of the plump, rubicund  figure with his ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’ point to older English Christmas spirits and to Lords of Misrule.

Christmas lights, the candles or electric lights upon trees, the carefully arranged illuminated decorations in high streets, and the more recent enthusiasm for houses to be lit up like ships awaiting review with flickering reindeer prancing upon their roofs, are reminders  of the need of earlier generations of humanity  in the dark winters of the North, but also in the Roman Empire where  the worship of the sun-god, Mithras flourished, to hope for renewal and the return of the fertile sun. That this basic urge was enlisted for commercial purposes by the entrepreneurs of late-nineteenth century shop-keeping and the civic pride of towns, should not blind us to its ancestry amidst the Yule logs and tapers of medieval halls.

In an age of high emigration and of empire, Victorians were fascinated by the concept of Christmas in far way places and of Christmas gatherings in warmer climates and by thoughts of soldiers celebrating the festival amidst hardship and battle. That contradictory and complex institution, the English Christmas, has been exported to every part of the world where the English have settled.

A.W. (Bill) Purdue is a Visiting Professor in History at the Northumbria University and co-author with J.M. Golby of The Making of the Modern Christmas.

Celebrating Guy Fawkes Night – A Family Tradition

Flashback to my childhood, it is the evening of the fifth of November and Mom, my brother and I are huddled on our back step, outside, in the cold November air. Mom takes out her lighter and sets fire to a sparkler for each of us, and she wishes us a happy Guy Fawkes day or perhaps she recites the first stanza to the famous poem: “Remember, Remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot! I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” Then we rush back into the warm house, the ritual complete.

Celebrating Guy Fawkes was special. It was a ritual that we shared with our English mother. No one else we knew in Ottawa or Edmonton, where we lived, celebrated the event. Even now, twelve years since my mother’s death, we both still celebrate the day, usually with fire of some sort, sparklers usually. I sometimes have people over for dinner. It is a day that connects us with her, and connected her to her childhood.

Guy Fawkes was one of thirteen conspirators, who sought to assasinate James I and put a Catholic on the throne. To do so they stockpiled a load of explosives under the Houses of Parliament. They were caught before they could set off the explosion.

According to The English Year: A Month by Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night by Steve Roud [Penguin, 2006], Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night developed as a holiday of thanksgiving, marking the capture of those plotting to kill the King and Parliament marked by bonfires and bell-ringing and church services.  Over the centuries (the first celebration was 1605) the event transformed into a working class celebration with bonfires and fireworks.  There also developed a tradition of burning effigies of the Pope, Guy Fawkes or politicians. When Mom was a little girl the tradition included children going around the neighbourhood saying “a penny for the guy” to finance their bonfire. Mom, however was never allowed to do this because Nanny thought of it as common begging.

Of course, there is a strong anti-catholic sentiment involved in this holiday, particularly for those burning effigies of the Pope. But for Mom it was never about faith. Dad was a Catholic, so she could hardly wish him ill. It was more about the sense of community, memories and identity as English.