Christmas: Deck the halls…

Marsali Taylor examines some of the Christmas traditions that we now take for granted, and finds that many of them are more recent than we might imagine.

By mid-November the bairns at school are already getting excited about Christmas: “But Miss, there’s only six weeks to go”. They’re already talking about trips to Lerwick, shopping for everyone they know and admiring the decorated windows and coloured lights in the Street. They’ll be going to the pantomime, decorating their tree, hanging icicles from the roof of their house, and writing present lists or letters to Santie. There’ll be all the excitement of the local Christmas party. They’re looking forward to opening a pile of presents and eating loads of chocolate before all the family gather together for a big Christmas dinner that includes turkey and Christmas pudding.  After that there’ll be the Christmas movie, and a party till bedtime.

For them, those are all Christmas traditions – but even down south, none of them are very old. In Scotland, New Year was always the big celebration; only two generations ago, Christmas was a normal working day. So when did our “traditional Christmas” begin in Shetland?

Decorating windows in the Street goes back a good way. A scoit through the museum’s photo archive turned up a sepia-tinted advertising slide for P Leisk and Co’s Christmas Confectionary, with an elf coming out of a toadstool house carrying a big tin of Mackintosh’s Toffee. The house is labelled “The Fairies’ Toffeetown”, and the buyers for the toffee are a little girl with bunches in her hair and a toy dog, standing on the artificial grass beside the toadstool. However, it wasn’t a home-grown idea; the decorations were obviously  distributed by the manufacturers, as there are paper cut-outs of the same characters topping a pile of toffee tins.

Photos from the mid 1960s show the Hydro-Board shop with an inflatable Santa in its window, bordered by bells, lanterns, presents and crackers, and Smith and Harper’s window with a snow scene: a painted backdrop of trees around a snowy lake, a cotton wool snowman, a little boy doll with a fur hat, and a robin.

Westside Pine, on the Esplanade, is the current holder of the Shetland Retailers’ Association Millennium Cup for the best window display – they’ve held it for two years running now. I asked the owner Janet Davidge about today’s competition.
“There are three trophies altogether. One was donated by a watchmaker, and it’s wooden, with a silver watch in the middle. Then there’s the Millennium Cup, which replaced an older trophy awarded by the former Chamber of Commerce. Then there’s a trophy chosen by bairns for their favourite window – Bell’s Brae and Sound pupils, I think it’s P6 and P7, take turn about in choosing. Most of the retailers in the town take part now.”

What’s her theme for this year?
“We’re going for very traditional. One is half-finished, but I’d need to get on with it – once it gets busy you can’t get more than a minute working before you’re called away!”

Street lighting seems to have begun in the sixties, with simple strings of lights and the first tree at the Market Cross. A photo from the 1980s shows a star with a laughing moon on each side of it strung across the Street in front of the Central Bakery, now Harry’s, and more stars leading along to Harbour Street.

Neil Robertson of the Roads department is in charge of putting up today’s Christmas lights in Shetland.

“At the moment we have ten strings of lights in the street. Those were replaced in 2005 / 2006, so they’re pretty new, but they take a fair battering, and there’s always maintenance to do. The ones on the Esplanade belong to the Harbour Trust, but we maintain them too. I’m not sure if there will be any there this year, because the CCTV installation moved one of the lighting columns, so the spacing is wrong now. If there are any, it’ll only be a short length.”

Lighting up individual houses is definitely a new thing, begun within the last 10 years, and now seen throughout Shetland. Driving down to Sumburgh in the dark you see every second house with a line of icicles along the eaves, or flashing coloured lights in the garden. A drive along South Lochside is one of my Christmas treats; there’s a wealth of flashing-legged reindeer, illuminated snowmen and Santas climbing drainpipes, as well as a Christmas tree, real or artificial, in nearly every window. You wonder about the householders’ electricity bills, but in fact most of the illuminations are LEDs, and so use much less power than you’d fear.

Christmas trees seem to have come in during the late fifties and early sixties. Before that, there might have been one at a “works party”, but they weren’t a part of a household Christmas celebration.
“We have six trees now,” Neil Robertson told me. “There are four in Lerwick, at the Market Cross, King Harald Street, Murriston and outside the Staneyhill Hall. Putting the lights on the trees is an awful lot of work, you have to string them around and around. It can take 250–300m of lights for a big tree like the one at the Market Cross. We’ve replaced those lights with low-energy LEDs to keep costs down.

“The other two Shetland trees are in Scalloway and Whalsay, and both of those are gifts from Norway. We pay for four and get two free, but they cost a bit to ship over.”
What do Shetland’s outdoor Christmas decorations cost overall?

“We have a very small budget – £13,000-£15,000 – but we can be overspent, depending on the amount of maintenance needed. Unlike everywhere else, we get no contribution from the retailers, so if we’re to be cut by 15 per cent then that would be where I’d look to make up the shortfall. In council buildings, the decorations are put up and paid for by the staff themselves.”

So when did the first Christmas trees come into houses? Marion Young from Tresta grew up in Lerwick, but spent her Christmas holidays with her grandparents, on the West side.

“When I was a bairn, in the 1940s and 1950s, I don’t remember a Christmas tree, though we certainly made paper decorations to hang up, and we had concertina decorations too, that went from the corner to the light.  We’d fold them away ever so carefully.”

Drina Hughson grew up in Lerwick in the late fifties, and her family did have a tree, “a small artificial one, that sat on top of the organ. It had lights on, quite big coloured bulbs, and we had loads of paper streamers as decorations.”

Nowadays no house, office, shop or school is complete in the run-up to Christmas without at least one tree somewhere. The little artificial tree in Aith School library is a particularly special one to Jane Spall, our librarian.

“It was our family’s first Christmas tree,” she told me. “It’s thirty-five years old now, and when I got my own house I took it with me. I decorate it and bring it into the school, and then when term ends it goes in the hall in the house. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it.”

I know how she feels; our mantelpiece wouldn’t be complete without the peg-doll nativity scene that Marnie and I made when she was three, including the cat-food box stable, and the pipe-cleaner camel with the wobbly legs. Christmas is a time for nostalgia.

A visit to the pantomime has been a big treat since it first became popular in Victorian times – but when was Shetland’s first pantomime staged? Islesburgh Drama Group, which has just celebrated its 60th birthday, presented Cinderella in 1970.
There may have been local groups before then, but that seems to be the Garrison’s first. Now a number of groups do a pantomime, as well as the many school Christmas shows – something that Ruth Anderson from Sandsound particularly remembers.
“I was at Dunrossness school in the early seventies, and Christmas there was really special. There was an enormous tree that seemed to stretch right up to the ceiling, all decorated, and there was all the excitement of rehearsing for the play.”

Ruth had a tree at home too – “a peerie one that sat on the table, but there were no lights on it, just small decorations, and bags of chocolate coins. I think it was the airport that made the difference in the South Mainland, the folk who worked there bringing their traditions in, lights in the windows, and different foods in the shop. I had older cousins, too, who were more ‘with it’, and they had a tree with lights.”

The Christmas party is another long-standing tradition. The museum’s oldest Christmas photos show a gathering in a croft house. At one end are four women, six men and two children. They’re all dressed in their best, with the women in snowy starched blouses, the men in suits, all squished into the corner for their photo, and all looking as if they’re fairly enjoying themselves. At the back, standing on a chair, is the fiddler. Another photo shows the older folk, squished onto the couch at the other end of the room. The photos were taken at Kirkhouse, West Yell, by W Arthur, and date from the 1890s – 1900s. The room has fancy wallpaper and a number of pictures, but there’s no sign of tinsel, a tree or any other Christmas decorations.

Marion Young has warm memories of the Christmas parties she attended in the ‘40s and ‘50s. “There were Christmas parties, always, with games and things to eat – even though rationing was still going on, there were always good bakers. Santie came with his peerie sack, and later on there were bran tubs to fish a present out of. There would be a Sunday School party, and my dad’s works party for bairns. Then as I got older there was the youth club party, and then when I was older still there were the dances.”

In many areas the party included a sit-down meal, and this tradition is still going strong in a number of places.

Santie is the central figure of a modern Christmas day, bringing a heap of presents. He’s been busy in Shetland for a good long time; he certainly visited Marion. “Santie came to us, with a peerie sock of presents. It was sent on ahead of us to my grandparents’ house when I was peerie, and then I carried my own Santie presents when I was older, and that was quite a bit older, because we really believed in Santie, with his red coat and white fur, coming down the lum – that was pure, pure magic and mystery.”

There were far fewer presents than there are nowadays, though. “We didn’t give presents to each other. It wasn’t until we’d left home and were working that we did that. The neighbour folk would come along and visit, and they would bring presents, maybe a packet of biscuits for tea for my parents, or a piece of Christmas cake, and a book, or a pair of ankle socks, or a pencil and rubber for us. Sometimes they’d give us sweeties. That was a real treat, as we hardly ever saw them.”

Drina Hughson too remembered getting presents from neighbours. “It tended to be useful things, and I remember getting into trouble one year, because I’d been given a pair of slippers, and then a neighbour came with a present of a second pair, and I said, ‘No another pair o smucks!’ That was before 1962, when they moved away. We didn’t give presents to each other then – the first I can remember of that was in the mid sixties, after we’d moved to Scalloway. I went to Lerwick to get Christmas presents for everyone, with one wee bag. We did get presents from family elsewhere – south, and in Unst – and those were all kept hidden until the day, then brought in in a washing basket and dished out.”

Hazel Tindall from Aith also remembered useful presents: “It was when I was in P7, at the Christmas party – we called it the Christmas Tree then, and it was a real community event. My present from Santie was a pair of green padded coathangers. I wasn’t very pleased, but they’re in my wardrobe yet.”

“My presents were educational”, Ruth Anderson remembered: “embroidery kits and books. I envied my pals who got Tiny Tears dolls”. Ruth also remembered visiting “elderly relatives, and you’d get cordial and shortbread. Sometimes, though, they didn’t know the cordial had to be diluted, but you had to drink it, you’d never have thought to say no. After you’d had undiluted ginger cordial you would a lickit water from the burn! It made you feel grown up too, you got it in a sherry glass.”

“That’s right,” Hazel agreed, “that was one big difference from nowadays, there was far less drink. There was only one nip glass, filled with whisky, and the men took a sip and passed it on – sungaets, of course.”

Nowadays bairns take Santie for granted as a part of Christmas, and with all the TV advertising he would be difficult to ignore, but both Ruth and Hazel remembered discussing whether they should work with the Santie myth for their children. Hazel’s husband, Trevor, grew up in Yorkshire with a quite different tradition, where all presents from relatives were gathered together and put in Santa’s sock. Ruth had received a Santie sock, “but we kent it came from Mum and Dad.”

Modern children would be surprised to learn that until comparatively recently, Christmas was a normal working day.

“Our postman was Joe Fraser, from Sand,” Marion said, “and my sister Emily remembers him delivering letters on Christmas Day.”

“My dad was never home for Christmas,” Hazel said, “he was at the whaling.”

Many Shetland men wouldn’t get Christmas with their families. The fishing season for the whaling men of South Georgia was the Antarctic summer, our winter, and so those men spent their day far away from home. They didn’t have to work, though; there’s one Museum photo of Sandy Irvine and Isaac Morrison (dressed in a very smart Fair Isle waistcoat) on the ridge of Coronda Peak, South Georgia, on Christmas Day. Another photo shows a table of trophies that Salvesen awarded for their annual skiing competition, with a course four to five miles long and a ski-jump. These trophies were generally won by the Norwegian employees.

How about the traditional Christmas dinner, with turkey, trimmings and a brandy-flaming pudding? A 1934 photograph of the Scott family at Vingolf shows a familiar scene: the extended family are wearing party hats, there are crackers on the table, and the Christmas pudding is topped with a sprig of holly.

This wasn’t the usual Shetland experience, though.

“Christmas Day was more like a Sunday,” Marion recalled, “just a quiet day, with a meal at lunchtime. There was no big family gatherings, everyone stayed in their own house. There would be a chicken for lunch – we looked forward to that. There weren’t a lot of trimmings, just fine vegetables, and then for pudding we’d have a trifle. If they could get them, we’d have peerie oranges. The men would have a dram, and the women a peerie something – you couldn’t be empty-handed.

“There was no TV then, of course, but one of the presents we got was a games compendium, snakes and ladders and ludo, and we played that in the evenings.”
Drina too had chicken: “a fresh chicken, send down by an aunt of my mother’s in Unst. It was delicious. After she died we had a capon, I think.”

“The first time we had a bird,” Hazel said, “was when my sister Thelma and Angus were courting, and he brought us a goose. That was in the late ‘60s.”

Ruth remembered eating turkey in the early ‘70s, “And selection boxes, that was such a treat. There were no big boxes of chocolates then.”

One modern tradition Elizabeth Nicolson of Aith loves is the Girls Brigade carol singers. “It’s just magic. They go round the houses with a blinkie, and it’s often a clear, starry night. They sing the well-kent carols, ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘Jingle Bells’, and it’s that bonnie, the bairns’ voices – I never miss it. Then they go up to the kirk for hot chocolate and biscuits.”

What will the traditions of future Christmas be?

Speaking to people, I get the impression that the conspicuous consumption Christmas that has dominated December for the last 30 years is beginning to change. The collapse of the savings-scheme organiser Farepak in 2006 made it clear just how much people with very little spare money were spending on Christmas; customers lost, on average, £400 each, and some lost up to £2,000. In 2009, HSBC reckoned that each of us spent £480 on cards, presents, decorations and food. It’s a really important time for retailers, but it’s also a strain on the family income, especially in these times of recession and job uncertainty.

Nowadays, too, people are more aware of other communities around the world, and many try to make their own Christmas spending help others. They buy their cards from charities, going to local branches of Oxfam, the Red Cross or Cancer Research, or from the Save the Children or RNLI stalls at local trade fairs. Trade fairs are also a good chance to buy from local craft workers and help the Shetland economy instead of enriching large retailers south. Fair Trade organisations like Traidcraft have Shetland representatives who sell a range of goods, from stocking-fillers and household items to raisins, sultanas and sugar for making a Christmas pudding.
Supermarkets have a Fair Trade range that lets Western shoppers buy chocolates and coffee without exploiting the people who grew the beans.

Some people go further in giving to people with less, rather than to people with plenty. Today’s children help fill “shoeboxes” to be sent to other children overseas, and collect for Children in Need. Catalogues from Gift Aid and Christian Aid give the chance to donate seeds, a flock of chickens or a goat to a family in the developing world on behalf of a friend who already has everything. One of my friends now sends only email Christmas cards, and gives the money for paper cards and stamps to Action Aid, to support an African child through school; many offices and churches take a collection for a charity instead of sending cards.

Maybe we’re going to back to a smaller Christmas, where presents are less important, giving is to those in need rather than each other, and the focus is on a family day together. Would getting less at Christmas spoil it for our bairns? Ask an older person about that; they’ll tell you that they didn’t need a lot of money to enjoy the festive season.

“For all we didn’t have much, Christmas was a wonderful time,” Marion told me. “Looking back just gives me a warm feeling, the memories of how special it was for us.”

Marsali Taylor


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