It is no great secret that Christmas has been hyper-secularized and clouded by consumerism in the West. Perhaps there is a dedicated study or volume available which charts the history of Christmas’s transformation from a celebration of the Incarnation to an obsession with material gain. If so, it may or may not agree with the proposition that Christmas 1915 serves as a significant step on this march. That year stands out as the the first full year that Europe had been embroiled in the devastation of the Great War. And, that Christmas shopping season represents a definite shift in demographics and purchasing patterns. A war economy, which produced an increased supply of wages and an absence of men in the workforce, created a radical change in who bought and what they bought.
Surfacing from this merry melee, Arthur Machen produced the following article for the December 23rd edition of the Evening News. Despite the din of shopping masses and distant guns of the conflict, Machen peers into the maelstrom and manages to perceive a glory, knowable only in its paradox. In his unique manner, the writer points to the wonder which can be found in the clamoring crowd.
Over the last hundred years, much has changed. Technology, unimaginable to Machen and his fellow Londoners of 1915, has in its promises, enslaved us to distraction and disunity. Never tiring, it alerts us constantly to sales and updates. Although we are not currently engaged in a world conflict, we are nonetheless fighting a Great War. Considering this and the often violent crowds of Black Friday, so appropriately named, would Machen still be able to perceive the glory in the season and the dignity in his fellow man? Ultimately, it is not a question for Machen, but rather, it is a challenge for us.
The Goodly ‘Xmas Crowd
The Only Crowd I Don’t Dislike
By Arthur Machen.
December 23, 1915
If there be anything that I truly and utterly detest it is a crowd. I hate it in the body and in the spirit. In the body; since this flesh of mine hates to be shoved, hates—to do it credit—even more to shove. I can never see a crowd of people struggling to obtain some object, the ‘bus or the best place, without thinking of a horde of little pigs fighting one another and tumbling over one another in their eagerness for the wash in the trough. And in the spirit, too; for I find something terrible in the mere aspect of a host of men. There is agoraphobia and claustrophobia: I think I must suffer from ochlophobia, or dread of the crowd.
But there is one especial crowd that even I cannot help looking on with kindly eyes, quite unafraid. And that is the crowd of people who are abroad in these days, doing their Christmas shopping. Perhaps my usual sourness is mitigated because here is the last survival of the mediæval spirit; here are people engaged, however unconsciously, in binding heaven and earth together. That was the mediæval spirit: there was the heavenly feast, and therefore there was the earthly feast. The former was very good, the latter was also good, a reflection below of what was done above, a feeble image, doubtless, but still an image of celestial things. I think it was at Lincoln Cathedral that the Dean’s verger went about the choir at the Capitular High Mass asking canons, minor canons, and songmen to dine with the Dean after the Mass was ended.(1) We are corrupted; we are all of us more or less infected with the heresy of Coventry Patmore’s (Roman Catholic) young lady, who asked whether marriage wasn’t “a rather wicked Sacrament.”(2) We will believe that the world was made by the devil, and that dinner and drink are really and essentially, works of darkness. The middle ages knew better: “Mass and meat hinder no man’s journey”; and o magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum went very well with noble feasts and flowing cups of wine.(3)
So, for this reason a Christmas crowd is to me a goodly crowd, inasmuch as it does maintain this article of the old creed, that mirth in Heaven should be mirth on earth. But there is another reason for my liking of it. It is this: that in the main it is a crowd seeking for the pleasure for others. Alas! this is a rare matter: the people who rush for the ‘bus or crush for the best place at the show are—naturally enough, no doubt—seeking their own profit. But these Christmas people are thinking of others. I went up and down the great streets yesterday and in and out of the great shops, and it was pathetic and yet cheerful, too, to hear the consultations over the counters. “Do you think he would really like that?” “Hasn’t she got them already?” “He has always said he wanted one.”
Now here are people who dislike paradoxes, yet realising and profiting by one of the greatest paradoxes: that the real fun consists in giving pleasure to other people, not to one-self. It is quite extraordinary, it is utterly unscientific, but there it is; and here were the people streaming up Oxford-street, right in the heart of Holborn, all or nearly all, trying to find what would give the most pleasure to “him” and to “her.”(4)
Then another difference. On every hand there are the things that relate to the war, to the comfort of those who are engaged in the war. All sorts of dodges and devices and contraptions for the mitigation of the miseries of the trenches; hand warmers, foot-warmers, cunning cooking apparatuses. I heard more of these latter. “Tommy’s cookers,” it seems they are called, and the heat is supplied by solidified spirit; you light the surface, and the flame springs from it and cooks your meat and heats your drink, and when the process is over you put on a lid, and the flame goes out.(5) “This is a man’s Christmas, the first we have ever known,” they said at Selfridge’s in west Oxford-street; and “this is a khaki Christmas,” said Mr. Gamage in east Holborn.(6)
Seventy-five percent of the buying, they told me at one big shop, was for the soldiers, in training or at the wars. Mothers, wives, sisters, sweethearts were buying warm underclothing, steel shaving mirrors, safety razors, gloves, socks, and the cooking contraptions that I have already mentioned. Then the soldiers on leave are buying jewelry for the ladies dear to them; “fancy jewelry” for the most part, and fancy jewelry means the minor jewelry, the pretty, well-designed little object as opposed to pearl necklaces at five hundred guineas. And one thing I particularly noticed. The “well-to-do” and “comfortably off” were about as usual: but there were great numbers of purchasers of a class that did not penetrate into the great shops of the West End. The class that we call “working” has been making a good deal of money lately, and it has come out into the open and is buying Christmas presents and good things to eat very freely.
“Money is circulating more evenly now,” Oxford-street informed me. “No, I don’t think the workers have grasped the necessity of saving. Take a girl who has moved up from ten shillings a week to two pounds or even three pounds; she has more money than she ever dreamed of seeing. So she buys that ‘fancy jewelry’ or a set of imitation sables for five pounds. (7)
Well; London was a marvellous sight as the night drew on to end a dismal day of rain and mist and slush. All the pavements of the big streets seething with people, a line of taxis slowly crawling up the whole length of Regent-street; in Holborn the motor-‘buses locked together as far as one could see, apparently held up by a van, drawn by a mild old horse who moved as if he were coming home from market along a winding lane. And the dimmed lights gave the town an effect of the far East, as if it had been redrawn by an artist of Japan.
1 Machen refers to the seat for the Anglican Diocese of Lincoln, known fully as the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Constructed during the Middles Ages, it surpassed the Great Pyramid of Giza as the tallest building in the world. In the Church of England, Deans serve as the highest authoritative cleric in Cathedral parishes. At the time of this article’s original printing, Thomas Fry (1846-1930) served as Dean. Vergers are often laypersons who help conduct the order of daily services. They move behind the scenes, as does the one mentioned in Machen’s account. Canons are usually clergy who form a Chapter to advise the Dean and Bishop. Not part of such Chapters, Minor Canons are junior members of the clergy and are often positioned in services for their ability to sing or chant.
2 Coventry Patmore (1823-1896). From the Encyclopedia Britannica: “English poet and essayist whose best poetry is in The Unknown Eros and Other Odes (1877), containing mystical odes of divine love and of married loved, which he saw as a reflection of Christ’s love for the soul.” The cited incident comes from Patmore’s Religio Poetæ (1893), and can be read here: Religio Poetæ. Machen viewed the sacrament of matrimony similarly to Patmore, as his brilliant novella Fragment of a Life (1906) attests.
3 “O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum” translates as “O great mystery and wonderful sacrament.” These lines are taken from the Matins celebration for Christmas as practiced in the Latin and English churches.
4 This is not the first instance in which Machen writes of finding wonder in the London district of Holborn. See The Holy Things.
5 Despite their description as “cunning,” Tommy cookers, which employed a solidified alcohol, were often disparaged by British troops as being unreliable and inefficient.
6 The subject of a recent British television series, Selfridges is a chain of department stores founded in 1908. The founder has been credited with revolutionizing the shopping experience in Britain, as well as British attitudes towards the activity. The founding location remains operating on “Oxford-street.”
7 The increase of wages and the expanded entry of women into the workforce were among the many changes wrought upon British society during the Great War. Machen wrote more on this phenomenon in his novel The Terror, first serialized in the Evening News two years later in 1917. Adjusted for inflation, the above salaries translate from 10 shillings (½ pound) to £55; £2 to £220; and £3 to £330 in 2018. That lovely sable coat looks even lovelier at £550. Inflation calculations made at inflation.iamkate.com.