The Christmas holiday approaches! And so does Prof. Laurence (Billy) Grove’s inaugural address, How to Get Away with Reading Comics in an Ancient University (tonight at 5.15pm). We’re going to kill two birds with one stone and celebrate both events by taking a look at winter festivities in the 1820s as depicted in (perhaps*) Billy’s favourite (and arguably the world’s first) comic, the Glasgow/Northern Looking Glass.
I’ve been careful to use the term “winter festivities” above rather than Christmas since the fun and games described actually centre on New Year rather than Crimbo. From the mid 16th century onwards Christmas endured a troubled existence in Scotland as the holiday was banned by the Kirk for much of this time for being far too Catholic**. As a result New Year – Hogmanay – gradually replaced it as the main focus of popular holiday celebration, a pre-eminence it arguably still enjoys for many Scots today.
The Glasgow Looking Glass was first published in June 1825, offering a fortnightly tongue-in-cheek look at everyday life in the city (for more details on the Looking Glass see our article). By December it had been rebadged as the Northern Looking Glass, in part to reflect its increasingly broad focus, but also doubtless to market it more effectively to a wider, non-Glaswegian readership. It was sold at various locations throughout central Scotland as well as in Liverpool and London. And it is to the English readers that this ‘strip cartoon’ series of lithographs, demystifying and poking fun at a typical Glasgow/Edinburgh New Year, is aimed. Each cartoon (hand-coloured in this de-luxe copy) is accompanied by a short paragraph of explanatory text. These are as helpful to us 189 years on as they must have been at the time, for those readers unfamiliar with life north of the border.
We start in the hustle and bustle of a rain-soaked Glasgow/Edinburgh street at 5.30pm on December 31st 1825. Folk of all classes are rushing around preparing for the party to come: the well-to-do in coaches and chairs being taken to dinner parties, others rush home to get out of the rain, a confectioner ferries sweetmeats to a party, a lamplighter (know as a leary) works hard to banish the gloom.
Now safely delivered out of the rain by our coachmen, we enter one of the parties of the well-heeled, specifically the drawing room of a posh town house. The time is 9.30pm and everyone is indulging in a post-dinner game of cards. The gambling games Commerce and (one of Jane Austen’s favourites) Speculation are mentioned in the caption as most likely, while others indulge in a game of Whist.
As midnight approaches the card games break up and everyone moves through to the supper table. The butler brings in a huge currant bun (spiced fruit cakes, often called ‘black buns’, were traditional New Year fare) while the footman carries the traditional Het Pint (seasonal drink of hot spiced ale mulled with nutmeg and whisky). Writing about New Year in Scotland in 1895, an anonymous writer*** comments:
Seldom does a Scots family fail to sit up until the clock strikes ‘twal’ on the 31st of December. While all are talking of happy things and scenes of memory, they are slyly looking at the clock-hands as these approach midnight. … When the clock strikes the parents first shake hands and then each in turn wishes a ‘Happy New Year’. … [A] bottle is produced, and the ‘guidman’ drinks to the health of all… A hearty cheer follows, and the little ones run to bed to wait eagerly for what Santa Claus will put in their stockings for the morning.
It is now 1.30am on the 1st of January 1826, the party is over for us, and our slightly ‘worse-for-wear’ coachmen transport us home. The streets are chaotic with drunken revellers many of whom, according to the caption, seek the traditional New Year ‘salute from the ladies’.
After we have withdrawn for the night, the action switches to another bit of the town, where the party is just starting. The streets are full of the ‘lower classes’ bringing in the New Year riotously. Our anonymous 1895 chronicler notes:
An hour before twelve, hundreds and sometimes thousands are gathering round the ‘Tron Kirk’ in Edinburgh [Glasgow Cross was the favourite gathering place for Glasgow folk] to be ready for the opening of the New Year. Patiently they wait, smoking and chatting, and singing, till the solemn bell tolls out the dying year, and then bottles are uncorked and healths are drunk, hands are shaken, and first-footing [nb. visiting friends and neighbours] to the house begins.
Hours pass, a new day dawns and with it a hangover. It is 10am the morning after the night before and we are sobering up in the Police Office along with fellow over-indulgers. Hugh Douglas**** helps put into context the New Year excess:
It was industrialisation and the expansion of towns during the nineteenth century that really made Hogmanay the common man’s festival, for it marked the only break in the long winter for working men and women, so they were determined to make the most of it. … The great Hogmanay drink in the old days was Het Pint, a brew of ale mulled with nutmeg and whisky. This was carried, steaming hot, in a copper kettle and poured into cups which were offered to everybody the first-footer met on his travels. … For many families it took weeks of hard saving and overtime work to gather together enough to pay for the New Year dram.
For the final sketch we leave the ‘lower classes’ and return to a more civilised setting: a family shopping trip. New Year’s Day was when gifts were exchanged in Scotland and the day was celebrated with games, hunting, golf competitions and shopping. We can see children playing with their new toys while adults stare into shop windows at musical instruments, clothes and other potential new purchases. The happiness the New Year brought to Scottish families is nicely summed up by Luath, the Collie dog, in Burns’s The Twa Dogs:
That merry day the year begins,
They bar the door on frosty win’s;
The nappy reeks wi’ mantling ream,
An’ sheds a heart-inspiring steam;
The luntan pipe, an’ sneeshin mill,
Are handed round wi’ right guid will;
The cantie, auld folks, crackan crouse,
The young anes rantin thro’ the house –
My heart has been sae fain to see them,
That I for joy hae barkit wi’ them.*5
Merry Christmas from Special Collections one and all, but more importantly, have a great New Year!
Prof Grove’s lecture, “How to Get Away with Reading Comics in an Ancient University” – 17/12/14 5.15pm The Humanity Lecture Theatre, Room 255, Gilbert Scott Building, University Avenue.
*certainly his favourite here in Special Collections!
** for a brief history of Christmas celebration in Scotland see Edmund S. Roscoe “Christmas in Scotland” Belgravia: a London Magazine: Jan 1870
***see “New Year’s Day in Scotland” The National Observer: December 28, 1895.
****Hugh Douglas The Hogmanay Companion (Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publishing, 2000) pp. 33-35
*5 as cited by Hugh Douglas The Hogmanay Companion (Glasgow, Neil Wilson Publishing, 2000) p. 43