Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 3: The Christmas Dinner

Welcome to the third day of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’re featuring a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529

Today’s poem is taken from the advertisements published in the Ashton Standard on December 20th 1862. The commentary was written by Benedict Hughes, a student on the ‘Poetry and Politics’ module in the Department of English at the University of Exeter.

THE CHRISTMAS DINNER.

   The Mansion House Committee have made a special grant of money for a dinner on Christmas Day to every unemployed factory operative and every member of a family at their homes throughout the whole of the distressed district.

 ***********************************

Our fathers honoured Christmas time

   With good old English cheer,

And carol song, and merry chime,

   Fell gladly on the ear.

 

The ivy decked the cottage walls,

   And music did resound;

And in the squires’ more stately halls,

   The “wassail bowl” went round.

 

And tenants gathered round their lord-

   No stranger passed the road;

But from the groaning festive board

   Was charity bestowed.

 

And now, while famine, pale and cold,

   Ten thousand hearts oppress,

Like noble hearts and hands of old,

   There still are some to bless.

 

Long may each noble spirit live,

   To help the poor and sad;

Who vie to be the first to give,

   That Christmas may be glad.

 

And while the feasting multitude

   Sit round the festive board,

They’ll bless the generous and the good

   Who’ve Christmas joys restored.

 

And oft amid the grateful throng

   Will KILLORN’S dress appear;

And thus, mid plenty’s smile and song,

   Will come true Christmas cheer.

 

Commentary

“The Christmas Dinner”, published in an advert for the tailoring firm Killorn and Co., is a remarkable poem; though sadly not due to the strength of its verse. The poem consists of seven four-line stanzas, which each conform to a strict ABAB rhyme scheme. The poem’s metre is also exact: lines one and three of each stanza are in iambic tetrameter, whilst two and four are exclusively iambic trimeter. This combination of simple rhyme and simple metre give the poem a plodding, even arbitrary quality, which is not helped by the poet’s weak evocation of platitudinal Christmas values: “And tenants gathered round their lord- / … / But from the groaning festive board / Was charity bestowed.” (9-12). Indeed, we might conjecture that the poem speaks more of a tired clerical pen, than that of a poet.

However, the poem’s literary short comings pale into insignificance once the poem is situated in context. In a short head piece, we learn that the poem is in praise of the Mansion House Committee, one of the charitable funds aiding destitute cotton workers, which “made a special grant of money for a dinner on Christmas Day” for all unemployed factory staff and their families. For most of the poem up until the final verse, the poet eulogizes over the ways in which such acts of charity have “Christmas joys restored.” (24). However finally, in the last verse the iniquitous project of Killorn and Co. is revealed: “amid the grateful throng / Will KILLORN’S dress appear; / And thus… / Will come true Christmas cheer.” (25-8). We see here an ugly conflation of genuine charity and capitalist opportunism. The phrasing is particularly inappropriate: the appearance of Killorn and Co.’s clothing does not simply enhance but trumps charitable relief to bring “true Christmas cheer.” In a stunning piece of advertising expediency, the poet implies that it is Killorn and Co. rather than the good deeds of the Mansion House Committee which really puts people in a festive mood. Perhaps however, we should not be surprised by such a poetic sleight of hand, as it comes directly from a society which still actively endorsed child labour.

Benedict Hughes, University of Exeter. 

Victorian Christmas Card from V&A Museum, London.

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