The Season of Song: Christmas writing competitions in the People’s Journal

This festive post comes from Erin Farley, a local PhD student working on “Poetry, song and community in the industrial city: Victorian Dundee”, a collaboration between the University of Strathclyde and Dundee Central Library’s Local History Centre.

In mid-Victorian Scotland, Christmas was not a major holiday. The Reformation-era ban on celebrating Christmas was no longer enforced, but Hogmanay – which had replaced Christmas in seasonal significance – was still by far the more important date for celebration. Christmas Day would not become a public holiday in Scotland until the mid-twentieth century. However, by the 1860s, the idea of Christmas (if not its practice) was certainly gaining popularity.

Dundee’s People’s Journal newspaper may have had a considerable hand in this. The People’s Journal was founded in 1858, from the same stable as the left-leaning Dundee Advertiser newspaper, and from its first issue it aimed to “write up to the good sense of the working classes.” Editor W.D. Latto began running Christmas and New Year story and poetry competitions in the early 1860s. These competitions opened in autumn, and successful entries were published in a special supplement in late December. While the glory of publication was often thought to be reward enough, small cash prizes for the best entries also drew in writers.

Christmas literature was, at the time, incredibly popular in London publishing circles, with Charles Dickens the undisputed star. The material submitted to the People’s Journal competitions could be on any topic – it did not have to be festive. Tara Moore, in Victorian Christmas in Print, has observed a tendency for early entrants in the People’s Journal competition who did use a Christmas theme to use London settings and language, rather than Scottish ones. This was at odds with most of the Journal’s creative contributions: the editors encouraged the use of Scots and centred local perspectives. However, these competitions were undoubtedly important in shaping popular Scottish writing in the nineteenth century. A. C. Lamb, in his Bibliography of Dundee Periodical Literature, 1775-1891, remarks:

On an occasion marking his twenty-fifth year as editor of the People’s Journal, Mr. W.D. Latto said that he regarded one of the most noteworthy achievements of the Journal to be “the annual Christmas competitions, by which the sons and daughters of toil have been encouraged to devote their leisure hours to mental culture and literary composition…. [These] have brought to light several poets, novelists, and essayists, who might otherwise have ‘blushed unseen, and wasted their sweetness on the desert air’. Of these, let it suffice to mention the names of Mr. Alexander Anderson (‘Surfaceman’), and of Miss Annie S. Swan, both of whom have earned for themselves very high distinction in literature, the former as a poet, the latter as a novelist’. (Scottish Notes & Queries, Vol. III, Dec 1889 – May 1890)

The People’s Journal Christmas competitions and the volume of contributions they drew ultimately led to the foundation of a new publication entirely dedicated to fiction and poetry, the People’s Friend.

Poems by the People, published in March 1869, contained the one hundred and thirty best poems and songs (as judged by Latto and Reverend George Gilfillan) from the four hundred and twenty submitted to the previous year’s Christmas competition. Some of the Christmas-themed poems do indeed suggest Dickens’s “fatal presence,” (to borrow William Donaldson’s phrase): carols, orphans and stingy landlords feature heavily, often set in ambiguous locations. However, many of the poems use their seasonal setting to celebrate community or comment on social injustice with great success.

Among the twelve ‘first prize’ poems, only one is explicitly set at Christmas. “Lost Lilias – A Christmas Legend,” by Glaswegian Alex G. Murdoch, is set in Blantyre and apparently based on a real legend. Lilias, a young nun in Blantyre convent, goes out to deliver Christmas gifts to the poor in stormy weather. The poem concludes with her unfortunate fate:

Night followed, bringing clouds and storms,
But brought not sainted Lilias back;
And lamps are lit, and friends have gone
Her steps along the snows to track.

By dawn they found her cold and dead –
A groove of drifted snows between;
And on the spot where she had lain,
        The image of a Cross was seen!

Others use a more general winter setting, onto which readers could project the festivities of their choice. G. W. Donald, Abbey Keeper at Arbroath and a popular poet in Dundee and Angus, won second prize with “‘Mang Our Ain Fouk at Hame”, a Scots poem which is definitely seasonal, and while it mentions neither Christmas nor Hogmanay by name, it reinforces the season as one to focus on home and family connections, and remember those gone before.

‘Tis winter, the reaver, he’s goulin’ amain,
Wi’ a cauld eerie sough an’ a sowf o’ his ain.
Nae birdie sings now ‘mang the broom on the brae,
Where robin sits chirpin’, the semblance o’ wae.
Blythe summer has gane, wi’ the saft mellow hum
That rose frae the loaning when gloamin’ had come;
E’en the crune o’ the burnie that danced ‘mang the faem
Is mute – yet there’s joy ‘mang our ain fouk at hame. […]

While the idea of Christmas as a time for charity had been established in readers’ minds, again primarily by Dickens, the most emotionally resonant ‘Poems by the People’ against social injustice are those which overlook specifically ‘Christmas’ settings to portray more familiar situations. A dark image of the season is given in James Winthrope’s “Woe,” the story of man and his young family made homeless in winter because of bad trade. Winthrope was a mill worker from Hawick, and this poem may well speak of personal experience:

Tramp, ever tramp,
In the snow, the sleet, and the rain,
In the stinging frost and the chilling damp,
In poverty and pain,
O’er the hill, the morass, and the moor,
With hunger to drive us on,
With his knotted scourge, to the poor man’s door,
And the gates of the lofty one –
To be wetted and chill’d to the bone,
Exposed to the pitiless blast,
Till even the light of hope is gone –
Oh, God, how long can it last? […]

These early Christmas competition poems suggest that, despite its popularity in a literary sense, Christmas was not yet meaningful enough in Scotland to have a large part in people’s emotional response to events. But the success of these competitions are a marker of the gradual re-adoption of Christmas in Scotland. During the nineteenth century, other Dundee periodicals began to run special Christmas issues, and by the 1890s, there was both a “Dundee Christmas Album” and a “Dundee Christmas Annual,” featuring seasonal stories and pictures.

I will give the last word to William S. Lindsay of Edinburgh, who in his poem “The Contest,” devotes a tongue-in-cheek ode to the People’s Journal Christmas competition as the spirit of the season:

All hail to the season – the season of song –
Mirth, feeling and pleasure come dancing along;
Care falls from the breast, as the leaf from the tree,
And withers away in the blast of our glee.
Then sing with enjoyment the rhymes of the year,
The breathings of many in contest sincere;
The intellect warring a beauty displays
In the quirks of its tales, in the flow of its lays.