Below is an excerpt from Henry Mayhew’s seminal work, ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ in this chapter, he explores the tradition of ‘Christmasing’; whereby vendors (costermongers or market traders) gather festive branches such as holly and mistletoe in order to sell.
Why did they sell mistletoe and holly in Victorian times?
People would purchase these festive branches to decorate their homes over the Christmas period. Even pubs and churches would put up mistletoe and holly over Christmas, and people even topped their Christmas puddings with it.
‘London Labour and the London poor’ was written over a period of time in the 1840’s, and shows that the tradition of decorating our homes for Christmas is nothing new, and neither is the profit to be made from it. Selling Christmas decorations – even things as simple as a few branches of festive leaves – was as lucrative for retailers then as it is now:
The article is as follows:
Of Christmasing: Laurel, Ivy, Holly and Mistletoe
In London a large trade is carried on in "Christmasing," or in the sale of holly and mistletoe, for Christmas sports and decorations. The quantity of these "branches" sold is nearly 250,000, and the money expended upon them annually in the streets amounts to just over £15,000.
It must be borne in mind, to account for this expenditure for a brief season, that almost every housekeeper will expend something in "Christmasing;" from 2d. to 1s. 6d., and the poor buy a pennyworth, or a halfpennyworth each, and they are the coster's customers.
In some houses, which are let off in rooms, floors, or suites of apartments, and not to the poorest class, every room will have the cheery decoration of holly, its bright, and as if glazed leaves and red berries, reflecting the light from fire or candle.
"Then, look," said a gardener to me, "what's spent on a Christmasing the churches! Why, now, properly to Christmas St. Paul's, I say properly, mind, would take 50l. worth at least; aye, more, when I think of it, nearer 100l. I hope there'll be no `No Popery' nonsense against Christmasing this year. I'm always sorry when anything of that kind's afloat, because it's frequently a hindrance to business."
This was said three weeks before Christmas. In London there are upwards of 300,000 inhabited houses. The whole of the evergreen branches sold number 375,000.
Even the ordinary-sized inns, I was informed, displayed holly decorations, costing from 2s. to 10s.; while in the larger inns, where, perhaps, an assembly-room, a concert-room, or a clubroom, had to be adorned, along with other apartments, 20s. worth of holly, &c., was a not an uncommon outlay.
"Well, then, consider," said another informant, "the plum-puddings! Why, at least there's a hundred thousand of 'em eaten, in London, through Christmas and the month following. That's nearly one pudding to every twenty of the population, is it, sir? Well, perhaps, that's too much. But, then, there's the great numbers eaten at public dinners and suppers; and there's more plum-pudding clubs at the small grocers and public-houses than there used to be, so, say full a hundred thousand, flinging in any mince-pies that may be decorated with evergreens. Well, sir, every plum-pudding will have a sprig of holly in him. If it's bought just for the occasion, it may cost 1d., to be really prime and nicely berried. If it's part of a lot, why it won't cost a halfpenny, so reckon it all at a halfpenny. What does that come to? Above 200l. Think of that, then, just for sprigging puddings!"
Mistletoe, I am informed, is in somewhat less demand than it was, though there might be no very perceptible difference. In many houses holly is now used instead of the true plant, for the ancient ceremonies and privileges observed "under the mistletoe bough." The holly is not half the price of the mistletoe, which is for one reason; for, though there is not any great disparity of price, wholesale, the holly, which costs 6d.retail, is more than the quantity of mistletoe retailed for 1s. The holly-tree may be grown in any hedge, and ivy may be reared against any wall; while the mistletoe is parasitical of the apple-tree, and, but not to half the extent, of the oak and other trees.
It does not grow in the northern counties of England. The purchasers of the mistletoe are, for the most part, the wealthier classes, or, at any rate, I was told, "those who give parties."
It is bought, too, by the male servants in large establishments, and more would be so bought, "only so few of the great people, of the most fashionable squares and places, keep their Christmas in town." Half-a-crown is a not uncommon price for a handsome mistletoe bough.
The costermongers buy about a half of the holly, &c., brought to the markets; it is also sold either direct to those requiring evergreens, or to green-grocers and fruiterers who have received orders for it from their customers, or who know it will be wanted. A shilling's worth may be bought in the market, the bundles being divided. Mistletoe, the costers -those having regular customers in the suburbs -receive orders for.
"Last December," said a coster to me, "I remember a servant-girl, and she weren't such a girl either, running after me in a regular flutter, to tell me the family had forgot to order 2s. worth of mistletoe of me, to be brought next day. Oh, yes, sir, if it's ordered by, or delivered to, the servant-girls, they generally have a little giggling about it. If I've said: `What are you laughing at?' they'll mostly say: `Me! I'm not laughing.'"
The costermongers go into the neighbourhood of London to procure the holly for street sale. This is chiefly done, I was told, by those who were "cracked up," and some of them laboured at it "days and days." It is, however, a very uncertain trade, as they must generally trespass, and if they are caught trespassing, by the occupier of the land, or any of his servants, they are seldom "given in charge," but their stock of evergreens is not unfrequently taken from them, "and that, sir, that's the cuttingest of all." They do not so freely venture upon the gathering of mistletoe, for to procure it they must trespass in orchards, which is somewhat dangerous work, and they are in constant apprehension of traps, spring-guns, and bull-dogs.
Six or seven hundred men or lads, the lads being the most numerous, are thus employed for a week or two before Christmas, and, perhaps, half that number, irregularly at intervals, for a week or two after it. Some of the lads are not known as regular coster-lads, but they are habitués of the streets in some capacity. To procure as much holly one day, as will sell for 2s. 6d. the next, is accounted pretty good work, and 7s. 6d. would be thus realised in six days. But 5s. is more frequently the return of six days' labour and sale, though a very few have cleared 10s., and one man, "with uncommon luck," once cleared 20s. in six days.
The distance travelled in a short winter's day, is sometimes twenty miles, and, perhaps, the lad or man has not broken his fast, on some days, until the evening, or even the next morning, for had he possessed a few pence he would probably have invested it in oranges or nuts, for street-sale, rather than "go a-gathering Christmas."
One strong-looking lad, of 16 or 17, gave me the following account: -
"It's hard work, is Christmasing; but, when you have neither money nor work, you must do something, and so the holly may come in handy. I live with an elder brother, he helps the masons, and as we had neither of us either work or money, he cut off Tottenham and Edmonton way, and me t'other side of the water, Mortlake way, as well as I know. We'd both been used to costering, off and on. I was out, I think, ten days altogether, and didn't make 6s. in it. I'd been out two Christmases before.
O, yes, I'd forgot. I made 6d. over the 6s., for I had half a pork-pie and a pint of beer, and the landlord took it out in holly. I meant to have made a quarter of pork do, but I was so hungry -and so would you, sir, if you'd been out a-Christmasing -that I had the t'other quarter. It's 2d. a quarter. I did better when I was out afore, but I forget what I made.
It's often slow work, for you must wait sometimes 'till no one's looking, and then you must work away like anything. I'd nothing but a sharp knife I borrowed, and some bits of cord to tie the holly up. You must look out sharp, because, you see, sir, a man very likely won't like his holly-tree to be stripped. Wherever there is a berry, we goes for the berries. They're poison berries, I've heard. Moonlight nights is the thing, sir, when you knows where you are.
I never goes for mizzletoe. I hardly knows it when I sees it. The first time I was out, a man got me to go for some in a orchard, and told me how to manage; but I cut my lucky in a minute. Something came over me like. I felt sickish. But what can a poor fellow do? I never lost my Christmas, but a little bit of it once. Two men took it from me, and said I ought to thank them for letting me off without a jolly good jacketing, as they was gardeners. I believes they was men out a-Christmasing, as I were. It was a dreadful cold time that; and I was wet, and hungry, -and thirsty, too, for all I was so wet, - and I'd to wait a-watching in the wet. I've got something better to do now, and I'll never go a-Christmasing again, if I can help it."
This lad contrived to get back to his lodging, in town, every night, but some of those out Christmasing, stay two or three days and nights in the country, sleeping in barns, out-houses, carts, or under hay-stacks, inclement as the weather may be, when their funds are insufficient to defray the charge of a bed, or a part of one, at a country "dossing-crib" (low lodging house). They resorted, in considerable numbers, to the casual wards of the workhouses, in Croydon, Greenwich, Reigate, Dartford, &c., when that accommodation was afforded them, concealing their holly for the night.
As in other matters, it may be a surprise to some of my readers to learn in what way the evergreens, used on festive occasions in their homes, may have been procured.
The costermongers who procure their own Christmasing, generally hawk it. A few sell it by the lot to their more prosperous brethren.
Some of the costermongers deck their carts and barrows, in the general line, with holly at Christmas. Some go out with their carts full of holly, for sale, and may be accompanied by a fiddler, or by a person beating a drum. The cry is;
"Holly! Green Holly!"
Of all the "branches" in the markets, the costers buy one-half. This season, holly has been cheaper than was ever known previously. In some years, its price was double that cited, in some treble, when the December was very frosty.