Monthly Archives: December 2016

Custom survived: Visiting the Lewis Santa’s Grotto, Liverpool

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So reads the sign as we enter

Santa’s grotto. Seen in department stores, shopping malls, garden centres and indeed everywhere across the English speaking world from Australia to (New) York. A staple all through the 20th century.  Yet I bet you thought it was an American invention? But no! The first place ever to invite Father Christmas to enchant children was in Liverpool and what’s even less well known perhaps outside of the city is that the same grotto is still going strong 137 years on! At first it might seem a little unusual to consider this a custom but a custom it is – a calendar one – and possibly the most engaged in custom in Britain. And one which is truly English.

The story begins with David Lewis who upon visiting the world’s first department store, the Parisian Bon Marche, who brought the idea of a department store in 1877 back to Liverpool. What is interesting is that the store had an exhibition area, an idea Lewis also adopted – then in 1879 it decided to introduce a Christmas themed exhibition.

Santa Claus is coming to Town

Naturally in a city dominated by its maritime history, it was not surprising that Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, patron of seafarers as well as children would visit Liverpool first. Christmas Fairyland was the title of the world’s first Santa’s grotto. It was an instant success with the public attracting people from across the country who could finally meet Father Christmas in person and wonder at his grotto. The grotto covering 10,000 square feet became a popular seasonal sight for Liverpool. Its popularity caused other department stores to develop their own grottos of varying quality, including Blackler’s in Liverpool famed for its giant Father Christmas, again another seasonal staple, whose re-appearance at the Museum of Liverpool has been a welcome one for those who fondly remember it. By the end of the century the grotto had been established in the USA and Australia ensuring Santa would be very busy on the run up for the big day.

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Naughty or nice?

Entering the Lewis Grotto is still a magical experience. There is a whiff of exciting anticipation as one waits in the downstairs waiting room, ready for one’s number to be called, ascend the staircase and enter the magical world. Crossing the threshold one is confronted with a fairy tale fantasy world populated by a miniature world of elves and teddy bears. The grotto’s theme when I visited was nursery rhymes and famous children stories, Snow white, Pinocchio, Nutcracker, Peter Pan. Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Aladdin are represented by a tableaux, some moving and many incorporating familiar Liverpool sites like the Rapid Tower and the Liver Building. Other displays in the past have been Alice in Wonderland set in Liverpool and Santa on the Moon. Figures move and sway, wave and enchant both young and old. The display comprises interestingly of both the Lewis Grotto with additions from that of Blackler’s which ran from 1957 until 1988 a youngest compared to Lewis of course, these polar bears guard the entrance to Santa.

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Finding a new ho-ho home!

After 130 years of enchanting children it looked like this iconic grotto was to see its last Christmas, when like many department stores, it closed. But all was not lost. Then then grotto manager, a Mr Mike Done purchased the stock of the grotto at a considerable expense. He was the natural choice to want it to continue as he had worked with it 27 years. After looking around all of Liverpool for a suitable place – size and geography wise – Mike settled on perhaps the slightly incongruous 4th floor Rapid Hardware store. The first theme of its new location was to be about how Santa lost his home and ended up at Rapid.

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So there on the top floor the grottos is set up. This setting up takes a number of months consisting of blocking out windows, painting the backgrounds, setting up the figures, the electricity and everything needed to make the site magical.

It is fantastic to still be able to visit the grotto that spawned such a popular countrywide custom and one which has kept to its own traditions. It is clear by the busy downstairs waiting room that it is still an essential part of a Liverpudlian’s Christmas. Indeed as I was told by Mr. Done one particular visitor has been an 103 year old who worked in the store for 80 years previous and ever misses a visit. He was quick to add that such events spur him to continue with the grotto. Furthermore, as Mr Done related, grottos such as this are a dying tradition. True that Father Christmas is a busy as ever but these are in and out enterprises with very little event to them. This is certainly not the case at the Lewis grotto it is all about the experience.

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Not a grotty grotto

After wandering through these delightful displays we await our moment to meet– the curtain pulls across and there in a Victorian styled drawing sitting on a wreath wrapped thrown – was Father Christmas – even the most cynical is swept along with the enchanting experience and the children certainly leave spellbound with a special glint in their eyes.

In this modern quick fix world of the rapid turnover visit to Santa this Lewis grotto is indeed from another era – one as much about the experience and the build up being as much a part as meeting the man himself. So if you are looking to find that special magical Christmas feeling make a pilgrimage to the oldest and perhaps the best Santa’s grotto,  make it to Lewis grotto now firmly ensconced at Rapid and hopefully continuing well into its second century. Long may Santa be visiting it too.

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Custom transcribed: Christmas Tree Festivals

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I was recently asked how long does something have to go for, for it to be considered a tradition. I answered ten years because once you’ve gone past the decade there’s a feeling of ‘let’s keep it going’. Christmas Tree festivals appear to be the fad new fashion of the 21st century…last century I had never heard of them…now search for them on-line and you’ll find one in virtually all the counties of Great Britain! The website http://www.christmastreefestivals.org/ has 176 of them recorded.

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Branching out!

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of this modern custom. The oldest I can find go back to the mid 1990s such as those of Hitchin, Hertfordshire and Brighstone on the Isle of Wight. Further back and we get an answer of where this custom arose from – festivals over 24 years are firmly US based. But why start them?

Deep roots

It seems curious that the modern church, protestant and Catholic could be combined with celebrating such a pagan thing as a dressed tree – a tradition linked to pagan tribes from the Romans to the Celts. They appeared soon to be Christinanised being adorned by fruits and nuts such that by the 1500s they were being brought into the house, popularised by Martin Luther who encouraged fir trees to be brought into the house and lighted by candles on the branches. By 1800 it had become popularised in the UK, its famed being cemented by Victoria’s Prince Albert. Since then the Christmas essential for every house, shop, mall, restaurant and everything in between, was the fir tree -real or fake!

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From tiny acorns

It is quite remarkable how quickly both this custom has spread and how popular the customs have become locally. The best example of this can be seen at Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. In 2016 it topped 1378 different trees and thus became the largest collection in the country. A good tourist attraction for the town in a time of year in which tourists may well be thin on the ground. Of course, churches are constantly looking for something to reconnect what is slowly becoming a secular celebration to its Christian original message (leaving aside for a moment its hijacking of the pagan one!) The Christmas tree is a focal point. Everyone likes a colourful Christmas trees, being establishing such a festival not only brings communities together, after all everyone can dress a tree and there is no set way to do it, but brings people in. Walking into a church there is something indeed magical about the array of trees glistening and sparkling in the gloom. One is reminded of the magic of the season and the creativity of the people responsible. A new custom yes, but one based in an old tradition and one which is very welcome to add to the custom list.

Custom demised: Stephening at Drayton Beauchamp

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Drayton Beauchamp rectory where locals would apply for Stephening

Christmastide was a period in which begging was common, however in the majority of counties, this was focused on St Thomas’s Day, the 21st. However, in Drayton Beauchamp a custom called Stephening, named after St. Stephen’s Day, was established. It was noted by Chambers’ 1869 The Book of Days who states:

“On St. Stephen’s Day, all the inhabitants used to pay a visit to the rectory, and practically assert their right to partake of as much bread and cheese and ale as they chose at the rector’s expense.”

The custom was not popular with everyone and the account notes:

“the then rector, being a penurious old bachelor, determined to put a stop, if possible, to this rather expensive and unceremonious visit from his parishioners. Accordingly, when St. Stephen’s Day arrived, he ordered his housekeeper not to open the window-shutters, or unlock the doors of the house, and to remain perfectly silent and motionless whenever any person was heard approaching. At the usual time the parishioners began to cluster about the house. They knocked first at one door, then at the other, then tried to open them, and on finding them fastened, they called aloud for admittance. No voice replied. No movement was heard within. ‘Surely the rector and his house-keeper must both be dead!’ exclaimed several voices at once, and a general awe pervaded the whole group. Eyes were then applied to the key-holes, and to every crevice in the window-shutters, when the rector was seen beckoning his old terrified housekeeper to sit still and silent. A simultaneous shout convinced him that his design was under-stood. Still he consoled himself with the hope that his larder and his cellar were secure, as the house could not be entered. But his hope was speedily dissipated. Ladders were reared against the roof, tiles were hastily thrown off, half-a-dozen sturdy young men entered, rushed down the stairs, and threw open both the outer-doors. In a trice, a hundred or more unwelcome visitors rushed into the house, and began unceremoniously to help themselves to such fare as the larder and cellar afforded; for no special stores having been provided for the occasion, there was not half enough bread and cheese for such a multitude. To the rector and his housekeeper, that festival was converted into the most rigid fast-day they had ever observed.”

It was understandably that providing food and drink would cause issues, mainly of drunkenness and rioting, and so in the 1800s, the Reverend Basil Wood rather than getting away with it converted it into an annual sum of money. This was the final death kneel for as the population of the population grew he felt it was more difficult to uphold. Thus in 1827 he abolished it although for many years people would still try to attempt to gain food. In Chambers’ 1869 The Book of Days again he notes:

“In the year 1834, the commissioners appointed to inquire concerning charities, made an investigation into this custom, and several of the inhabitants of Drayton gave evidence on the occasion, but nothing was elicited to shew its origin or duration, nor was any legal proof advanced skewing that the rector was bound to comply with such a demand.”

The only relics of the custom are the rectory and three 17th century pewter plates with a pewter flagon with lid said to have been used for the ceremony. Despite the quote at the start, the sun might be still shining but Stephening has gone! The question is did it happen any where else?