Category Archives: Australia

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: Australia Day and Lincoln’s Great Australian Breakfast

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This is my first post for the new category; custom transcribed from foreign shores to England.

Picture the scene! The sun pouring down, people throng the beach, celebrating and tucking into their breakfast….that’s what might be going on at Port Lincoln, Australia…however a few thousand miles away….surprisingly in Lincoln, Australia Day is celebrated too! Its a long way from the beach and Skegness would be a bit too bracing at this time of year! Understandably, the celebration has moved to indoors.  This is perhaps a contrived custom transcribed from southern climes. Across the country, Aussies have celebrated this day, whether they are in bedsits in Earl’s court, Bush House or beyond, certainly since the 1950s.

Tie me banger oo down sport!

I spoke to my wife, who is Australian and said don’t forget your passport…I think she was thinking we were going somewhere exotic! Although when I said to her she wouldn’t need a suitcase that problem was ironed out I feel. On arrival signs, perhaps some of the weirdest I seen, pronounced:

“Australian Breakfast this way!”

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Passport control. Checking the passport!

Lining up at the start, Australian nationals produce their passports for their free breakfast and the number duly written down. There appeared to be a number of natives in the room according to the numbers written down. However, you would not recognise them for upon entering one is assailed by this cliché fest…didgeridoos, cork hats, cuddly Kangaroos. The band plays a melody of Australian favourites Waltzing Matilda etc. Sadly, we had missed the start which begun with the chords of ‘Advance Australia fair’, the National Anthem. I wonder if the audience joined in?

Of course those Australian’s in the room are more than aware that our attempt to emulate a typical Aussie breakfast would be wide on the mark. Where was the ham and eggs? Where was the melba toast? Where was the VB, Castlemaine XXX, stubbies, Bar B Q, perhaps?

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The Mayor spills the beans..well almost!

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Sadly they couldn’t afford Rolf Harris….! The rest of the joke is yours!

Day to remember or Forget?

The establishment of a nationwide Australia Day did not really begin until 1934, although the day, remembering the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788, was first noted in 1808. Now a public holiday, it is not without controversy. The day is understandably called Invasion Day by the country’s indigenous population, often as a ‘Day of Mourning’ for the loss of their culture. Other indigenous people have more positively called it Survival Day..that they are still there! I’m not sure when the Lincoln locals tuck into their bacon and eggs surrounded by these cheery Australianisms that this aspect has even been thought about. It might shock them perhaps if they did.

Lincs across the sea!

The establishment of the Australia Day breakfast was in 1991. Maureen Sutton in her Lincolnshire calendar (1996) notes:

“In 1991 the Mayor of Lincoln for that year visited Port Lincoln…During his visit he was invited by the Australian Mayor to celebrate Australia Day…with the local tradition of a beach breakfast, served to the people by the Mayor. Those who attend in period costume qualify for a free breakfast. Lincoln’s Mayor was most impressed by every aspect of this tradition, so when he returned to the English Lincoln he decided to have his own Australian Breakfast.”

Throw another prawn on the barby

The meal, an English breakfast was served by cork hat wearing officials, one being the city’s mayor and local ‘celebrities’, although there aren’t many in Lincoln, on that matter the panto likes to help! Sadly there was not much for the Vegetarian…do they not exist in Lincoln or Australia? Speaking to a number of regulars they were dismayed that as there was not a live link up to Australia, although Sutton (1996) says there is in the form of a telephone call between the Mayors. I agreed, I think it would have made it more relevant and with today’s technology much easier and could be on a big screen via Skype or such like! Sutton (1996) also notes that upwards to 1600 people were served breakfast….this might explain why we were quickly ushered out….but a bit of shame considering it did not give us that long to soak in the atmosphere (so bring a fold up chair if you do!) but understandable as they want to get as many to raise as much as they do.

As we left the Australian Shop based in the picturesque town of Stamford is ready to snare a homesick aussie in need of a TimTam or Cherry Ripe. It’s a great little frivolous event and one that the citizens appear to have taken to heart. I would be nice to see Lincoln’s Australia Day breakfast becoming an event that all the diaspora of that country could come together recognise the day and get involved. Now that would raise some money…and empty much of London’s rental accommodation as well!!

Sadly, this could be a lost custom because as I was writing this it was clear that for various reasons, one lack of interest, the 2014 event was cancelled as the venue was apparently also not available. So even more reason to get involved you Aussies and make sure next years a bonza one!

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– images copyright Pixyled Publications

 
Another chance to wear those novelty gift hats you bought