Christmas in hard times

I was looking over copies of Picture Post magazine in the hope of finding some nice Christmas-related content to write about. I did find something fun, which I’ll expand on in next week’s blog post, but during my search I also came across an opinion piece which seemed to speak in some way to the climate in which we are celebrating Christmas in 2022.

Picture Post was founded in October 1938 as a weekly news photography magazine. Each issue contained mostly short articles accompanied by extensive photo reportages. The types of items covered ranged from science and biology (the development of a kangaroo embryo) to international politics and society and celebrity news (like the article on Gracie Fields I’ve written about before). Each week there was also an opinion piece by Edward Hulton, the publisher of Picture Post.

Within a year of it’s launch, Britain was at war. During December 1939, the editors of Picture Post attempted to strike a balance between delivering war news – such as a weekly recap of developments – with the kind of feel-good content the magazine was also associated with. On 9 December 1939 Hulton used his regular page to encourage readers to ‘Spend at Christmas!’.[1] Readers would be helping the war effort, he argues, not by saving their money but rather by spending it freely to boost the economy. Additionally, going all-out at Christmas would ‘not only [be] an escape from the horrors of war, but [also] a remembrance of nobler ideals.’[2]

The main area in which money should be spent, according to Hulton, was women’s fashion. In this ‘silk stockings economics’ model, people spend on consumer goods that require rapid replacement (although under our current fast fashion model, the rapidity with which silk stockings wore out in the 1930s is probably relative). This, in turn, generates economic activity which is good for the country as a whole. Additionally, retaining a focus on the production of fashion at a national level would, Hulton argued, allow Britain to collaborate at an economic level with France. Paris was still the undisputed fashion capital of the western world, and ‘[t]here is no reason why London and Paris should not go hand in hand as arbiters of style.’[3]

Conscious that his male readership may find all this concern about women’s fashion to be a tad frivolous, Hulton hastens to add, almost as an afterthought, that the British motoring industry should continue to export to raise funds for the production and purchase of armaments. But for Hulton, celebrating Christmas and buying luxury goods is a matter of principle, too. He ends his article with the following bold statement:

And if we are merry at Christmas, we shall be showing the Nazis that we are winning the war of nerves, and maintaining the gallant spirit which has overcome adversities which are no novelty to this very windswept isle.[4]

The idea of British pluck is here repurposed to make it a moral obligation for people to celebrate Christmas as normally as possible, despite the country being in a state of war. Granted, December 1939 was in the middle of the ‘Phoney War’ during which there was limited fighting and the anticipated air raids on British cities had not yet materialised.

Hulton turns national pride into a capitalist function, arguing that to spend money on perishable and luxury goods demonstrates a commitment to British values in the face of Nazism. It should be noted that Hulton, and the editorial staff of Picture Post, were politically left-wing and continually highlighted the plight of Jewish people and refugees throughout the Second World War. His reference to the ‘gallant spirit’ of the British was not one that was specifically linked to one political party over the other.

In 2022, millions of people in Britain are facing economic hardship in the run-up to Christmas, often unable to afford basic necessities such as food and fuel. Average spend on Christmas gifts is expected to drop across almost all categories, particularly more expensive goods such as electronics and clothing. Although there is a foreign ruler whose criminal actions have impacted on the economy, much of the current situation is created by successive British governments.

The argument that people should carry on as normal in the face of adversity as an act of national defiance certainly does not hold any weight in the current context. Equally, encouragement to spend on consumer goods to boost the economy, which may have had more resonance during more recent economic crises, become irrelevant when people have no additional money to spend. Consumers no longer have the ability to boost the domestic economy, leaving us to face a Christmas worse than one that took place during the Second World War.

[1] Edward Hulton, ‘Spend at Christmas!’, Picture Post, 9 December 1939, p. 45

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.