“What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future.” – Agnes M Pharo

There is no doubt that this year, we will all be celebrating Christmas a bit differently. Our wonderful heritage volunteers, Rosemary and Richard, have spent some time reflecting on Woking's history celebrating Christmas. Through times of both excess and austerity, what remains consistent is a sense of community, joy and love.

Christmas is a shortened form of “Christ’s Mass”. Commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ began at least by the 4th century and the prominence of Christmas Day increased after Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800, with King William I of England also being crowned on that day in 1066.

This year we have been urged to have a “merry little Christmas” (“little” being the operative word) but in the past, festivities in noble houses lasted until Twelfth Night, 6 January, or even up to Candlemas, 2 February. At Woking Palace we have no records of such excess, but in 1613 the lessee of the palace, Sir Edward Zouch, sent a deer to James Whitelocke, a nobleman and politician, as a Christmas present. The scale of celebrations has varied, from it being banned by Oliver Cromwell in 1654, to business as usual at Woking Crematorium – the 1st Duke of Westminster was cremated there on 25 December 1899. Some football matches have even taken place on Christmas morning.  

Chertsey Road Christmas postcard, 1906.

Christmas cards were first sent in 1842, being the idea of Sir Henry Cole, of the Public Record Office, and later Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Designs have varied over the years – religious themes, scenery and Santa Claus being the most popular. Cards were designed and sent from patients in Brookwood Hospital and from soldiers at the front in World War I, and The Lightbox has examples of several of these in their heritage collection. We also have a tin from Princess Mary (George V’s daughter) given to every soldier at the front, containing tobacco, a packet of cigarettes in a yellow monogrammed wrapper, a cigarette lighter, and a Christmas card and photographs from Princess Mary. Some, for non-smokers, contained sweets, chocolates, and lemon drops.

Christmas card, circa 1904 - 1910.

Advertisements in local papers show the preparations for the food and festivities of the season. By 1893, Christmas was in full swing in Woking. George Winlove Smith announced a supply of “turkeys, geese, ducks, fowls, pheasants, hares, etc.” - an early entry of turkey on the middle-class menu; turkeys were not unknown to the wealthy in earlier years, as Scrooge’s extravagant gift to the Cratchit family in ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) shows. Gammon is the meat of choice after turkey at present, according to Waitrose. The Central Stores in Chertsey Road advertised “seasonable specialities”, with over 7,000 crackers and bon-bons on sale, and F Pullinger, the family baker of Chobham Road, had Christmas and New Year cakes.

Sainsbury's Woking Christmas display, 1920s.

Christmas at the institutions in Woking was not always so merry. In 1888 a visit to the Women’s Prison at Knaphill on Christmas Day was published: the two chapels were beautifully decorated by reliable prisoners and the service began with “Hark, the herald angels sing”, enjoyed by the prisoners, who were in two groups, the old and care-worn and the first timers who wore a crimson star on the arm of their cloaks. Labour was suspended on Christmas Day but after the service the prisoners returned to their cells to an ordinary dinner of 3oz (84g) of beef and 12oz (343g) of potatoes.

While professional pantomimes had to wait until the opening of the New Victoria Theatre in 1992 with “Cinderella”, starring the late Des O’Connor, there were performances in most years from about 1874, held at Brookwood Hospital, and by many amateur groups around the town and villages.

Brookwood Hospital pantomime, circa 1874.

With hopes of building morale, but with little taste, Clark’s of 25 Chertsey Road, advertised in the Surrey Advertiser on 19 Dec 1914, saying “don’t let thoughts of war spoil your Christmas, get one of our genuine pianolas or gramophones for music, mirth and enjoyment”. 

In World War II the Surrey Advertiser’s round up of Christmas on 27 December 1941 complained of the price of turkeys, chickens and toys, a shortage of cigarettes and over-crowded buses, but found a spirit of service with entertainments for soldiers, evacuees, and hospitals. At Mayford Industrial School pudding was served to a fanfare of trumpets and there were parties, football matches and cinema shows. An older resident remembers entertaining a Canadian soldier during Christmas 1939, and that Mr Denstone, the manager of Woolworths, opened the shop one Sunday for the soldiers to buy goods including Christmas presents.

Woking Victoria Hospital patients had a taste of turkey and pudding and were allowed two visitors for tea on Boxing Day. Christmas cards, over 3,000 of them, were sold at the Savings shop for war savings funds. Even with the war over in 1945, Surrey Advertiser reported “as happy a Christmas as coupons and queues would allow” and Woking’s postmaster reported that there were fewer parcels and cards posted but more letters.

Christmas lights at The Grove, 1938

This year Christmas will be like no other, as the scene develops over the next few days, but we wish all our readers as happy and as healthy a Christmas as possible.

How are you celebrating Christmas this year?

For more fascinating blog posts on Woking’s history – or some fun ideas for staying creative, please visit our blog.