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Mass Observing the season

Christmas tree

Fiona Courage - curator of the Mass Observation Archive - discovers the spirits of Christmases past, as seen by the British people.

Me and my colleague Jessica are sitting at our desks in the University of Sussex with a brown archive box in front of each of us, and a fair few piled up on the trolley next to us.

The opportunity to take some time to look through even a small portion of the vast Mass Observation Archive does not come as often as we might wish, so when set the task to discover experiences of Christmas in Britain over the past 75 years in preparation for the programme, we relish it as an early Christmas present.

As we look through reports hammered out on wartime typewriters and handwritten accounts of card writing and poultry cooking, the sense of Christmases past comes flowing through the pages to us. Mass Observation (MO) started recording everyday life in Britain in 1937, just in time to witness the colossal impact of World War Two on the Home Front in Britain.

By collecting diaries, observational accounts, and responses to in depth questionnaires MO encouraged the British people to become observers and reporters of their own lives, an example of crowdsourcing long before the Internet enabled us to tweet and blog about our lives on a daily basis.

I have to deal with short-tempered, panicking, disorganised shoppers

One MO writer on the run-up to Christmas

MO's activities resulted in a vast collection of archival material which is now cared for by the University of Sussex. Typed reports, posters, tickets, leaflets, newspapers, scribbled notes, handwritten diaries; an entire collection of documents recording everyday life.

The archive illustrates that whilst cultural and technological developments have affected many aspects of our lives some elements remain the same. Reading through these accounts I can empathise with shared values , and compare differing opinions whilst at the same time recognising how time and circumstances has allowed our society to change over the decades.

A study undertaken by MO in December 1942 illustrates this beautifully in relation to Christmas. The importance of the Christmas dinner remains despite the effect of rationing:

"Welded into this quiet, determined 'atmosphere of Christmas,' there was a concentration of interest on Christmas dinner, built up and emphasised by the necessary effort of getting together some semblance of the extravagant fare associated with the normal festivities. There was success in this respect, often patiently achieved by weeks of saving up good things to eat."

Early 'crowdsourcing'

Perhaps the most evocative things that this archive allows us to do is enter into the lives of individuals, providing snapshots of times and places that would otherwise be lost. The following extract from the 1942 MO diary of Nella Last (a housewife from Barrow-in-Furness) illustrates such personal insights:

"I got out all my Xmas 'treasures' for my little artificial tree for centre of table and I'll put a bunch of holly in the corner and put all Jack's 'micky mouse' lights on. To other people the glittering balls and ornaments would look like rubbish, but I'd not change them for gold and jewels - they are alive - with 'memories that bless and burn'."

As we read through the rest of Nella's account of the little tree we learn that many of her sons' friends who had shared Christmas parties around that tree had been killed at Dunkirk. The tree evokes memories of these friends but also symbolises a constant amid the tragedies of war.

MO ceased its social survey activity by the early 1950s but its collecting activities were revived in 1981. Volunteers were recruited from all over the UK to participate in a project to record life in contemporary Britain which still continues today. Themes covered range from the intimate and personal through to commentary on world events, capturing both the individual and the collective mood of contemporary Britain.

As Jessica and I work through these boxes some vibrant sketches of a contemporary British Christmas emerge:

A group of men in a pub look over a  war-time cartoons in a pub lounge
A group of men in a pub look over a war-time cartoons in a pub lounge

"Before Christmas I have to deal with short-tempered, panicking, disorganised shoppers who haven't a clue what to buy; tired stressed, resentful women who've taken the whole of the Christmas preparations on their shoulders… On the other hand it's pleasant to see families shopping together, wanting to delight relatives and friends with a carefully chosen gift".

The joy and pain of card and letter writing at this time of year also struck a chord:

"What about the abysmal tedium of post-Christmas thank you letters to relatives written in childhood! Dear Grandma, Thank you very much for the lovely present, we had a lovely Christmas. I hope you had a lovely Christmas… These were usually undertaken under pressure from a weary parent. 20 years later in my turn I stood over my own children enforcing similar literary efforts. Was this misguided?? They allege they still bear the scars."

So, we come to the end of our last archive box from the trolley. 'I feel all Christmassy now' says Jessica. I know what she means. All these people have shared their lives with us through their contributions to MO and it feels like we can now join them in the hopes, fears and joys of Britain's Christmases since 1937.

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