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Open Features: One Christmas Eve

William James Symons tells a Christmas tale to warm the hearts of readers at any time of year.

“Tell you a Christmas story! You colonial youngsters have but a very faint idea of Christmas as it is in England, and of course you look for something supernatural in a story relating to this period; but I never had the pleasure or otherwise of seeing anything of the sort, you must be content with a story of poverty and trouble which, thank Providence, you have all been spared in spite of the hard times through which we are now passing. You are all looking foward for your seaside holiday, and you little ones to the visit of Santa Claus and the good things of this life which the festive season has always brought you. May it always continue to do so; and when enjoying yourselves give a passing thought to, and a prayer for, the homeless and the destitute of the large cities in England, who cannot imagine the happiness you enjoy in your colonial home in glorious sunny South Africa.”

Christmas Eve 1851: the year of the Great Exhibition and of the Australian gold discoveries; the shops one blaze of light and colour, with pictures of Hargraves – the discoverer of the gold – represented with a perfect mountain of the precious metal at his feet; the sugar in the grocers’ windows labelled “Try our Australian nuggets, fourpence a pound,” with figures with candied-peel heads, with a citron for the body, cinnamon sticks for arms and legs, raisins for eyes, nose, and mouth; making the mouths water of a group of children gazing spellbound at the beauties of a grocer’s window – set off to the best advantage, and the red-berried holly crowning the whole with its beautiful dark green foliage.

By-the-bye, the gold fever we have been suffering from reminds me of a song which was popular in the streets of London at the time, part of which is applicable to our South African gold-fields. It ran thus:

Gold’s not always to be found
in Australia, O!
Perhaps you’re on wrong ground
in Australia, O!
If some god you chance to see,
Some thief behind a tree,
Says what belongs to you,
You’d better deliver up to me,
In Australia, O!

Then I built a hut of mud
in Australia, O!
But I lost it in the flood
in Australia, O!
The natives came one day,
And they burnt my hut like hay
And they took my wife away,
In Australia, O!

But to return to my story. The streets were crowded, all the shops being ablaze with gas. The butchers, with their lights flaring outside half across the pavement to show the beauties of their Christmas beef, decorated with holly and ribbons – the delight and desire of the crowds thronging the pavements; but to many, alas! The sight of the good things was their share.

Among the shops was a grocer’s and cheesemonger’s on the one side of the door; the other side being an open window devoted to pork, bacon, etc., with which the window-board was covered – and rabbits were hung in all available spaces. Outside is a boy, eleven years old, whose duty it is to watch the goods so that none of them may disappear without being paid for, and also to keep on continually calling out at the top of his voice, “Buyers, what d’ye buy! Quality meat, ladies, rosy meat. True Ostend rabbits! Buyers, what d’ye buy?” You may guess he was shouting pretty loudly, as there was an opposition shop across the road and his employer had promised him an extra penny to cry down the boy belonging to it; which he was earnestly trying to do, to the great amusement of the passers-by, numbers of whom seemed to heartily enjoy the rivalry of the two youngsters. “This is the best shop for the rosy meat. Fine Ostend rabbits. Buyers, what d’ye buy?”

So it went on amidst the crowd and bustle of the evening until past twelve o’clock, when the shop was closed and the boy was paid the sum of 2s. 6d., with the additional penny as promised, and was told he might go home. He did not need to be told twice, but doffing his apron he started off whistling, with his heart elate, imagining himself to be a perfect Crœsus, with a half-crown in his pocket, the first earning of his life. Fortune appeared smiling upon him, and oh! The joys of youth, for although years have passed, and the then lad is now a grizzled man, marked with the furrows of care and time, has since that Christmas Eve, handled some considerable sums as an employer of labour, no money or property has ever brought the same feeling of pleasure to his heart that his first hardly-earned half-crown did on that, to him, memorable night, or rather morning.

He hurried home regardless of the many sights and sounds by which the streets were filled even at that hour, till reaching the house he burst in overjoyed, and exclaimed “Mother!”

“Well, Willie, dear?” his mother replied, in a voice broken by emotion.

“Why, mother, what’s the matter that you are in the dark, and where is father?”

At this the mother burst into tears, and taking her hands from the baby in her lap, buried her face inh them and replied: “Oh, my dear boy, your father brought home no money; you know I had none when you went away, and I am afraid he has been taking a drop too much, for he was in one of his tempers.”

“Never mind, mother dear; look here’s my wages, as it was not quite a week my master has given me half-a-crown, instead of the full amount – three and sixpence. Lay baby down, and let us go and see if we cannot get something for dinner, only we must make hate, for the shops were nearly all shut as I came along.

“God bless my boy, come along then, Willie. I hope none of the little ones will wake while we are away.”

“Not they mother; we shan’t be long.”

And they went out, and in spite of the hour managed in providing something for breakfast and dinner, not forgetting a plum pudding, the richness of which was not at all likely to upset the stomachs or interfere with the digestive organs of those who ate it. By the time they returned with their purchases the shops were all closed, and near the house were the “waits” playing a carol:

“God rest ye merry gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.”

It was not Christmas morning, the anniversary of the Divine Message to mankind delivered by the angels: “Peace on earth, goodwill towards men.”And in the great city of London at that time I doubt if there were two happier hearts, or two more filled with love than this mother and son, the mother that her boy, little more than a child, should be the means of lifting, by ever so little, the dark cloud of want, nay, almost despair, which almost overwhelmed her on contemplating the dread possibility of her five little ones actually suffering the pangs of hunger, through the inability of her husband and their father to supply them with the necessaries of life. Late as it was, they sat building castles in the air, the lamp of the street poured its friendly beams through the window, and the boy spoke earnestly of what he would do for his mother when he got on, and the fine things he would buy for his little sister Mary, and if father didn’t do better why they’d leave him, and have a home where he couldn’t come in his mad tamper and smash what few things they had. All this and more he promised her, in spite of her protests against his proposed desertion of his father, reminding him that with all his faults he was still his father, and entitled to his love all the more from his failings.

In less than four years that loving mother was laid to rest in a London cemetery, freed at last from a dire struggle to keep want and poverty from her children, and with her last breath she entrusted the care of her children to her Willie, telling him to look after them as she was sure there was a hard life in front of them after her departure; and if the happy idea is true, that the spirits of the departed watch over their dear ones from the heavenly abodes, she will know that her favourite child has striven to fulfil her dying commands, and the family of helpless little ones she left behind are now – those that are left – fathers and mothers of families of their own, but whose children, born and reared on the sunny shores of South Africa, are happily strangers to the troubles and toils which attended their progenitors on that memorable Christmas in the old country.


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