Saturday, March 2

Christmas Day weddings in London’s East End – archive, 1913 | Christmas

London, Christmas Day

At first one was inclined to believe that the tradition of Christmas being a popular wedding day among the London poor was not even based on fact. The registrar at St Pancras had had about fifty weddings this week, but not one application for his services on Christmas Day, and the registrar in the far east said that they had never held a Christmas wedding. But a carriage proprietor in Whitechapel Road said that Christmas was one of his busiest days, for although the tendency nowadays is to distribute weddings more evenly over the year the Jewish community is as fond of Christmas weddings as their neighbours, and it is still more lavish in its display. That explained why it was that this morning along the length of Whitechapel and Mile End Road one passed carriages flaunting wedding favours, and long lines of carriages waiting at the doors of Synagogues or drawn up outside restaurants where the essential feast was taking place.

The most Christmassy scene in the whole road – at the end it looked exactly like a snowstorm Christmas card – was at the door of St Benet’s, the parish church at Stepney, where the vicar, with two assistants, married twenty-five. The vicar here is very proud of his parishioners, proud of their courage, their good humour, and generally decent behaviour, and much pleased with their desire to be married in the church. They have an idea that marriage in a church is much more binding than a purely civil one, but their ideas as to what makes it binding are pathetically vague, and in their desire to observe the conventionalities they are troubled by many extraordinary doubts.

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It is usually the bride who comes to make arrangements and who brings the vicar such questions as these – will he consent to marry her if the bridesmaids wear only bows in their hair instead of hats, and will the marriage be legal if the ring is only nine-carat gold. One can understand the tremendous importance that such brides attach to the veil and wreath of orange blossom, and one sympathised this morning with the joy of those who had obviously strained every nerve to secure the satin frock as well.

Four couples at a time
By one o’clock the front pews were filled with the bridal parties and the pews behind over-flowing with deeply impressed onlookers. It was necessary to marry four couples at a time – as many as the chancel steps could accommodate at once, – and the vicar was giving the whole congregation advice that would enable the service to be carried through with decorum. Every type of east London girlhood was to be seen at the chancel steps. The men, one felt, were less distinguished in type. It was perhaps a surprise when one lady with abundant golden locks and cheeks which glowed beneath her veil turned at the altar and kissed her husband adoringly. One groom looked so boyish that one almost held one’s breath while he pronounced the irrevocable vows, wondering if he in the least realised the responsibilities he was assuming, but his delighted smile around at his friends when the ordeal was over proved reassuring.

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Christmas shopping rush in Oxford Street, London, circa 1913. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Satin tulle and lilies, stuff frocks, and dark-ribboned hats – tawdriness touched with high imagination and plain downright common sense, which would no doubt wear better but would never have the gleams of rapture – passed through the vestry door and ranged themselves in the crowded vestry, where an undistracted vicar unravelled the details of names, ages, and occupations, and then passing through a church by this time attentive to a fresh set of vows they came into the midst of the crowd waiting for them at the doors. Within the church was restraint and awe, but outside for once the voice and laughter found vent.

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