What is being depicted on this old greeting card?
December 27, 2020 10:20 AM   Subscribe

I found this image online and find it intriguing. I’m wondering if anyone would know anything the scene? I know that the lion and the unicorn are sometimes symbols of England and Scotland but not sure where that would fit in. Who are the people shown leaving at the top left of the picture? Is that a harp coming in to the frame between them and the unicorn? What’s with the umbrella?
posted by gnuhavenpier to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Thorough conjecture: it's a political cartoon related to the introduction of a government holiday. The Lion and the Unicorn, supporters of the UK's coat of arms, during a well deserved day off, run into each other in the street and say hi. Ireland is hanging out with Scotland. The thoroughly English Lion is stereotypically carrying a furled umbrella.
posted by zamboni at 10:42 AM on December 27, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: My historical specialty is in an earlier period, but I think zamboni's conjectures are on the mark. I wouldn't call it a political cartoon, though. Victorians had some pretty weird greeting cards. A combination of mass production of color images, cheap postal rates, and frequent delivery (as many as eight times daily in London) meant that people could send cards the way we might exchange texts with our friends. It might be a reference to the 1871 Bank Holidays Act. (Just speculating, though).
posted by brianogilvie at 11:52 AM on December 27, 2020 [10 favorites]

Is that a family of bears looking on? Because bears are generally taken to represent Russia.

Also, there seems to be snow on the ground. That and the generally wintery atmosphere suggests to me that the holiday in question falls around Christmas - which brings us back to the idea of greetings cards again. A Christmas card, perhaps?
posted by Paul Slade at 1:12 PM on December 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I missed the edit window, but I've just found this.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:20 PM on December 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Is that a family of bears looking on? Because bears are generally taken to represent Russia.

Pretty sure that's the lion's family—Mrs. Lion and the young lions, or else just three cubs. Which, given that the rest of the gang is here and they're celebrating their shared good fortune having a UK-wide government day off, could possibly be colonies? Or possibly just a marker of how virile the lion is.
posted by babelfish at 1:45 PM on December 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

There are three lions on the Royal Crest of England, and more famously on the crests of its sports teams. Bank holidays in England and Scotland (and Ireland) are not all the same days, and the countries don't get the same amount. I'm not a historian, but it seems likely there was some resentment that the English were having a day off when the rest of the United Kingdom were having to work.
posted by Hogshead at 1:58 PM on December 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

three lions passant guardant ,on the Royal Arms of England
posted by yyz at 2:02 PM on December 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers! Great to see that other picture
And confirm that it is a harp. So if the green figure and the harp is for Ireland I suppose the red figure in the hat might be Wales.
posted by gnuhavenpier at 2:28 PM on December 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

That makes much more sense. So England (the lion) and Scotland (the unicorn) are celebrating (dancing?) to mark a day off around Christmas time while the Irish peasants in the background (identified by both their ragged clothes and the harp) must work. All that remains is to figure out which particular day at that time of year was then a holiday in Scotland and England, but not in Ireland.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:31 PM on December 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

The figure in red might well be a Welsh woman wearing a Gower cockle hat.
posted by clew at 4:22 PM on December 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Christmas Day became a bank holiday in Scotland with the passage of the 1871 Act, so I suspect the card has something to do with this (it did not become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958). The strange thing is that in England, Wales and Ireland it was already a day of rest and the Act gave England, Ireland and Wales Boxing Day as a bank holiday instead. Perhaps England, Ireland and Wales are going off to their Boxing Day holiday, while Scotland returns to work? Scotland's next winter bank holiday would be New Year's Day, however, again that was not a bank holiday for England, Ireland or Wales.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:27 PM on December 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I also suspect the card Paul Slade found in which A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year has been added to the bottom is a refresh of an older stash of the original cards, with that phrase added in order to sell them after the Bank Holiday Act was no longer (was it ever?) a pertinent enough event to sell cards on its own.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:31 PM on December 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

Maybe a reference to Boxing Day (traditionally St. Stephen's Day in Ireland)? The Bank Holidays Act 1871 established Boxing Day as a winter holiday: "In the UK, 26 December (unless it is a Sunday) has been a bank holiday since 1871. When 26 December falls on a Saturday, the associated public holiday is on the following Monday. When 26 December falls on a Sunday, the public holiday is the following Tuesday, Monday being the public holiday associated with Christmas Day."

St. Stephen's Day is always Dec. 26, regardless of the day of the week it falls on -- so some years Ireland missed out on the "Government Holiday" of the card. (Re: the figures beside the harp; as part of the Feast of St. Stephen celebration, "people dress up in old clothes, wear straw hats and travel from door to door... they dance, sing and play music.")
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:39 PM on December 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Picture of Gower hats - straw, so suitable for St Stephen’s
posted by clew at 11:14 PM on December 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think oneirodynia has it with the occasion being the 1871 introduction of Christmas Day as a bank holiday -but not a public holiday. So all fine for the toffs throughout the UK - but not for the workers in Scotland at least. The unicorn is having a fine old time - beats being chained, I guess.

For a long time (and still today to a large extent) Christmas sat in the shadow of New Year in terms of winter festivals in Scotland: this was because. Up until the Scottish reformation of 1560, Yule had been the big celebration (getting past dark of the winter solstice up here at 50+ degrees north feels like a real achievement, believe me). The Scottish Kirk frowned on Yule however, seeing it as superstitious pagan nonsense that appears nowhere in the scriptures (the Scottish Free Church maintains a blind eye to Christmas to this day) - celebrating Yule/Christmas was banned by the Scottish Parliament in 1640 - the 1871 act served as a symbolic repeal only and was not completed until the day become a public holiday here in 1958.

So New Year was the big festival while Christmas was a working day (and one can still judge the relative importance of the two holidays here by measuring length and severity of hangover).
posted by rongorongo at 1:22 AM on December 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Not quite my line, but could it refer to Gladstone and Disraeli?
posted by StephenB at 5:12 AM on December 28, 2020

While Tenniel’s Through The Looking-Glass illustrations of the Lion and the Unicorn did caricature Gladstone and Disraeli, I don’t think there’s any hint of that in the postcard illustration.
posted by zamboni at 6:55 AM on December 28, 2020

Isn't an umbrella a symbol associated with Gladstone and the Liberals? So a lion holding an umbrella would be Gladstone, or is that symbology not contemporary?
posted by StephenB at 1:01 PM on December 28, 2020

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