'twas the twenty-third night before Christmas.
December 2nd is the second day of the made-up characters calendar and being Moloch's Day, in celebration of the horror that is industrial disasters, this day marks the proprietor Noel Knowell.
'Hark!' the morning Herald sings,
Advertising wonderous things.
Angels we have heard on high,
Telling everyone to buy.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century, if you wanted to make anything grand, it either had to be built out of wood or iron. And because there wouldn't be electricity in people's homes or in factories, it meant that horsepower was provided by actual horses and that you needed steam power to drive factories and candles and gas if you wanted light. The story of how Noel Knowell came to be associated with Christmas starts with just such a problem.
Just after the Great Exhibition of 1851, Mr Noel Knowell who owned the Majestic Star Department Store thought that it would be appropriate for the store to have a great beacon of light on its roof in commemoration of the star of Bethlehem. He commissioned none other than Isembard Kingdom Brunel to build the world's biggest and brightest gas light, in the shape of globe, for a light on a hill cannot be hidden.
Isembard Kingdom Brunel was a nineteenth century industrial revolutionary. Among his many achievements was the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the great steamship the SS Great Britain and the first tunnel underwater, the Thames Tunnel. These things are not relevant to the story of our modern Christmas celebration; his contribution comes from a much much darker place.
Brunel had had no prior experience with either building lamps or indeed working with glass at all but that did not trouble him. This was the age of industry and light and power were elements that could be tamed and brought to command by those who dared to do so - audere est facere - to dare is to do.
Brunel's lamp, which was gas lit, was built from a cage of iron and had eight sections of glass; one for every quarter both above and below the horizon. It measured twelve feet across and would be the brightest object built by human hands. The Majestic Star Department Store would have its own bright star that would give great light both day and night.
On December 2nd 1851, Noel Knowell attempted to light the beacon for the first time but unknown to all, Brunel had unwittingly built a massive gas bomb. When his pilot light on the end of a twenty foot pole excited the gas, the beacon exploded in a shower of iron and glass, the gas caused a fireball which engulfed the top level in the department store and the iron ring which formed the equator was blown across the street and into a park where it miraculously came to settle around a couple who were cowering under a holly tree and in each other's arms. It is because of their good fortune that we place circles of holly on our doors. The Majestic Star Department Store never commenced another day's trading.
Ever the businessman, Noel Knowell retreated into one of his sidelines and began to produce bottled drinks, in the still infant apothecarial tonics industry. This new venture which was founded in 1852, in partnership with a recently arrived migrant Swedish chef, Bjorn Issthe, made a host of drinks including Indian Tonic Water, Dandelion and Burdock, and Sarsaparilla but it was their Ginger Ale for which the company became famous.
“Noel Knowell / Bjorn Issthe - King Of Ginger Ale” became one of the most famous drinks companies of the day; notwithstanding the fact that in the period before the First World War where the use of drugs was completely unregulated, the drink was laced with cocaine and marketed with the tag line of "Everything Must Go"; which either seems incredibly morbid or euphoric depending on how you choose to look at it; the company chose the former.
Unfortunately, the company did not fare so well during the Great Recession of 1892 and ran into financial difficulties. The company folded in 1899 after fading into obscurity and unprofitability but not before “Noel Knowell / Bjorn Issthe - King Of Ginger Ale” had passed into the realm of popular song.