How Dickensian is Christmas? Five things you didn’t know about the season. By Katie Bell
One of my favourite adaptations of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is Richard Donner’s 1988 film, Scrooged. Bill Murray stars as Scrooge, a money-obsessed president of a television network who is attempting to put on a live Christmas Eve performance of Dickens’s story. The television studio recreates ‘Dickensian’ London with ragged children and street salesmen covered with fake snow. Big Ben looms in the background although it wouldn’t be up for another 17 years after the Carol was published. These scenes have the express purpose to conjure the essence of Christmas in the viewer’s mind. Scrooged is over the top in its generalisations, but it does pull on our contemporary idea of what Christmas should look like.
How did we come to imagine Christmas in this way? How Victorian is it? How did the Dickens family actually celebrate it here at Doughty Street in the 1830s? Here are five lesser-known facts to help answer those questions.
- Was the Christmas tree always green? The Christmas tree is generally thought to have been introduced to the British masses by Prince Albert when he imported spruce firs from his native Germany in 1840. But it seems versions of it were already part of British tradition, particularly for the aristocracy. For example, during King Henry VIII’s reign, Loseley manuscripts describe a ‘tree of golde’ adorned with ‘bows, pomegranates and roses’. In the Victorian period, its rising popularity is marked by its appearance in Dickens’s tale, ‘A Christmas Tree’ (1850), in which the narrator remembers children ‘assembled round that pretty German toy’.
[The Royal Family round their Christmas tree (Illustrated London News, 1848)] Retrieved 22nd December 2016 from http://www.regencyhistory.net/2012/12/did-they-have-christmas-trees-in-regency.html
- Does Father Christmas always wears red? His appearance has roots in a range of traditions – and colour schemes. In many pagan winter festivals, a figure wearing a long green hooded cloak and wreath of holly represents the coming of spring. When Vikings invaded Britain, they brought the tradition of the Norse God Odin visiting Earth at the end of December in a white beard and long blue hooded cloak. Father Christmas’s modern appearance is credited to ‘The Night Before Christmas’, written anonymously in 1823 by the American Clement Moore. The poem is largely responsible for how we view Father Christmas today: jovial, clad in fur, covered in soot, with a sleigh and reindeer. But we have the 1930s Coca-Cola Company to thank for dressing him in red.
[An early twentieth-century Father Christmas dressed in white.] Retrieved 22nd December 2016 from https://shewalkssoftly.com/2012/12/25/bizarre-and-creepy-vintage-christmas-cards/
- Why PLUM Pudding? Plum Pudding has its roots in medieval England and actually contains NO plums, since ‘plum’ meant ‘raisin’. Catherine Dickens includes several Plum Pudding recipes in her cookbook What Shall We Have For Dinner? (1852). Perhaps its elevation to holiday fare in the mid-nineteenth century is related to her husband’s description of it in ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843). The Ghost of Christmas Present is surrounded by a huge feast including: ‘long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters…juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch’. No wonder Scrooge was ‘reverent’!*
[A nightmare Plum Pudding, possibly Edwardian] Retrieved 22nd December 2016 from https://vl203.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/library-christmas-cards-on-sale/
- Were there games at Christmas? Yes, Dickens’s daughter Mamie remembered the family playing charades and a version of ‘Any Questions’ at Christmas. In the Carol, when Scrooge and The Ghost of Christmas Present visit the former’s nephew and nieces, they’re playing Yes and No (‘Any Questions’), Blind Man’s Bluff and Forfeits. The Dickens family loved to put on Christmas plays and performances in the drawing room at Doughty Street. These were a popular form of Victorian home entertainment, as was telling ghost stories, with A Christmas Carol potentially among them.
[‘Professor Pepper’, a mid-nineteenth century magic trick that pairs Christmas with ghost stories, a tradition largely absent from festivities today] Retrieved 22nd December 2016 from http://morbidanatomy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/revival-of-peppers-ghost-at-christmas.html
- Were Christmas cards invented by the Hallmark Company? The first mass-produced Christmas card was issued by Sir Henry Cole in Christmas 1843, the same year Dickens’s Carol was published. Cole was a busy civil servant and lacked the time to write to all his family and friends. So he commissioned artist John Callcott Horsley to design a card with the message, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You’. Its picture shows the poor being clothed and fed, suggesting that charity at Christmas was already a popular notion.
The first Christmas card. Designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole, 1843 (Reproduction held by Victoria & Albert Museum)
As we round out 2016, I believe it is important to remember this nineteenth century sense of idealism. The change which overcame Scrooge hinged on his belief in the importance of the needs of others. Scrooge knew that some would laugh at his newfound charity, ‘but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset.’
* Incidentally, the cake that some love to hate, the fruitcake, hails from ancient Rome where something similar with barley and dried fruit was used as an energy bar. If you enjoyed this article, please don’t send the author a fruitcake.
Katie Bell is in her last year as a PhD student in Victorian Studies at the University of Leicester. She has been a Dickens Museum volunteer since 2013 and is an active member of the curatorial team’s project to catalogue the Museum’s holdings of Dickens’s personal letters. You can find her on Twitter @DecadentDickens.
Susan M. Rossi-Wilcox, Dinner for Dickens (Trowbridge: Prospect Books, 2005).
Bernd Brunner, Inventing the Christmas Tree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
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