The myth of the Victorian Christmas

Our values today are of consumerism and instant gratification, inherited from our Victorian forebears

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

When you think of Christmas, you think of the Victorian era, and of Dickens. Only the most hard-hearted of skinflints could resist his evocation of the festive period, which has been emulated and ripped off ever since A Christmas Carol was first published.

As Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present wander the streets of London, the descriptions mirror what Dickens himself had seen on his wanderings about the city the previous year, albeit with a little creative exaggeration.

Dull of heart would he or she be who could read such a description and not be enraptured by Dickens’s skill

The author described the “brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp-heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed”, and called it “a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do”. He then inadvertently created a multi-billion-pound industry with his paean to the commercial festive season:

“The fruiterers were radiant in their glory. There were great, round pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe.

“There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shop-keepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons.”

Dull of heart would he or she be who could read such a description and not be enraptured by Dickens’s skill. All that is missing is a chorus of “God rest ye, merry gentlemen” — itself a corruption of the original’s “God rest ye merry, gentlemen”, a small but telling difference — and the sound of urchin children running about laughing and joking, secure in the knowledge that the orphanage will be serving up a lavish feast for the unfortunate boys and girls in its care, courtesy of some twinkly-eyed benefactor.

It is a seductive, evocative fable, and, unfortunately, almost entirely false in its suggestions and blandishments: a reminder that Dickens’s imaginative powers remain considerably greater than his social commentary.

To have celebrated Christmas in the early Victorian era was to participate in a series of innovations, as the season resumed its popularity after having fallen into abeyance in the Georgian period. The Christmas card was invented in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A, who commissioned a thousand of them, both for private use and public sale. Christmas trees — hitherto the preserve of aristocratic and court circles after Queen Charlotte introduced them at court in 1800 — became middle class accessories.

Dickens’s evocation of snow-covered festive scenes in both A Christmas Carol and his earlier novel, The Pickwick Papers, became the norm when it came to artistic and literary inspiration. This is the festive fantasy that we still celebrate today, and its marketability has served an entire industry extremely well.

The Christmas festival had centuries of life in it before the Victorians commercialised it

Yet the sanitised and largely anodyne forms that it takes today bear as little invention to reality as they did when Dickens, a struggling writer in need of a hit, commercialised a predominantly religious occasion and turned it into an orgy of extravagance. Even as he is today memorialised as “the writer who invented Christmas”, this is a wilful misreading of historical fact that merely testifies to the success of Dickens’s self-created PR machine.

The Christmas festival had centuries of life in it before the Victorians commercialised it. The first existing carol is dated to 129 AD, the so-called “Angel’s Hymn”, and by the sixteenth century, there was a canon of sacred music that was a world away from the rum-tum-tugger exuberance of the Victorian singalongs. And the discontent and outrage that accompanied parliamentary Puritans’ peremptory cancellation of Christmas celebrations during the Civil War and Protectorate would hardly have been so widespread if the festive period had been low-key.

In fact, accounts of Tudor celebrations of Christmas make even Dickens’s imagination look relatively barren. Many of the best-known carols that are still sung today, including “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and “While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks By Night”, date from the period, and the festival was kept for the full twelve days with great pomp and pageantry.

It was a time of social topsy-turviness, where a “Lord of Misrule” would be elected as a mock king to preside over good-natured ceremonies of feasting, drinking and cross-dressing (how very on trend), and where lords and commoners were allowed to mix on more or less equal terms, for the only time that year.

Great care would be taken over provision for the poor, too. The final great feast on Twelfth Night, January 6, would see a deliberately vast amount of food served, far more than could be eaten by the great men and women, so that the impoverished could be fed decently in the cold months of winter.

We may wish that the more joyful, almost anarchic, Christmas spirit of Tudor England could once again find traction

Provision in the Victorian era at Christmas for the less well-to-do was sketchier. For those unfortunate enough to be incarcerated in the workhouse or orphanage, Christmas Day brought only another round of misery, mildly leavened by what little philanthropy some well-heeled individuals chose to bestow on their charitable project of choice.

This was often resented. The journalist, George R Sims, wrote a savage attack entitled “Christmas In The Workhouse”, in which he castigated the wealthy who have come “in their furs and wrappers” to watch the poor eat. He observed that their pleasure is: “To smile and be condescending/Put pudding on paper plates/To be hosts at the workhouse banquet/They’ve paid for — at the rates.”

We have, at least, moved beyond this open condescension in society. But we may wish that the more joyful, almost anarchic, spirit of Christmas that Tudor England celebrated could once again find traction in our ceaselessly divided and fractious society, when it really did seem for the best part of a fortnight that “peace on earth and good will to all men” could exist.

Alas, our values now are those of consumerism and instant gratification, as we learned from our Victorian forebears. So while you’re munching on your overcooked turkey and downing your umpteenth glass of Bailey’s while wearing a hideous paper crown this Christmas, try to restrain yourself from toasting, “God bless us, every one.”

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