For many people, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a bit of Charles Dickens. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that it was the popularity of his works (and the often sentimental descriptions of the festive season therein) that actually went a long way towards reinventing the festival and creating what we now see as a ‘traditional’ Christmas. But even if you’ve never read any of his novels, there is one of his stories that everyone knows because its characters and events have become an integral part of our culture of Christmas – and it is the story behind that particular story I’ll be looking at today, on this Christmas Eve…
Born in February 1812, Charles Dickens had a peripatetic childhood, his family frequently moving to where his father’s job as a pay clerk in the Royal Dockyards took them. In the 1820s, his spendthrift father was jailed for debt, and the young Charles went to work in a blacking factory making shoe polish to help the family’s often parlous finances. This experience of family disruption and what we would now call child labour must have left deep psychological scars on the young man at a formative time in his life – it was certainly something he drew on in his later writings, as the reader can see in his ‘Christmas Books’ amongst others.
All this upheaval during his youth meant that Dickens had little formal education (he was mostly self-taught having effectively left school by the time he was 15), but his childhood experiences had made him ambitious and determined to make a success of himself from an early age. Starting out in a solicitor’s office, he worked his way into journalism and was a parliamentary reporter by the early 1830s. But he was also writing fiction, and his first short story was published in 1833. Three years later, the initial installment of his still-popular novel The Pickwick Papers was published and he rapidly became a household name as a result of its immediate success.
Over the years I’ve written a ton of posts on a festive theme, which have all proved to be very popular with you lot – in fact, it’s become a bit of a seasonal tradition round these parts (indeed, one of my long-time readers reckons I should actually write a book on the subject! I might. One day). There’s so many of these Christmas posts now that I figured it was about time I put them all in one place for easy access. So if you’re feeling Christmassy and fancy a good read, click on any of the links below to find out more…
(I’ll also be adding links to any future Christmas posts as they’re published, so watch out for those too…)
The arrival of the huge Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square each December is a familiar part of the festive season for many people in the capital, Londoners and visitors alike. Some years back, entirely by accident, I found myself in the Square on the evening the tree was due to be lit. As darkness gathered over the city, carols were sung and speeches made – and, with great ceremony, the switch was flicked, lighting the tree to an admiring chorus of oohs and aahs from those watching.
It’s strange the things that remind us that Christmas is coming. For me, it’s the arrival of the skating rink at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, because that also means the arrival of the old-fashioned fairground-style merry-go-round (or carousel to our American cousins) that appears every year.
Walking through Shoreditch one chilly morning in early December, the last thing I expected to see on the streets was an angel of any sort, let alone the Angel Gabriel in all her Christmassy finery. But there she was, delicately perched on top of a bollard outside an office building and sparkling in the Winter sunshine. And she had a story to tell. But it’s not the one you might expect…
Tucked away in a row of 18th century almshouses just behind Hoxton Overground station, the Geffrye Museum of the Home is one of London’s real hidden gems. Examining the homes of the urban middle classes over the last four hundred years, the museum is divided up into a number of different ‘living rooms’ which each represent – and are decorated in the style of – a different time period.
The 17th century was a strange time for Christmas. For the first few decades of the century, people celebrated just as they had for hundreds of years, until a political squabble between the king and parliament exploded into a prolonged period of civil war and the rise to power of some distinctly humourless politicians.
The anti-Christmas legislation enacted by the Puritan Long Parliament in the 1640s wasn’t the first time the British government has had a sense of humour failure (and it won’t be the last) – but it was certainly the most spectacular. All the things that made Christmas so enjoyable for ordinary people were banned: mince pies (see below), decorations, gaming, plays, and attending church services. Shops and businesses were expected to stay open on December 25th – it was, in short, to be treated like just another working day:
Resolved by the Parliament: That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December commonly called Christmas-Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon the day in respect thereof – 1652 Ordinance
This was a very foolish move, as midwinter celebrations of one form or another have been central to human culture and belief systems for thousands of years. However, Puritan religious beliefs trumped the near-universal need for people to have fun and celebrate during the darkest, coldest time of the year.
Today, when we think of a ‘traditional’ Christmas, it is a Victorian-style celebration we are envisioning. Christmas trees, crackers, pantomimes, cards – all these now-familiar seasonal things were either invented or popularised by the Victorians. There are, however, three people in particular who are now considered mostly responsible for the creation of what is today seen as a very British, very Victorian take on Christmas – although, strangely enough, only one of them was actually a Brit!
The first of this trio was a member of the royal family. The introduction of the Christmas tree to Britain is traditionally thought to be down to Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert. However, it is more likely that it was George III’s German wife, Queen Charlotte, who brought the first tree to Britain – Albert merely popularised them.
In the early years of their marriage, Victoria encouraged German Christmas customs to make her husband feel more at home in Britain, and approving press coverage meant that it wasn’t long before the Christmas tree became wildly popular with the British people. The middle classes, in particular, were soon copying this royal idea in their own homes, decorating their trees with candles, small toys and gifts, cards, sweets and other goodies (like sugar plums – see below).
During the six long years of World War Two, Christmas was a much-needed chance to celebrate and forget the horrors of the conflict – but it was also a sad time for millions of people, with so many families separated by death, evacuation and military service, so many homes destroyed by bombing, and so many shortages everywhere.
War broke out in September 1939, and that Christmas was a relatively normal one. There was no rationing – yet – but the British people knew that shortages were officially due to begin the following January and many were determined to enjoy themselves while they still could.
However, the war still loomed over the festive season: the best-selling toys that Christmas had a military theme, while adults gave each other fancy decorated gas mask cases and steel helmets alongside the usual seasonal gifts. The Christmas edition of Women’s Weekly magazine got in on the act too, suggesting that the inside of blackout blinds could be decorated for the festive season.
By Christmas 1940, the shortages were already biting and the bombs were dropping – which made small artificial trees very popular, as they could be taken down into air raid shelters to give these gloomy places a touch of festive cheer during some of the heaviest bombing of the Blitz. Good Housekeeping magazine even suggested a recipe for a Christmas cake in the shape of an Anderson shelter! The most popular gift that year appears to have been soap, which ended up being a real luxury in Europe at various points during the war.
Every family and every community has its own Christmas traditions, some relatively new and some maintained over many generations. Looking forward to the things my own family does every Christmas got me thinking about how Christmas was celebrated in the past and the historical origins of so many of Britain’s seasonal traditions. For example, why do we eat certain foods at Christmas? Why do we put up a Christmas tree? And what on earth is a wassail?
After pondering the answers to these and other questions, I dug out the keys to the Another Kind Of Mind Christmas time machine (it’s a bit like the Tardis, only with more tinsel and fairy lights) and decided to go on a whistlestop tour of festive history to find out the truth behind a few of our often ancient Christmas traditions.
Tomorrow we’ll be visiting the Victorians to find out how they reinvented the festive season. Wednesday will see a trip to the 17th century, when Christmas was briefly banned by the Puritan government, and Thursday takes us all the way back to the Middle Ages, when seasonal celebrations combined pagan and Christian traditions with great gusto.
But we start off today with a short hop back in time to the Second World War, where we’ll discover what Christmas was like during a period of rationing and the constant threat of bombing…