Wednesday 21 December 2016

The Victorian Invention of Christmas

On the odd occasion when I am asked what the greatest invention of the Victorian Era was, I tend to step sideways on it. Yes, various industrial, scientific, entertainment, and transportation technologies are interesting, but I think the best invention of the Victorian Era is the middle class. The idea of the bulk of persons in a society standing between obscene wealth and dire poverty, being able to enjoy opportunity and the fruits of their education and labour, to experience personal freedom as a birthright rather than a class privilege, is a remarkable idea virtually unprecedented in human history. For my second favourite Victorian invention, I may have to say Christmas.

Victorian card of Father Christmas
in his traditional green coat.

True, the Victorians did not invent Christmas. This Christian holy day was already being celebrated as early as 350 CE, with precursors in Pagan winter solstice celebrations. The practice continued through the Middle Ages but fell into disparagement with the advent of Protestantism. While small-c catholic denominations like the Lutheran and Anglican churches continued the celebration of Christmas, Puritans most assuredly did not. When Cromwell and the Puritans took over England during the Civil War, they actually outlawed Christmas! The holiday returned with the restoration of the monarchy, though it was not especially popular. English and Scottish Protestants came ever more to see it as a "superstition" of "Popery." In the United States, it first had the Puritans against it and then the Revolutionaries, who regarded Christmas as an English tradition.

By the beginning of the 19th Century this sectarian squabbling had finally calmed down and the people of the Regency period and Victorian Era began to rediscover the holiday, looking back nostalgically at the days of Merrie England. What tempered those rumblings between Protestant and Catholic was a much greater menace: the Industrial Revolution. This new way of life that began to inexorably transform the United Kingdom in the late-18th and 19th centuries increased nostalgia for the "days of yore," a mythologized Tudor period, Gothic Revivalism, a pleasant Olde England of thatched roofs, close-knit communities, and agrarian lifestyles. And Christmas.

As recreationists clamber over each other to lay primeval claims to the Christmas Tree, we know for certain that it was the Hanoverian Queen Charlotte, wife of King George the Third, that introduced the Tannenbaum to Buckingham Palace. Queen Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert further engrained the Christmas Tree in aristocratic society, and the 1848 Illustrated London News publication of an engraving with the Royal Family surrounding their tree festooned in lights and ornaments created a public fever. The fashionable practice spread across the Atlantic so that by 1870, Christmas Trees were ubiquitous in the English-speaking world.

The Illustrated London News engraving.

The United States had its own revival (or, more correctly, arrival) of Christmas in the 1820's. The poem popularly known as Twas the Night Before Christmas was composed in 1822 by the American professor Clement Clarke Moore. Two years before, Washington Irving documented the warmth of English Christmas celebrations in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., the same famous tome in which The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle are recorded. His picturesque descriptions of Christmas Eve in an English manor house piqued readers on both sides of the ocean:
Nothing in England exercises a more delightful spell over my imagination than the lingerings of the holiday customs and rural games of former times... Of all the old festivals, however, that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations. There is a tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment. The services of the Church about this season are extremely tender and inspiring. They dwell on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith and the pastoral scenes that accompanied its announcement. They gradually increase in fervor and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will to men. I do not know a grander effect of music on the moral feelings than to hear the full choir and the pealing organ performing a Christmas anthem in a cathedral, and filling every part of the vast pile with triumphant harmony...
There is something in the very season of the year that gives a charm to the festivity of Christmas. At other times we derive a great portion of our pleasures from the mere beauties of Nature. Our feelings sally forth and dissipate themselves over the sunny landscape, and we "live abroad and everywhere." The song of the bird, the murmur of the stream, the breathing fragrance of spring, the soft voluptuousness of summer, the golden pomp of autumn, earth with its mantle of refreshing green, and heaven with it deep delicious blue and its cloudy magnificence,—all fill us with mute but exquisite delight, and we revel in the luxury of mere sensation. But in the depth of winter, when Nature lies despoiled of every charm and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasure of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart, and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of loving-kindness which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms, and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.
The pitchy gloom without makes the heart dilate on entering the room filled with the glow and warmth of the evening fire. The ruddy blaze diffuses an artificial summer and sunshine through the room, and lights up each countenance in a kindlier welcome. Where does the honest face of hospitality expand into a broader and more cordial smile, where is the shy glance of love more sweetly eloquent, than by the winter fireside? and as the hollow blast of wintry wind rushes through the hall, claps the distant door, whistles about the casement, and rumbles down the chimney, what can be more grateful than that feeling of sober and sheltered security with which we look round upon the comfortable chamber and the scene of domestic hilarity?
The English, from the great prevalence of rural habit throughout every class of society, have always been found of those festivals and holidays, which agreeably interrupt the stillness of country life, and they were, in former days, particularly observant of the religious and social rites of Christmas... It seemed to throw open every door and unlock every heart. It brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm, generous flow of joy and kindness. The old halls of castles and manor-houses resounded with the harp and the Christmas carol, and their ample boards groaned under the weight of hospitality. Even the poorest cottage welcomed the festive season with green decorations of bay and holly—the cheerful fire glanced its rays through the lattice, inviting the passengers to raise the latch and join the gossip knot huddled round the hearth beguiling the long evening with legendary jokes and oft-told Christmas tales.
Illustration of Christmas dinner from Irving's Sketch Book.

About 20 years after Irving, another pair of Americans would begin to define images of Christmas and winter frivolity. Currier and Ives were printmakers who achieved success by marketing their lithographs as affordable art for the masses. Winter scenes were among their best and most enduring, having enshrined themselves in popular song still to this day. The interest in winter in general coincided with the last cold snap of the "Little Ice Age" hitting around 1850. Winter became a major theme in art and warmth a major theme in fashion from the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 1650's, when people's attention turned to making the most of it.

Central Park, Winter by Currier and Ives.
American Homestead Winter by Currier and Ives.

Many of the songs to which Washington Irving referred were documented, along with numerous new inventions, in William Sandys' Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, published in 1833. This text included, for the first time, familiar hymns like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In, The First Noel, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Following the publication of these Christmas carols, the tradition of Christmas caroling began. The first commercially produced Christmas card was published by Sir Henry Cole in 1843, from an illustration by John Callcott Horsley depicting scenes of domestic joy and charitable giving.

The first Christmas card.

That theme of Christmas as a time not only of sensory and familial richness but of giving reached its apotheosis in the greatest Christmas book ever written. Also published in 1843, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol acted in many ways as a "secular Nativity story," defining what Christmas was supposed to be for generations to follow. It is, of course, the story of miserly Scrooge, one of the last abstainers from Christmas, too caught up in the age of commerce and industry to take notice of hearth, home, and family. After a warning from his departed business partner who learned too late that his life was wasted in business, Scrooge is visited by three spirits. The wraithlike Ghost of Christmas Past represents the ethos of Merrie England: simpler days, happier days, before the Industrial Revolution... an evanescent vapour of what once was, if it ever was. The Ghost of Christmas Present resembles the traditional image of Father Christmas and shows Scrooge how Christmas is celebrated in the homes of the wealthy and the poor, and more importantly, the effects of the Industrial Revolution in creating and maintaining poverty. This Ghost introduces us to Tiny Tim, and the hideous visages of Want and Ignorance. Finally the Ghost of Christmas Future shows life one year hence, when both Scrooge and Tiny Tim are dead, each victims of the Industrial Revolution in their own way. On Christmas Day Scrooge awakens a changed man who commits himself to improving the lot of his fellow person.

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present.

The impact of A Christmas Carol was immediate and lasting. Critics applauded its social message and marveled how it seemed to literally make its readers into better people. An upswing in charitable giving the following year was attributed to the story. It's twined message about the redemptive power of human fraternity - the enjoyment of family and charity towards the poor - has remained the dominant theme of Christmas ever since, above and beyond even its religious significance. Technically, Christmas is a lesser festival in the Christian calendar after Easter and Pentecost, and in an increasingly secular society, these are the values that Christmas has tended to hold on to. Everyone cognizant of Christmas is able to identify them.

The irony of Christmas, though, is that it became the high holy festival of Capitalism. For as much as the Victorians decried the Industrial Revolution and the lapse in values and the poverty it created, it was the Industrial Revolution itself that gave greatest shape to the institution of Christmas gift-giving. The creation of the middle class that I so lauded earlier was a direct product of the Industrial Revolution offering cheaply produced, affordable goods that could raise many people's standards of living, as well as the urbanization and concept of "white collar" work that went with it. The system fed itself, as people who now found themselves with disposable income needed something to spend it on and the production of goods needed people with disposable income to buy them. An annual celebration in which people bought to excess for things they perhaps never needed or intended for themselves was a perfect fit.

So it continues to this day. Originally Boxing Day - the day after Christmas recognized in countries of the Commonwealth - was a day of charitable giving. In particular it was related to boxing up goods to give to servants and labourers whose responsibilities may not have permitted them to fully enjoy the holiday. Its roots may be in the charitable offerings collected on the Feast of St. Stephen, the holy day on December 26th commemorating the first Christian martyr. Today, Boxing Day has been extended to "Boxing Week" and acts as an unadulterated orgy of consumerism that most clearly demonstrates the modern spirit of Christmas.

As one might be able to tell, I'm not a big fan of the consumerist aspects of Christmas. Ordinarily I tell people to donate to charity rather than give me a present, but it is surprisingly difficult to get people out of the rut of thinking they have to give you something. I still enjoy Christmas though, in all those wonderful, warmth, sumptuous, sensory, and liturgical aspects that the Victorians revived and invented so well.

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