The Victorians could not be said to have invented Christmas, nor were they alone in popularizing it (as we shall see). Nevertheless, there is a marked difference in the way the holiday was celebrated at the beginning of the century and after the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is obvious that Dickens was a major influence on the way the later Victorians came to celebrate and in turn has contributed much to our ideal of “an old-fashioned English Christmas.”
Neil Armstrong suggests that the reason Christmas was embraced in the middle of the 19th century was influenced in part by the guilt that upper-class Victorians had felt during the “hungry forties”—in the 1830s, the number of people observing Christmas was numerically small, but those who did celebrate did so with gusto. For example, Coleridge’s account of Christmas in Ratzenberg from 1807, first published in The Friend in 1809, which gave an account of Christmas on the Continent, took a long time to be disseminated. Before the 1840s, there was little in the way of a distinctive Christmas iconography. The Illustrated London News, founded in 1842, had introduced a Christmas supplement in 1848. This popularized depictions of scenes of abundance. The Christmas family reunion, popular since The Sketch-Book (see December 18) also appeared. At this early stage, Armstrong found that the centrality was of the pledging cup. The disappearance of toasting by the later Victorian period was due to the holiday becoming more of a children’s festival.
While we discuss the emergence of St Nicholas/Santa Claus/Père Noël/Father Christmas later, it is useful to here note that it is not clear how well-known Thomas Nast’s famous (American) illustrations were known in England, and by the 1880s, British illustrators had their own take. Clement Moore’s poem, so influential and nostalgic to us Americans (well, to me!), was first published anonymously in 1823, and the author did not take credit for it until 1837. It was not published in England until 1891! More influential was Susan Warner’s Carl Krinken: or, the Christmas Stocking, which was published three times in London between 1854-5. A revival of interest in Father Christmas in the Victorian period, with no connection to presents and children, as a sort of patron of winter (see also “Sir Christèmas”), was manifest. This figure made an appearance as “Jolly old Christmas” in the Illustrated London News in 1844. Interestingly, an article in The British Mother’s Journal (1856) referred to Santa’s “yellow Christmas coat” (the Victorian clip art I found for this blog has Santas in various colors including green, red, yellow and blue). The establishment of Santa’s beard came at the same time as an 1860s-1870s revival of the beard as a symbol of masculinity, though even Armstrong admits this might be grasping at straws! The Santa Claus advertising Beecham’s pills in 1904 appears to take wry pleasure in the pain caused to Christmas revelers by festive overindulgence. Ho ho ho, indeed!
Integral to Dickens’ vision of Christmas was the situation of the English working class and poor. Between 1790 and 1840, there was a marked pruning of holidays surrounding Christmas. For example, the Custom and Excise Office closed between December 21st and January 6th on all seven dates specified by the Edwardian and Elizabethan calendars; however, in 1838 it was open on all these days except Christmas Day. This was further complicated by the fact that New Year continued to be the most important of the Christmas holidays in Scotland and still had a strong resonance in northern England, while Twelfth Tide was the most important holiday of the season in the West Country. To counteract this, “In some instances Christmas paternalism took the form of philanthropy, as at Colman’s mustard manufacturing plant in Norfolk, where the Colmans gave each workman a piece of pork at Christmas” (Armstrong 75). Also, for example, in York, small employers were likely to provide a Christmas dinner for their employees.
The spirit to which people adhered to charity for the poor, of course, varied. The Matron of York Penitentiary in 1865 noted that the inmates there often gave up luxuries in order to surprise their relatives with gifts. At Nunwell House on the Isle of Wight, the custom of distributing beef and bread on Christmas Eve, established as a charitable trust in the lifetime of Sir William Oglander, (1769-1852) was still being practiced in the 1890s. Much charitable activity was informal and difficult to quantify. Folk charities did not distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor, which would have annoyed Scrooge. In the late 19th century, children, particularly girls, may have been influenced by examples of selflessness they encountered in Little Women or Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did (1872). In the 1840s, temperance societies offered festive tea parties with speeches on the evils of drink. The Manchester mechanics’ institutes formed Christmas parties from the early 1830s, which were accompanied by lectures on old Christmas customs, such as the boar’s head and the wassail bowl (which, hey, we cover).
As the number of domestic servants employed in England and Wales rose from 751,541 in 1851 to 1,386,167 in 1891, they, too, were involved in the Victorian Christmas. William Tayler the footman who kept a journal of his day to day life in the early Victorian period, wrote of one holiday celebration, “We ate a great deal of egg hot and toast and ale at these times and great seremoney in puting [sic] up the mistletoe bow in the servants hall or the kitchen” (Armstrong 83). In a servants’ ball, perhaps the kissing bough might be used, five circles of wire joined together to form a globe, with evergreens bound around the wires. Apples were hung in the center and candles could also be fixed there. Mistletoe was hung beneath and could be decorated with paper flowers. Mistletoe and evergreens would have been placed in every jug and windowsill in the servants’ areas. An almond and raisin garland might have been used as well.
According to Countess Maria Hubert von Staufer, ancient traditions died hard in the Yorkshire of the Brontës. During Advent, two girls called “Vessel Maids” would carry around a box, or a double hoop with evergreens, with three figures inside. It was covered with a white cloth used expressly for this purpose. This custom has roots in the worship of Dionysius, in which the three figures originally represented the baby god. The box was called, variously, a Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box, or a Milly Box, the object being to make the decoration as beautiful as possible, decorated with greenery and fruits, especially oranges.
The Vessel Maids would carry the box from house to house, asking a penny to see inside. It was considered unlucky if they did not visit a house. Sometimes they would go singing a carol, such as “Here We Come A-Wassailing” or “The Joys of Mary.” The Milly Box, a corruption of My Lady’s Box, usually only contained the Virgin Mary, during Advent; on Christmas Day, the baby, in addition to more decoration, would appear. Also the Waits would have been heard by the Brontë children. The Waits were the official city watchmen whose job was to patrol the streets at night. At Christmastime they combined their duty with carols they would play on musical instruments.
Blow Thou Winter Wind – John Rutter
Speaking of the Waits: though we detail A Christmas Carol in more detail tomorrow, Dickens was certainly familiar with “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” one of the most enduring carols in English, then (1843) as now. William Studwell believed it to be a product of the Waits of London and to come from the 16th century. An old broadside copy was apparently within the Roxburghe Collection of the British Museum in 1770, and William Sandys collected it in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1822). Joshua Sylvestre wrote in 1861, “An antiquary many years ago thus spoke of it: ‘The melody of “God rest you Merry Gentlemen” delighted my childhood, and I still listed with pleasure (as who does not) to the shivering carolist's evening chant toward the clear kitchen windows deck'd with holly, the flaring fire showing the whitened hearth and reflecting gleams of light from the surfaces of the dresser utensils” (Anderson). By the 18th century, too, variations had arisen and each village seemed to have its own version. A. H. Bullen wrote in 1885 that it was “the most popular of Christmas carols.”
Several tunes and variations have been collected (including an 18th century one from Cornwall), though the one with which we are most familiar, matched with Sandys’ version of the lyrics, is nicknamed “the London tune.” A broadside printed by J.C. Evans establishes the tune to around 1800, whereas some historians believe it came to England from France. Keyte and Parrott from The New Book of Oxford Carols identify the tune as “Chestnut (or Doves Figary)” from Playford’s The English Dancing Master (1651).
I remember, too, that it was Kip Allen on Classical KFM 96.6 FM who first turned my attention to, “the comma. Hardly has a song been more beset by confusion of punctuation than this one” (Anderson). The original intent was to wish the gentlemen to be merry, rather than ask the merry gentlemen to rest. Ian Bradley, for one, believes this song addresses the shepherds in the nativity story, therefore in context the comma makes sense.