Professor Arthur Purdue takes a look at our fascination with 'Christmas past' and how the celebration has evolved since Victorian times.
Christmas is, notoriously, a time for nostalgia, and for many ‘Christmas present’ is considered never to be quite the same as ‘Christmas past’. This is partly due to our getting older, but is also because there are layers of tradition in our celebrations, some of them pre-Christian, which draw us inevitably to the ‘Old Christmas’. As Charles Dickens wrote: “How many old recollections and sympathies does Christmas time awaken?”
Christmas is still essentially that which was remodelled in the 19th century to suit the tastes and ideals of the time. Victorian festivities were centred on the home, the family and the indulgence of children and if, in many homes, the hearth or fireside has disappeared and computer games have replaced the railway set as presents, this is still the Christmas we attempt to recapture and regard as traditional.
The trappings of this festival reflect Victorian innovations: the cards, the tree, the crackers, the family meal with a turkey and, of course, Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Yet an older Christmas hovers behind it and its image is fixed on numerous cards and illustrations depicting a world of stagecoaches, ruddy-faced landlords, thatched cottages, manor houses and hospitable squires. The Victorians built into their new Christmas nostalgia for an ideal Christmas located forever in the 18th-century countryside.
Those very architects of the Victorian Christmas, Charles Dickens and Washington Irving looked back to an idealised Christmas of their recent past. To Dickens, Christmas epitomised not only conviviality and humanity, but an affection for the past. In Pickwick Papers he describes a merry old Christmas, a “good humoured Christmas” in which, after blind-man’s buff, “there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisons were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail”.
Dickens may well have helped create a new Christmas but at the heart of his vision was an idealised old Christmas; one he hoped to revive. This Christmas was a merry, lengthy and mainly adult affair with some relaxation of the normal rules of propriety.
Whether the occasion was generally observed has been doubted by some, as there is evidence that Christmas was in decline during the late 18th century. The puritans of the Commonwealth, who considered it a Popish survival, attempted to abolish the festival, but the Restoration saw it reinstated amidst popular acclaim. However, forms of celebration based on the open-handed hospitality of the aristocrat or squire in the big house and the often drunken and bawdy customs of the country people, were coming to seem quaint and old-fashioned to many.
Such celebrations had little appeal for the well-to-do in towns and, in the countryside, the gentry no longer automatically kept open house for their dependents, while up-and-coming farmers, distanced themselves from their workers and the mumming and licence of the ‘world-turned-upside-down’ that was the ‘Old Christmas’. Only in more backward areas was Christmas celebrated in the old style and The Times reflected in 1790 on the time of festivity having “lost much of its original mirth and hospitality”.
It was the very decay of Christmas traditions and a consciousness of their passing that appealed to romantics and antiquarians. The American writer, Washington Irving, visiting England in the early 19th century, saw the ‘Old Christmas’ as resembling “those picturesque morsels of Gothic architecture which we see crumbling in various parts of the country, partly dilapidated by the waste of ages, and partly lost in the additions and alterations of later days”. His account of the ‘Old Christmas’ presided over by the antiquarian Squire Bracebridge at Bracebridge Hall was an imaginative reconstruction of old customs and traditions, rather than a description of a contemporary Christmas.
It wasn’t, however, solely the antique and antic customs of the decaying ‘Old Christmas’ that appealed to Dickens and Irving, but the underlying social harmony that they perceived in it. The ‘New Christmas’ that Dickens helped to create was essentially a private and family affair, even if Victorian families were large, and one that centred on children. The ‘Old Christmas’, whose passing he regretted, had been more of a community festival; an expression in the idle period of the agricultural year of charity in its older sense of fellowship.
Much has been made of the contrast between Christmas at Dingley Dell in Pickwick Papers, a gregarious and merry festival lasting twelve days, and A Christmas Carol where the emphasis is upon Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as well as the notion of the family, represented by the Cratchits. This difference can be exaggerated for, if Dickens was Victorian enough to put home and hearth at the centre of things, his main aim was to stress fellowship, empathy between different sections of society, the responsibility of employers and good cheer. Mr Fessiwig’s Ball, held by the employer for all who worked for him, looks back to the festivities in the manor or farm house in which villagers or retainers, as well as family, participated and forward to the office party. Social harmony was the vision he saw Christmas representing and, if the half-imaginary 18th-century Christmas he drew on was a rosy image of pre-industrial society, it was ever-present in his works.
The third ghost to visit Scrooge is the Ghost of Christmas Present who in fact bears a strong resemblance to some of the more jovial depictions of the spirit of the ‘Old Christmas’ – “a jolly Giant, glorious to see” who, “in a green robe, or mantle bordered with white fur”, is surrounded by a display of plenty in the shape of turkeys, geese and ‘seething bowls of punch’. This spirit, a prototype Father Christmas and a kindly if rather pagan figure, continued to hover over the Christmas that Dickens helped refashion.
The Dickensian Christmas is, therefore, a bridge between the old and the new Christmas, the Anglo-American Christmas, which we inherit. The latter is, no doubt, better suited to an urban and mobile society; it is centred upon the family and children and is essentially private and home-based amidst eerily empty streets. It is also rather tamed for, if we eat and drink enough, it lacks the boisterousness and wider conviviality of the older, more adult, Christmas.
Yet, that ‘Old Christmas’ is annually invoked today, as it was in the 19th century, by Christmas cards and festive illustrations in which jovial squires forever entertain friends by roaring fires while stout coachmen swathed in greatcoats, urge horses down snow covered lanes as they bring anticipatory guests and homesick relations to their welcoming destinations in a dream of merry England.
Professor Arthur Purdue is visiting senior lecturer in history at the Open University and co-author with JM Golby of The Making of the Modern Christmas, Batsford (1986).