Advent Thought For The Day: 17

Reading time 5 minutes

December 17th: A Tale of Christmas Past

When it comes to Christmas celebrations, two characters from the Victorian era can be thanked for introducing and popularising most of the festivities we indulge in today: Prince Albert and Charles Dickens.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, Christmas Day was barely recognised as a festival beyond the confines of the church. Most businesses did not consider it a holiday and the drudgery of winter was allowed to continue unabated until the arrival of spring. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children celebrating Christmas at Windsor Castle. The royal family was pictured around a tree decorated with candles, sweets, homemade decorations and small gifts. Decorating a fir tree was not unusual in Albert’s native Germany, where it was already a tradition dating back many hundreds of years. The idea quickly caught on and soon households across Britain were cutting down trees and hauling them inside as a supplement to traditional holly, ivy and mistletoe. This ancient custom, dating back to Mediaeval times, was increasingly sniffed at as uniformity, balance and elegance were encouraged.

The invention of Christmas cards by Henry Cole in 1843 predates the birth of the Christmas tree in Britain. It wasn’t until the 1880s, with the mass production of cards and the introduction of a halfpenny postage rate, that the sending of cards really took off. By 1880 over 11 million cards were being produced and sent. Meanwhile, confectioner Tom Smith had invented the Christmas cracker as a means of protecting and promoting his sweets. The idea piqued consumers’ interest and soon alternative gifts, paper hats and mottos were being included within crackers. Unlike many other Christmas traditions, the pulling of crackers remains a particularly British affair, with 95% of all crackers globally being sold in the UK.

Then along came Charles Dickens, serial resident of my little town of Broadstairs, with his novel A Christmas Carol. Whilst Dickens did not invent any traditions as such, he immortalised the style of Christmas that Victoria and Albert had made fashionable. With its themes of family, generosity, reflection, goodwill and happiness, A Christmas Carol painted a picture of Christmas which has changed very little in the intervening years. Dickensian images of cobbled streets lit by street lamps, lined with shops selling cakes and exquisite gifts, frequented by gentlemen in top hats and ladies in fur stoles, still adorn Christmas cards and advent calendars to this very day.

Sales of cards and crackers, although mildly diminished by the current economic climate, remain buoyant and most households have a Christmas tree. Meanwhile we can, perhaps, thank Dickens for re-introducing the more human values of generosity, humility, reflection and charity to the otherwise excessive Victorian approach to Christmas. TFG.

N.B: Charles Dickens had a long connection with Broadstairs. He spent many summer holidays residing at various houses and cottages around the town. The door above belongs to one such, Dickens’ Cottage in Fort Road. So omnipresent was Dickens that some householders even feel compelled to display plaques proclaiming ‘Charles Dickens did not live here’.

Categories: Christmas, history, Musings

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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10 comments On "Advent Thought For The Day: 17"

  1. Quite a lot of crackers are pulled here too, Dan. We must be the other 5%! I enjoyed reading your insight into Christmas customs, as I have your other Advent thoughts, and I’m full of admiration for your perseverance in keeping these thoughts going in such an entertaining fashion.

    1. I think you probably are. Some are sold in South Africa and America too. I tend to see where they are going when I visit the factories. In the UK we buy about 155 million crackers every Christmas, which is more than 2 each.

  2. I wondered if you’d get to cards. I no longer send any, instead we donate the money we would have spent to a charity for the homeless. It would be nice if Christmas excesses could be tamed down a bit and people would appreciate the more human values. Switch off phones and TVs and actually talk to each other, read, play board games, go for a walk!

    1. Good point. I intend to have a little blogging break between Christmas and New Year (24 days on the trot is taking it out of me!) and I have lots of reading and walks planned. Board games are a good idea, although I wonder if my five-year-old niece quite has the patience for them. We shall see!

  3. I like to send and receive Christmas cards. Not many people do this anymore. Sort of makes me sad that this tradition is being left by the wayside.

    1. Here we still send an awful lot of cards. Sadly the increasing cost of postage has started to put some people off, and I certainly send a lot less than I once did. However I still enjoy buying and sending cards. So much nicer than e-mails and text messages! Dan

  4. Very much appreciate this history brought to life! Neat info. about Dickens’ connection to your ‘hood!

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