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’.