Popular Posts

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Dickens Christmas

We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped, have grown cold; the eyes we sought, have hid their lustre in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstances connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday!
Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home!

--Charles Dickens

David A. Perdue, with authority, cites Dickens as the second most important person for contributions to the celebration of Christmas, after Christ! He gives the rise of the Christmas tree (see December 14), the renewed interest in carols, and the invention of the Christmas card (see December 22) as factors, but imbues A Christmas Carol with the majority of the impetus of the movement. The Romantic age and Dickens’ masterpiece both coincided with the popularization of (mostly) German customs to make an unforgettable impact on the Christmas we celebrate today. Of course, as we know, Dickens held a fondness for celebrating Christmas that went above and beyond ACC; he wrote the other four Christmas Books (the best of which is The Chimes; I’m not sure I’d waste my time with the others, they are quite sentimental) as well as the above quotation from The Pickwick Papers. Pold goes so far as to credit the carol revival and a shift of gift-giving to Dickens’ influence. So synonymous had Dickens become with Christmas that at the time of his death in 1870, when a little costermonger's girl heard of it, she asked, “Mr. Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”

Dickens and Christmas

We look at adaptations of ACC on December 16, but we will briefly look at the background to the novella. Philip V. Allingham succinctly describes all the factors that were at work in Dickens’ life in 1843: “The ‘Condition of England’ Question, the Ragged Schools , the Manchester Athenaeum, Dickens’ first-hand experiences with industrialism and prisons on his recent American tour, the need for reconciliation between the working and governing classes—combined with Dickens’ pressing need for extra income and recent recollections about his childhood in Bayham Street, Camden Town (including the unseasonably cold Christmases of 1812-1820).” In fact, Dickens had been one of the speakers at the Manchester Athenaeum, along with Disraeli, in October, and had stayed with his married sister Fan, among whose children numbered a crippled, frail boy, who eventually died in 1849. In early drafts, Tiny Tim was based on this relative who was originally named Fred after Dickens’ younger brother. Spurred on by want of income, Dickens finished the novella in six weeks.

He was insistent on a high-quality binding in red cloth with gilt edging on the cover and six color illustrations from Punch artist John Leek, and with the book’s cost at five shillings, coupled with a lawsuit against a publisher who tried to sell a pirate edition, Dickens actually made a loss from his printing of ACC. To quote Allingham again, “Michael Slater in his preface to the Penguin two-volume edition of The Christmas Books has proposed that all the works in the series, as products of the Hungry Forties, share seasonal settings, supernatural agents and spiritual conversions, along with a special intimacy of tone and colloquial style not found in Dickens’ big novels.” Nevertheless, we must remember that the vision presented in ACC is an idealized one of Dickens’; having come from a large and not-that-well-off family, he recalled the Christmas celebrations from the memory of his father, John Dickens, who would have enjoyed them at Crewe Hall in all the opulence that could be imagined, at least up until his 20s.

I don’t think we can argue with the fact, however, that Christmas as a family holiday owes much to Dickens. Dickens’ writings are child-centered. Mamie Dickens, Dickens’ daughter, wrote that “in our childish days my father used to take us, every twenty-fourth day of December, to a toy shop in Holborn . . . [a]s we grew older, present giving was confined to our several birthdays, and this annual visit to the Holborn toy shop ceased.” In the early 19th century, the Doctrine of Atonement gave way to the Doctrine of the Incarnation, where Victorians were supposed to meditate on the mystery of Christ’s birth and celebrate Jesus as a young child. Gilbert Thomas (b. 1891), son of a Methodist shop-keeper from Gloucester, recalled Christmas beginning each year with his father reading from Luke and his mother reading from A Christmas Carol, which “did justice to the Christian festival as well as the pagan feast,” which would have overjoyed Dickens had he known (61). Armstrong is much invested in following the way families of the later Victorian period celebrated Christmas and the way the celebrations might be gendered. For example, he notes that the 2nd Viscount Halifax read ghost and adventure stories to his children, staged ruses, led trips to pantomimes, and in the 1870s and ‘80s his diary records him being busy with decorations, wrapping, writing cards, and shopping in London for presents (on the instructions of his wife).

The first generation of women experiencing Christmas in the 1840s and ‘50s keenly internalized it. John Gillis argues that “the Victorian Christmas was constructed by women for the enjoyment of men” (57). Evangelical fathers certainly felt a keen sense of emotional satisfaction from Christmas reunions with their children. “The customary replication of family Christmases came to depend on mothers actively involving daughters in the preparations” (55). For example, in the 1860s, Jane Panton recalled how her mother would take charge of the Christmas Eve preparations, decorating with holly and ivy, washing the cut-glass chandelier piece by piece, arranging fireplaces with holly, flowers and virgin cork, laying the supper table and making creams, jellies, and custards. Women especially, toward the end of the 19th century, had to decide whose home to return to at Christmas—their parents’ or their husband’s? Christmas was certainly by now a combination of the sacred and the profane. “It is really like Christmas in a story-book,” wrote Louise Knightley of Fawsley on Christmas Eve 1874, “with our happy family party, and the snow on the ground, and the dear old hall hung with garlands, and carol-singing all around, and underlying it the deep, real joy of our Blessed Lord’s birth” (Armstrong 59). Some children, like William Fryer Harvey (1885-1937) and Joan Poynder (1887-1987) recalled being so excited they couldn’t sleep. Richard Church (1893-1972) describes the post-Christmas blues.

According to Pold, “One of the reasons that holiday, both for the Victorians and for modern-day observers, seems so timeless is because of its strong connections with the past, and its evocation of strong feelings of childhood nostalgia.” Family Christmas for other classes than the aristocracy is somewhat more difficult to document, but we have the example of George Sturt (1863-1927), who researched the life of his grandfather William Smith (1790-1858), who was a potter and farmer based in Farnborough. His Christmases spent at the farm with over 20 relatives were open to other farmhands and villagers, and the first Christmas tree at the farm was seen in 1857. In York in 1867, William Bell held a Christmas Eve party, full of dancing, singing, and conspicuous ale-drinking, in his kitchen, which led to a police confrontation. Christmas ballads from the early to mid-Victorian period showcase an annual opportunity for cheer linked with food and drink. At least one working class family made decorations out of paper chains, placed farthing candles in jam jars, and wrote “Merry Christmas” in frosted cotton wool adhered to a mirror.

Games and Pastimes

An integral part of the British Christmas season of the present-day, the pantomime really came into its own by the 1800s. A letter appeared in 1824 condemning its moral corruption. In 1842, pantomimes could be seen at 9 theatres across London. Performances of the Messiah (see December 19) also became an important source of profit, and most northern choirs performed it nearly every Christmas.

Boxing Day was a time to visit attractions such as the British Museum, St Paul’s, the Tower of London, and the Zoo, as well as the Crystal Palace in Sydenham toward the end of the 19th century. In 1862, “the illumination of the lamps at dusk added to the spectacle, as did the appearance of a sixty-five foot Christmas tree, described by The Times as the most extensive ever seen” (Armstrong 130). At home, you could view slideshows, panoramas, and diorama scenes.

As mentioned earlier, the Waits, going back to the 14th century, were formally disbanded between 1835 and 1902, so a Victorian Christmas was almost certain to have had them! It was also a tradition in northern towns to go hear New Year’s church bells ring at midnight. The Christmas balls mentioned in the Regency period (see December 18) continued through the 1820s, taking place at Congdon’s Hotel in Exeter and the Derby Assembly Rooms. Like the German Christmas markets of old, Covent Garden was a good place to go food-shopping for Christmastime. The 1852 Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal noted “apples, pears, hothouse grapes, pineapples, pomegranates, soft medlars, Kent cob-nuts, filberts, and foreign nuts” on the Saturday before Christmas Day” (146).

Perdue gives us the recipe for roasted chestnuts:

You will need about 1 pound of chestnuts.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Cut an X
with a sharp knife on the flat side of each chestnut shell. Place chestnuts in
single layer in large pan. Roast uncovered 20 minutes or until shells begin to
curl up at the X. Peel chestnuts while they are warm.

Stir Up Sunday

The last Sunday in November (the first Sunday of Advent) was known as Stir Up Sunday, which comes from the Anglican collect (prayer) rather than Plum Pudding. The collect goes, “Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Nevertheless, it seems to have gotten confused in people’s minds with stirring up the Plum Pudding, which as we will see on December 17, was formulated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here is a recipe for modern Plum Pudding.

Plum Pudding
Plum puddings are traditionally set alight before being served: heat a saucepan, add two T brandy, immediately set brandy alight with a match, pour it over the pudding, and serve. This recipe for 3 3lb puddings, which must be steamed for a total of eight hours.
• 6 oz self raising flour
• 1 t grated nutmeg
• 1 ½ t mixed spice
• 1 t ground cinnamon
• 3 oz fresh white breadcrumbs
• 10 oz beef suet
• 4 oz dark brown sugar
• 1 lb currants
• 2 lb raisins
• 1 lb sultanas (yellow raisins)
• 4 oz candied peel
• 4 oz flaked almonds
• 1 large cooking apple, grated
• 1 carrot, grated
• 6 eggs
• Juice and rind of 1 orange
• 1 pint stout, ale, or milk
• A little brandy for lighting the pudding
1. Sift the flour and spices into a large bowl. Add all the remaining dry ingredients and the apple and carrot and mix well.
2. Mix the eggs into the mixture one at a time, then fold in orange juice and rind.
3. Add the stout, ale, or milk and mix thoroughly cut three circles of waxed paper that will fit inside the rims of the pudding basins then butter the insides of the basins.
4. Decant the mixture into the basins, using a spoon to pack it down. Cover with wax paper and some kitchen foil and make into bundles with string tied. Steam the bundles.

Allingham. X 2

No comments:

Post a Comment