Human Interest

A Dickensian Christmas

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It’s that time of year again when we shop for gifts, decorate the tree, prepare the Christmas pudding, and hope for snow. After all, snow is one element of the idealized image of the season portrayed on cards and in songs. It has been said the inclusion of snow in our dream Christmas is largely due to the depictions of the day in Victorian literature—specifically Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (published 17th December 1843). The catalyst for Dickens’s inclination toward a snowy landscape at this time of year may be found in his childhood. For the first eight years of his life there was snow at Christmas on account of a ‘Little Ice Age’ Britain was in the grips of between 1550-1850.

Another little known fact about Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is it was one of five Christmas books and stories published between 1843 and 1848. The other installments were: The Chimes (16th December 1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (20th December 1845), The Battle of Life (19th December 1846), and The Haunted Man (19th December 1848). I would recommend reading any, or all, of these other stories to anyone with an interest in Dickensian London.

In addition to snow, depictions of an ideal Christmas may also include a tree covered with baubles and lit with real candles. According to the website whychristmas?com, the first Christmas trees were brought into Britain in the 1830s but only reached their height of popularity in 1841 when Prince Albert (Queen’s Victoria’s German husband) had one set up in Windsor Castle. The drawing above is the illustration The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle that appeared in the Godey’s Lady’s Book, Philadelphia in December 1850. The Queen’s crown and Prince Albert’s moustache have been removed because—again, according to whychristmas?com—the publishers wanted the image to look ‘American’. Prior to the introduction of Christmas trees in Britain, the first such trees were found in Germany where theywere decorated with edible items like gingerbread etc.

Candles were intended to be representative of stars. The way they were attached to a tree’s branches was also rather ingenious. In order to ensure the candle remained upright, a wire was fixed to the underside of the shallow, clay holder. At the end of this wire was a heavy, clay ball. The ball acted as a counter balance to the top-heavy weight of a candle once it’s wax had melted. Both the holder and the ball were painted—usually gold, green, or red—to add further adornment to the tree.

‘Deck the halls with boughs of Holly’ is a well-known lyric from an equally well known Christmas song. Holly was indeed used in the Victorian era to decorate one’s home. Ivy, Laurel, Yews, Arbor Vitae, Myrtle and Box were also utilized. The above illustration depicts some examples of homemade Christmas decorations from the chapter, Christmas Decorations of the Home, from Cassells Household Guide, circa 1880s. I’d like to draw particular attention to the word ‘xmas’ in the decoration. Before I came across this illustration I’d assumed the word was quite modern—how wrong I was! In the Guide, the reader is given instruction on how to make a Holly bough:

Holly strung has a very good effect. It is very quickly done, and looks like a rich cord when finished, and all the banisters in a house may be draped in holly. It is made by threading a packing-needle with the required length of twine, and stringing upon it the largest and most curly-looking holly leaves, taking care to pass the needle through the exact centre of each leaf.

The explanation of how the ‘xmas’ decoration may be achieved is as follows:

In Fig. 4 will be found a bold and effective device for a large space, as, for example, the end wall of an entrance-hall or landing. The cross-pieces are stout sticks, the size of which must be regulated by the space intended to be filled; and it will be found advisable to join them in the centre by a cross joint, otherwise they will be very awkward to manage. They can then be wreathed with holly and mistletoe, as shown in the figure. The legend surrounding them is made of letters in gilt paper, pasted on to colored cardboard, and the figure of the robin is cut out in cardboard and painted.

I hope this article has shone a little light on the origins of some of our Christmas traditions. If you enjoyed it, and would like to read another Christmas story, you may find one featuring the Bow Street Society in my newly released short story collection, The Case of The Shrinking Shopkeeper & Other Stories. Available on Amazon, the collection includes the first three installments of the series in addition to two never-before-seen stories: The Case of The Eerie Encounter and The Case of The Christmas Crisis. The latter story centers on a distraught, former employee of Brewer’s Toymakers. She seeks the Bow Street Society’s help to clear her name after she’s dismissed for improper conduct. Can the Society clear her name in time for Christmas? Or will she and her family spend the festive season in the workhouse? It’s up to the Bow Street Society to uncover the truth and save Christmas.

Buy the collection here:


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