Ronald Hutton
The Stations of the Sun

In 1840 and 1841 Punch devoted parts of its first two Christmas issues to harrowing stories about lack of charity at that season; the villain of the second was a wealthy miser. In 1841 also, Prince Albert deliberately publicized an image of himself, Victoria, and their children gathered to celebrate at Windsor Castle which promoted an atmosphere of familial domesticity to replace the flamboyant Christmastide revelry of earlier royal courts. The drift of feeling was reaching a point at which it would both inspire and be catalysed by a literary genius, and this occurred in 1843 with the publication of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Dickens had treated the theme of Christmas merry-making six years before, in The Pickwick Papers, and done so in wholly traditional, if deeply sentimental, manner. The Carol was different; it was a passionate avowal of how the festival ought to be kept, dashed off in six weeks by a writer in love with his subject.

Dickens succeeded in turning Christmas celebration into a moral reply to avarice, selfishness, and greed. He linked worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation. The story owed much of its power to the way in which it interwove nostalgia for the past and anxiety about the present, and presented Christmas as a palliative to both. From the centre of the festival Dickens displaced the wider community, and guests, and substituted the family, and children. He linked the new prosperity of the age with its social unease, and put the middle classes in the vortex of both, equipped with a feast; which employed the former to allay the latter. Christmas, as portrayed by Dickens, invested materialism with a spiritual quality which enabled the newly-rich to enjoy their wealth. Within one year the book sold 15,000 copies, and at the following Christmas it was dramatized at nine London theatres. It has subsequently been adapted for stage and screen more than any other of Dickens's works.

Once again, it may be necessary to stress that neither Charles Dickens nor Prince Albert 'invented' the new attitude to Christmas; as the case of the Punch stories shows, they were responding to a mood already coming into existence. After A Christmas Carol, however, that mood was immeasurably stronger. In 1847 the Poor Law Board permitted a special Christmas dinner in all workhouses. During that decade and the next the Illustrated London News and other magazines ran a series of drawings of English Christmases through the centuries, to inculcate a sense of their continuous identity as a time of festivity and benevolent hierarchy. The growing reputation of it as a national feast of harmony and charity began to wear down denominations which had traditionally rejected it as a holy day; in 1868 the Baptist Advertiser published an advertisement for Christmas presents. By then the flow of seasonal generosity was so considerable that the inmates of prisons and workhouses enjoyed more food and games on Christmas Day than many working-class families. In 1871 the Bank Holidays Act began to reverse the attrition of midwinter holidays, by declaring St Stephen's Day (now officially secularized as 'Boxing Day') to be a day of leisure again in order to allow the nation a double dose of pleasure. In that year also Lord and Lady Amberley dropped their former complete refusal to celebrate Christmas. It had been based upon their rejection of Christianity itself, impelled by rationalism; but when their eldest child was 5 years old they felt obliged to organize festivities in order to evade a suspicion of parental cruelty. Their consciences may have been placated by the fact that virtually none of the new set of Christmas customs adopted in this same period had any Christian context whatsoever.

The most spectacular was the Christmas tree, a perfect combination of the two qualities of greenery and light so much in demand at midwinter. It had long been a custom in the Rhineland, although even there it was not a medieval one, as the first record of it comes from the 1520s. From 1789 to 1840 it was regularly mentioned as used in England by German settlers, guests, or governesses, and by the i82os was starting to spread out from the German community in Manchester to the local people of that city. On Christmas Eve 1840 a medic, H.W. Acland, mentioned seeing one at Roehampton in Surrey, in terms which suggest that it was a rarity but not a complete novelty. The next year, however, that good German Prince Albert made the custom fashionable by setting one up at Windsor Castle, and by 1843 the author of a piece upon it could say that it had 'long been well known to a few in England' but was now becoming familiar. In 1850 Dickens could still call it 'the pretty German toy,' but recommended it enthusiastically to the readers of Household Words, portraying one lit by a 'multitude of little tapers' and hung with dolls, miniature furniture for their houses, musical instruments, 'books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat boxes, peep-show boxes...there were tee-to-tums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears and walnuts, crammed with surprises.' Five years later, the Lady's Newspaper could describe the trees as 'very popular.'

The English had, in fact, taken to them relatively late, for by 1840 they had already become well established in Finland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, the whole of Germany, and the United States. Their particular appeal was to the middle classes, for they represented a perfect focus for a family gathering while (as Dickens made clear) it was at first customary to hang the Christmas presents from the branches before distribution, providing a display of the household's wealth, generosity, and popularity. Children in particular found them exciting and beautiful, although until the invention of electric lights in the 1890s the habit of tying candles to their branches did make them notable fire hazards. In rural areas the trees were often lit up at first on Twelfth Night, but by the 1880s a more homogeneous national bourgeois culture had caused them to be universally a feature of Christmas itself. Among the working class they spread far more slowly, families often being content with the old holly and ivy, and (in appropriate regions) the kissing-bough. Only in the 1950s did the tree become virtually ubiquitous.

The Christmas card represented a convenient and sophisticated evolution of the ancient custom of giving blessings or good wishes for the New Year. By 1840 it was often carried on among the wealthier classes by sending a short poem engraved within an ornamental framework. In 1843 the social reformer Henry Cole engaged an artist, John Calcott Horsley, to respond to the new interest in Christmas by designing a card showing a family Christmas dinner, with side panels illustrating acts of charity. This, and some imitations, proved to be commercial failures because they were too expensive. In 1862, therefore, a fresh start was made by the stationers Messrs Charles Goodall, which printed cheap plain greetings. By the end of the decade these were becoming decorated, and other firms were producing them. At first many referred only to the New Year, as before, and it was long into the 1870s before the enhanced importance of the family Christmas made this an essential preface to the greeting. In 1878 the volume sent was sufficient for the Post Office to commence a separate record of Christmas mail, and in the i89os the cards became a popular craze, and continued to expand their market over the next century. In 1992 1,560 million were sent, and the commercial value of the Christmas card trade was £250 million.

From the beginning, the proportion of religious themes in the designs was small. Examples from before 1890 (of which the Jonathan King collection has 163,000) show an overwhelming concentration upon the natural world and upon jollity; the favourite images were holly, mistletoe, Christmas pudding, Father Christmas, the Christmas tree, bells, and robins. The robin had become associated with the season as a convention among urban artists, in the late eighteenth century, for reasons that remain mysterious. There is nothing to connect it with the ancient veneration of the wren, and painters may simply have found it to be the most colourful common and well-loved bird in the winter garden. The choice of imagery has remained more or less constant ever since; an evocation of survival, rejoicing, and the resilience of nature, usually constructed around the (literally) vivacious colours red and green.

If the Christmas card descends directly from the New Year blessing, the Christmas present is equally obviously a continuation of the New Year's gift. The latter custom, as described earlier, was in decline by the early nineteenth century as part of the general run-down in enthusiasm for the season. The upsurge in support for Christmas as a family festival of generosity and charity, from the i84os, created a slow but steady transfer of the date of giving, backwards from New Year to the feast of the Nativity. The process was very protracted at both the top and the bottom of society; Queen Victoria was still sending New Year's gifts and not Christmas presents in 1900, and the balance did not shift from one to the other among English working-class families until about 1900, and among crofters in the Northern Isles until the 1960s. The movement occurred first—indeed in London from the 1820s onward—among the English middle classes. This was partly because the new Christmas was designed by and for them, and partly because of the development of nurseries, run by maids, in their homes, making the parent-child relationship more formal. The greater segregation of children from the rest of the family also created a greater need for toys and board games to divert them. From the 1880s market forces were slowly starting to respond; in 1887 Christmas shopping advertisements appeared in The Times from 12 December onward, but in 1898 from 30 November. George Bernard Shaw started an enduring myth in 1897 by declaring that 'Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press.' In reality, there is no evidence that businessmen sponsored the revival of the festival either individually or collectively; and indeed under Victoria they would have lacked the publicity techniques to do so. Punch and Dickens both personified them as the natural enemies of the holiday, and authors, journalists, preachers, and hymn-writers were all more important in its re-creation. By 1900, however, the market was becoming geared to it at last, and in the following decade one firm, Woolworths, pioneered the production of toys cheap enough to be within the range of working-class families.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.