Dickens and the classic Victorian Christmas

Dickens and the classic Victorian image of Christmas are inextricably linked, mostly because of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Published in 1843, the book sold 6000 copies in five days, and became massively popular. First editions today sell for ten to fifteen thousand pounds. Dickens is often credited with creating Christmas, but it is more accurate to say that he revived it.

Christmas had fallen out of fashion by the 1810s, and its classic traditions were researched and revived by a group of upcoming antiquarians. The Victorians themselves loved history and enjoyed classical literature and the romance of the past. Researching the origins of Christmas would not doubt have been enjoyable. Christmas had taken a hit under Oliver Cromwell, and it was banned. It was revived under Charles I, but never to the same degree of revelry as had gone before. The antiquarians pictured the ideal Christmas in the court of Elizabeth I, and through research, the Victorians cherry picked the traditions that they wanted to keep, replicate, and revive.

The frivolity is ever-present. Games were traditionally played on Christmas day, such as Bindman’s buff by Dickens himself. There were dinners, games, and Dickens himself loved to dance. He even prepared magic tricks for his children and party guest, emphasising the fun nature of Christmas. Santa himself went through many different forms and was originally based on a pagan figure that encouraged drinking and frivolity. He only too on the traditional Santa we know today when he married with the American version of Santa.

Trees became popular throughout the Victorian period, as did tree decorations in the 1850s. The image of Victoria and Albert, as the ideal Victorian family, encouraged others to copy them and too get their own Christmas trees. In the decade before, crackers began to take shape, as well as the idea of the traditional Christmas card, as put forward by Henry Cole. Shops also tapped into this, and would decorate their shop windows elaborately, which encouraged the act of gift giving and also led to the commercialisation of the Christmas period. Christmas food is relevant here too, with the rich eating beef on Christmas Day. Dickens himself had a Turkey in 1843, which became the more common choice. Henry VIII was the first person in Britain to eat a Turkey. Geese were also popular, as per the ending of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Charles Dickens himself tapped into the commercial side of Christmas, and took a great deal of time in designing ‘A Christmas Carol.’ The images were coloured by hand, and the book itself looked like a sophisticated Christmas gift. Dickens capitalised on this further, and towards the end of his life would tour the country reading his famous works. He profited a great deal from this, and on Christmas day 1867, he was touring around America.

At the heart of Christmas for the Victorians was also the Church. The Victorians prided themselves on tradition and morality, which is also explored in Dickens’ novel. It is wrong that Scrooge is a cruel miser, and it is right that he is given the opportunity the change. It reinforces the idea that everybody can change, and that people should always be charitable and do good deeds at Christmas time. The alternative is to embody the children, named Ignorance and Want. Dickens skilfully weaves together several genres and themes, thriller, ghost story, gothic… and also manages to ensure his novel carries a strong, social message about child poverty, cruelty and hardship. All of these things should be tackled at Christmas and extinguished with festive charity.

The Christmas zeitgeist took off in the Victorian era, and Dickens certainly helped the traditions get off the ground. His novel and Victorian attitudes melded perfectly and allowed the popular image of the family Christmas to enter into popular culture. It feels as relevant now as ever, as in times of hardship, especially at Christmas, the novel tells us to be caring towards others, and to have faith and have hope. God bless us, everyone![1]

Merry Christmas, thanks for reading!

[1] Charles Dickens and the Invention of Christmas (television programme) London: BBC, December 23 2020).

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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