12 Christmas Creatives: A Dozen People to Thank for Our Modern Christmas

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Local mag (well, local to me) The Guide 2 Surrey printed a nice article with nice pics in their pre-Christmas November edition.

If you’re not local – or if you are and haven’t grabbed one – here (or PDF below for a more easily readable version) are your twelve Christmas creatives to thank for making Christmas what it is today…

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Who have I missed out? Do let me know…

And don’t forget: Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available for buyin’, ratin’ ‘n’ reviewin’ now.

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The 15 best Christmas movies (+ the stories behind them)

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It’s time.

I’ve called it.

This weekend, I’m allowing us all to start watching Christmas films.

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God bless us, every Muppet.

Not all at once. Build up steadily. A few days ago a comedian pal tweeted a screenshot of her spreadsheet: A Muppet Christmas Carol and Elf are saved till Christmas Eve, It’s a Wonderful Life and Get Santa are scheduled for early December. I might kick off this weekend with Die Hard.

But do you know which classic movie was based on a Christmas card, and may be responsible for a lot of asbestos poisoning? Which Santa film was released in May? Which action film was a literary sequel, meant to be starring Frank Sinatra?

The most fun I had writing my new Christmas book was delving into twentieth century pop culture – although it’s worrying that now counts as ‘history’. We’ll save festive telly and pop songs for another time, but here for your viewing pleasure (and viewing planning pleasure) is my countdown of the Undisputed Greatest Christmas Films of All Time (and some stories behind them).

15. Jingle All the Way… Arnie’s finest. Alright his finest Christmas movie. Alright his only Christmas movie. American cinema has always done the “Christmas shopping” film far better than Britain, because they do the consumer Christmas better than anyone. When Britain tried it… well 1954’s shop-based The Crowded Day wasn’t memorable.

14. The Polar Express… This was the world’s first all-digital capture film. And it kinda shows. I mean, how many Tom Hankses do we need to see in a film? Actually with the state the world (and Hollywood) is in, maybe just cloning Tom Hanks a few dozen times is the best we can hope for in a film.

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Hanks for the (weird) memories.

13. Miracle on 34th Street… This Santa-based classic had an unusual May theatrical release, since the studio doubted that Christmas would yield much box office. To lure summer moviegoers in, the original posters and trailer hid all the festive elements – even though the entire plot concerns one Kris Kringle claiming to be the real Santa Claus.

12. The Sound of Music/The Great Escape/The Wizard of Oz… Say what now? Christmas? Well, they’re always on the schedules. In fact it’s only through Christmas repeats on TV that some of these garnered classic status. Alright, none of them have anything to do with Christmas, but somehow it wouldn’t feel festive without someone (a nun/Steve McQueen) being chased by Nazis, or a virginal singer (Dorothy/Maria) surrounded by little people (Munchkins/the Von Trapps). Yes I’m lumping these films together, so they can be watched in one easy 10-hour session.

11. Gremlins… We’d had Bing Crosby. We’d had schmaltz. By 1984 we were ready for something more, well, 1984y. George Orwell thought there’d be a Big Brother and a Room 101 and the Thought Police (he was just a couple of decades out) – so surely our Christmas films can take a darker turn? Gremlins certainly did. You might recognise many of the sets – Kingston Falls, the cinema – from Back to the Future, which was shot just after with a bit of a redesign.

 

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Can’t decide what to watch?

10. Scrooged… Early festive cinema was dominated by remakes of A Christmas Carol. The first adaptation was just a generation after Dickens’ death, and we can’t stop making it ever since. Only this Christmas, you can know see in cinemas the story behind it in The Man who Invented Christmas (more on that in the next blog post). Alastair Sim’s Scrooge was pretty definitive, but Bill Murray did a cracking job at reinventing the character for the 1980s, giving Ebenezer a gentle nudge from miser to cynic.

 

9. Bad Santa… Things got properly cynical by this film’s release, though if your heart was softer, you could have seen Elf or Love Actually in cinemas at the same time. (Wow, moviegoers were spoilt that Christmas.) Jack Nicholson was first to be signed up for the lead role, then Bill Murray… when they both dropped out for other roles, Billy Bob Thornton stepped in – and claims to have been largely drunk throughout.

8. Home Alone… The highest-grossing live action comedy of all time (until The Hangover II came along). The team behind it met on another festive film: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Roger Ebert’s review on release noted that the film contained “the kinds of traps that any 8-year-old could devise, if he had a budget of tens of thousands of dollars and the assistance of a crew of movie special effects people”. Fair point.

7. Joyeux Noel… My pick for Best Christmas film You’ve Probably Never Heard Of. It’s in French, English and German and tells the story of the Christmas truce, that we talked about in the last post on this very blog (that wasn’t an intentional last post pun, but I’m leaving it in).

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The film is not about this place.

6. Holiday Inn… The film that spawned an industry – not just heralding future festive film releases, but also containing Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’. Don’t be fooled by TV schedules trying to get you to watch Bing in White Christmas – that’s the sequel. Go for the original. Irving Berlin wrote the famous ditty – now the world’s bestselling of all time – in tribute to his snowy Colorado home, that he was missing being stuck in Hollywood for Christmas.

5. Love Actually… I saw this film twice in the cinema – once with some cynical friends, and I agreed with them it was rubbish, and again with some upbeat friends and I realised all the good stuff I missed first time round. I’m clearly easily led. The very first copy of my Christmas book to reach me was the same morning I bumped into Colin Firth at a radio studio, so I gave him the first copy. “Can I give you the first ever copy of this… because you’re in it…” I said. He replied: “Oh of course! The history of Christmas? Yes, I must be in it for Love Actually.” I assured him no. “Oh, for Bridget Jones then? Because I started that Christmas jumper craze…” Finally I told him he’s in the book because of The King’s Speech, which doesn’t mention Christmas, but George VI’s reluctance to stammer through a royal Christmas message – then his will to continue anyway – was worth including.

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Wrong film, Colin.

4. Elf… A fine fun film. Buddy’s 12-second belch was a real belch, provided by the guy who voiced ‘The Brain in Pinky and The Brain. That’s all he did for the film.

3. Die Hard… Weirdly this is a Christmas movie, and weirdly Frank Sinatra was earmarked for the John McClane role – after all he played the role in the original. Yup, this is technically a sequel to 1966’s The Detective, and based on the book Nothing Lasts Forever. Arnie was offered the lead role too, before eventually they gave Bruce Willis ago – at the time he was mostly a TV comedy actor. Looks like he was worth a shot…

2. It’s a Wonderful Life… Frank Capra’s classic began life as a short story in 1939 – writer Philip Van Doren Stern struggled to publish it, so turned it into a Christmas card of all things… which handily ended up on the desk of a Hollywood producer. The movie made a loss on its 1947 release, and like many other festive favourites, it took another two or three decades to become a fixture of Christmas TV schedules. One innovation from Capra’s film was a new snow effect. Till now, movie snow largely had been comprised of corn flakes painted white – a little crunchy underfoot. So Capra instead threw 27,000 litres of a soapy foamite substance at a wind machine. Fake snow became big business at homes across the Western world, especially since Bing’s “White Christmas” popularised the idea when there was little snowfall to be seen. Unfortunately a lot of the early mixtures were made from rather lethal asbestos.

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Beware the snow.

1. The Muppet Christmas Carol… Up against Home Alone 2 at the festive box office, this certifiable classic may be the only version of Dickens’ book we ever need. It’s pretty true to the book too, thanks to Gonzo and Rizzo’s narration filling in all lots of the prose. It was also the first Muppet film after Jim Henson’s death, so the debut of new Kermit actor Steve Whitmire. No pressure then…

(Oh and it’s the best Christmas film of all time.)

 

Have I missed out your favourite? Sorry. Add it in the comments because you’re probably right… (oh and make sure you’ve got a copy of Hark! The Biography of Christmas in case your TV breaks over Christmas).

 

From Hitler to Tarka the Otter: The Truth behind the Truce

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Last weekend was Remembrance Day. While the shops have decided we move straight on to Christmas, everyday folk aren’t there just yet. I’ve seen some still wearing poppies this week, walking past festive window displays. I’ve yet to see a poppy on a Christmas sweater, but it’s a matter of time before Christmas creep makes it so.

For my new Christmas history book, I pinpoint twelve dates when I thought the modern Christmas was forged. I wanted to include December 24th 1914 – the Christmas truce – but unfortunately little changed after that brief moment of peace; there’s been war somewhere in the world every Christmas since. Without trench warfare and a front line, it’s too easy to think of the enemy not as a neighbour, but as a stranger a world away.

So our Yule blog will briefly stop by that Christmas truce – not the first peaceful Christmas by a long shot. Up until the fifteenth century, the accepted rule meant no fighting on Christmas Day.

Christmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News.

from The Illustrated London News

The Great War was meant to be “over by Christmas”. By November, this was clearly unlikely. Pope Benedict XV suggested a one-day truce: “The guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” High Command disagreed. Christmas should be as any other day, though no major offensives were planned, so that day could proceed hopefully easier than most. On the German side too, the order was to fight on.

Trench decoration was actively encouraged: a visual reminder of what they were fighting for. It backfired. Instead it reminded soldiers of home, and Christmas peace. Many pondered the pointlessness of killing strangers a few feet away, celebrating the same thing as they were. Christmas was a unifier.

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German soldiers decorating a Christmas tree that may be a little high. Probably leave off the angel.

For weeks there had been informal agreements of quiet time where no shots would be fired, if only to recover bodies. On December 1st, a German sergeant had swung by a British trench “to see how we were getting on”.

Christmas Eve 1914 saw the first aerial bomb drop on Britain, at Dover Castle. In the trenches though, the glow of candlelight could be seen across no man’s land. Some miniature German Christmas trees made their way from the tabletops below to ground level. The Germans starting singing carols at midnight, so the British joined in. Evening singing was not uncommon – only now of course it was a carol, and one known by both sides.

As “Stille Nacht” drifted over the trenches, the English joined in with “Silent Night”, exactly ninety-six years to the day after its composition in an Austrian church. Heads on both sides poked above the parapet, before trusting individuals stepped into no man’s land.

The next morning, shouts of “Merry Christmas, Tommy!” emanated from the German trenches. Now in daylight they ventured to greet their neighbours again, taking photos and showing pictures of loved ones back home. Some parts saw informal kickabouts, if not a fully-fledged football match.

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“I was never offside…”

In the book, we reprint Private Henry Williamson’s eyewitness account of the truce; Williamson went on to write books including Tarka the Otter. (I was delighted that when the publishers sought permission from his estate, they were the kindest and most well-wishing of all we contacted.)

Others were less supportive of the truce, including young corporal Adolf Hitler, who stayed in his trench and grumbled. Some areas saw bloody combat on Christmas Day; some unfortunate soldiers heard of the Christmas truce, put their heads above the parapet in greeting, and were shot and killed.

In more peaceful parts of the front line, the truce overran into the New Year. One English machine-gunner – a hairdresser back home – gave haircuts to German soldiers, his sworn enemies kneeling as he took clippers to their bare necks. They returned to their trenches, safe and coiffured.

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Court-martials were threatened for future fraternisation. Easter 1915 saw further attempts at a truce, and again each December through the war. Each request seems to have come from the German side, with the British rebuffing each time for fear of High Command’s response. The “live and let live” attitude occasionally raised its head above the parapet, but never in the same way as on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914.

Order Hark! The Biography of Christmas – or if you have, please consider lending me a nice review on Amazon or Goodreads. Thanks.

Four Nativities: inc. pigeon sacrifice and no donkey

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The plucky handful who’ve read m’new book Hark! The Biography of Christmas, have been kind to feed back that one of their favourite bits is retelling of each gospel’s Nativity story. It makes for four unusual performances: two of them don’t feature the Nativity at all, while the two that do, portray it rather differently.

Today’s children’s nativity plays perpetuate the idea of one Nativity story, but only for the past thousand years have we have merged the Bible’s two Nativity accounts together into one glorious mumbled school-based performance.

By the end of the first millennium, we know of two separate Nativity plays being performed. The officium pastorum (The Play of the Shepherds) was performed in the Abbey of St Martial in Limoges on Christmas Day in the eleventh century, with Mary and Joseph played by wooden mannequins. Entirely separately, the officium stellae (The Play of the Star) was a more popular play, for Epiphany – perhaps popular because the performance often involved a prop star impressively moving across the church ceiling to the altar via ropes and pulleys. By the late twelfth century, the plays began merging into the one Nativity play we know and tolerate each year.

But the four gospels come from four different standpoints. Mark wrote first but has no Christmas story. Luke wrote next for the Greek and Roman world, focusing on Mary and featuring shepherds. Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience, focusing on Joseph and featuring wise men. John wrote last and, like Mark, is sans Noël. These are four unique portraits.

So let’s journey to four primary schools: St Matthew’s, St Mark’s, St Luke’s, and St John’s – and see four different school Nativity plays…

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ST MATTHEW’S INFANT SCHOOL NATIVITY PLAY

It’s a thriller. Our play opens with a giant family tree, possibly read out by a child narrator, or better yet, projected as scrolling text on the big screen, like the opening to Star Wars: “A long time ago, in a land far away, Abraham was the father of Isaac, who was father of Jacob, who was father of…” Make it dramatic; show the backstory.

When it’s rolled, we cut to Joseph having a troubled night’s sleep. He’s engaged to Mary, but he’s just found out that she’s pregnant, so he’s going to divorce her – until a mid-dream angelic vision talks him out of it. is son is going to save people. Epic dramatic music to end the scene. St Matthew’s Infant School has Hollywood production values.

(The schoolgirl dressed up to play Mary will at this point be waiting in the wings, eager to take the stage… But there’s no angelic visitation for her at St Matthew’s, alas.)

Mary gives birth, practically off stage. It’s Joseph, instructed by the angel, who names the child Jesus. Father and son take centre- stage. Just as our rolling text showed fathers handing down to sons, so too does Joseph hand the limelight to Jesus – but it’s still up to Joseph to protect him.

New scene, new location: Jerusalem, probably a year later. Evil King Herod hears that a group of travelling astrologers have come to town, tracking a star to find a “king of the Jews”. The conniving king asks the astrologers to report back to him, so he can “worship” the king too. But does he mean the baby harm?

The astrologers track that star and pack gifts for the young king. The star comes to rest over a house, where they find Mary and her now toddler son Jesus.

Herod awaits news; the boy Jesus is under threat of death. The tension mounts. Will the wise men return to Herod and jeopardize the holy family? No, because they’re wise. A vision tells them to return home another way.

Later still, there’s another vision, this time to heroic Joseph: take your family and hide in Egypt. Sure enough, Herod sends troops to wipe out the boys. (This scene may be unsuitable for the Infant School – be sure to send around a note.) The holy family wait out the extermination, and when they do return, they lie low: Herod’s successor seems just as dangerous.

St Matthew’s play is an international chase thriller, against a backdrop of fulfilled prophecy and dreamed warnings. It’s a tense, gory, male-focused biographical adventure; this school Nativity has very few roles for girls, although there’s a genealogical prologue which does feature women in Jesus’ family line, unusual for the patrilineal society of the day.

The St Matthew’s props cupboard is unencumbered by a manger or stable. And any parents who’ve dressed their little ones as innkeepers, shepherds, or oxen – St Matthew’s apologizes but they won’t be gracing the stage, so cameras down. Mary too has no lines and hardly appears onstage. St Matthew’s is, more than likely, an all-boys school.

 

THE ST MARK’S JUNIOR SCHOOL CHRISTMAS PLAY

…has been indefinitely cancelled. Instead there’ll be a baptism. Don’t sit in the front row unless you expect to get wet. St Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist commissioning Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is a grown man. Parents: put away the dressing-gowns and tea towels. The children at St Mark’s School don’t get a Nativity play.

 

THE NATIVITY PLAY OF ST LUKE’S CHURCH OF ENGLAND ACADEMY

St Luke’s performance is the longest – and perhaps the most familiar – of the Nativity stories. Parents will be delighted that their little angel has been cast as, well, an angel, or perhaps a shepherd, or a lamb, or Theophilus. Who now? He’s in the prologue, being told the story by Luke. And there are more unfamiliar characters: before we meet our favourites, there’s the elderly childless couple Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah’s a priest at the temple, the first in the play to meet the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel tells Zechariah to expect a son, John, who will prepare people for the Lord. Zechariah doubts, so is struck dumb till the birth.

Scene two. The Angel Gabriel now visits Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin, with news of her virgin birth to a boy called Jesus, Son of the Most High. Mary stays with Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s baby John leaps in her womb. John is born and Zechariah speaks again.

Caesar Augustus demands a census, so everyone treks to their home towns – that’s Nazareth to Bethlehem for our star family. Mary gives birth to a boy! She wraps him in cloths and places him in a manger, because there’s no room at the lodgings. Still no innkeeper onstage – sorry parents.

An angel appears to shepherds nearby, who hurry to the manger and spread word of the baby’s arrival. On the eighth day, the boy is circumcised and named Jesus. They might cut this bit. I mean the scene, not… it’s not suitable for a kids’ Nativity, that’s what I’m saying. St Luke’s has that natural ending of any school play: Joseph and Mary sacrifice two young pigeons, then they meet a righteous man called Simeon, who was promised he’d see Christ before he died, and an elderly prophetess called Anna.

The end! St Luke’s bumper cast, take a bow.

 

ST JOHN’S PRIMARY SCHOOL CHRISTMAS SHOW

Rather than a play, St John’s presents an evening of poetry with interpretative dance. Children dressed as Joseph, Mary, angels, wise men, shepherds, and so on do not take the stage; they stay in the converted classroom-slash-dressing-room. Then again, they’re not the star of the show. Even the star isn’t the star of this show.

 

Oh, and no donkey in any of these. Sorry to the kid dressed up as Eeyore.

This, like all the current blog posts on this page, is a revised extract from Hark! The Biography of Christmas, a brand new book for Christmas 2017, priced £7.99.

From Macy’s to #MozTheMonster: How John Lewis conquered Christmas creep

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I woke this morning to find that Christmas had started. One of those markers in the sand had been reached. We’ve crossed the Rubicon. No going back. The John Lewis Christmas ad is here (#MozTheMonster). (I feel I have to add the hashtag after saying that, like some kind of compulsory religious honorific. Like the sentence doesn’t carry the full weight unless you had the Moz bit.) If you’ve not seen it yet, well you know can – which according to some pals, means we can now play Christmas music, eat Terry’s Chocolate Orange till we turn orange, and generally claim now as Christmas.

I disagree. Much as I love Christmas enough to write a book about all things Christmas past, for me, Christmas music starts December 1st. And even then, you need to be gradual before going full Christmas. Festive jumpers only a fortnight before (if then – and it should always be worn ironically). Be sparing in your chocolate orange.

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The stuff of nightmares. Or dreams. TBC.

Moz is the latest incarnation of several years of John Lewis riding high. How have we reached this point where we’re stopping work to click on Youtube to watch an advert – and not only that, but before the advert, we might even be made to watch another advert? And how is it that a fluffy character in commercial is somehow waving the starting-pistol for the Christmas season? (I wouldn’t trust #MozTheMonster with a starting-pistol – oh my, I’m falling for it…)

I trace it back to Rowland Macy and to the invention of plate glass. Macy started one of the first department stores, called, coincidentally, Macy’s. What started as farm goods and supplies quickly grew, into a store so big that it needed different departments (hence the name). Meanwhile the arrival (and cheapness) of plate glass meant we could finally see in shop windows, rather than have to go in or know in advance what would be stocked. This was of course vital for a shop that sold so much, that you wouldn’t know that on the 3rd floor there was something you never knew you wanted… unless you could see it in the window. So he accidentally – or deliberately – invented window-shopping.

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One of the first Christmas window displays. They weren’t just queuing up to see a naked mannequin for the first time.

Rowland Hussey Macy created the first ever festive window display, based on scenes from the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was a hit. Rival stores picked up on the idea too. When Gordon Selfridge set up his store in London, he took the idea too, and then Harrod’s down the road muscled in on it too. Before you know it, you have Christmas creep – each store trying to get their festive window display up and ready before their neighbours.

Because they were huge hits. People would travel into the city after a hard day of work, just to see the window displays – and thanks to electricity they could be powered and brilliant well into the dark evenings. Often they couldn’t afford anything in the shop – but this was free festive entertainment. But that was okay by Macy and co – window-shopping meant aspiration, and aspiration meant a hunger for buying things, so those who could would spend more and more on what they could afford in-store.

‘Christmas creep’ was definitely a thing: displays gradually went up earlier, lights were switched on earlier. Oxford Street’s famed lights were turned on a full three weeks earlier in the 1990s than in the 1950s. Getting one over on the rivals it what causes Tesco’s to stock mince pies in the summer (allegedly – for my Christmas book launch I promised mince pies in September, and couldn’t find a pack anywhere… thankfully my wife makes excellent mince pies).

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Father Christmas is here. NOT Santa. Must be London then.

Shop-owners tried all sorts to win over customers – even hiring in Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali to create window displays. Some of their ideas became legacies still with us today. Macy himself was one of the first to offer a money-back guarantee in January, and added the first in-store Santa from 1862. He didn’t have a grotto yet though – just roamed the store wild. The first grotto appeared in East London in 1888, in J. P. Robert’s store, before even Selfridge’s appeared. When he did set up shop, Selfridge coined the phrase “only X shopping days till Christmas” (though he had the BRILLIANT idea to replace X with a series of steadily decreasing numbers).

Stores not blessed by world-renowned artists benefitted from technological advancements: mechanical characters, rising platforms, and frosted snow scenes were mainstays of stores in London, New York, and Chicago. In the 1950s, Woodward & Lothrop’s of Washington D.C. even featured live penguins in their window.

Which brings us back to John Lewis, and their fluffy animal fix. From penguins to #MozTheMonster (I’ve got Compulsive Hashtag Disorder), they’ve tapped into the family Christmas – which lest we forget, has only been family-oriented since St Nicholas became Santa Claus in the 1820s (that’s for another blog) – like no one else. In Britain at least. I’m British. We might need an American blog to tell us Walmart’s equivalent.

But over here, the starting pistol has been fired. While we’re watching cute characters get Christmassy on Youtube (once the ads before the ads have stopped playing), the shops are hoping we’ll turn that into sales. And I’m sure we will – Christmas creep has now crept in new days into our festive calendar. Alongside Advent Sunday and Stir-Up Sunday, we now have Black Friday, Cyber Monday, even Take-Back Tuesday (a true legacy of Macy’s money-back guarantee)… but also ‘Buy Nothing Day’, organised by counter-commercial Christmas fans.

Whatever we’re buying, it looks like John Lewis has decided that the Christmas season may now commence. So, Merry ChristMoz. Ugh. I’ve done it again.

The new book Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available on the highlighted link, just there. It’s all about sales, people (that’s Moz’s unheard catchphrase).

15 John Archer & co – Derren, Daniels, Dawkins + debates

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A break from the Christmas blog – here’s my latest podcast…

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-d3hz9-7aa7a6

Magic’s in the air as we meet the first person to fool Penn & Teller on their ‘Fool Us’ TV show, plus others tell of Paul Daniels making an elephant disappear and debating Derren Brown. Plus tales of stand-up philosophy, sit-down theology, refugees and referees. And your Bring A Bottle moment is to get hold of/post a review of this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hark-Biography-Christmas-Paul-Kerensa/dp/0745980171 – Thanks!
On this episode:
– The Magic Circle’s top comedy magician, BAFTA-winning JOHN ARCHER
– Comedian & writer ANDY KIND on his first gig and his latest job
– Home for Good’s KRISH KANDIAH on the refugee crisis

– Writer and theological referee JUSTIN BRIERLEY on Derren and Dawkins

– Sorted magazine editor STEVE LEGG on escapology

– Chortle Comedian of the Year CARL DONNELLY on what to write

– QI elf STEVYN COLGAN talks for about 8 minutes about 8 minutes

Rate on iTunes… and share us around – thanks!

7 things Martin Luther gave the modern Christmas (inc. mistletoe, mince pies, Christmas trees, Santa…)

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We’ve just had the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (this blog missed the big day, as we were busy going on about Halloweeny Christmas creatures). So before we get too far from the half-millennium birthday of Luther nailing 95 these to a door on Halloween (“Trick or indulgence?”), I wouldn’t be doing my job plugging my new Christmas history book if I didn’t stop and think about what old Marty L brought us. Here are 7 things at least – and I’ve not even included reformed ham…

1. The Christmas tree. Alright, Romans brought in shrubs centuries earlier, but Martin Luther’s credited with popularising not just the household Christmas tree, but a certain type of decoration.

The story goes that he was out walking – after a hard day’s reforming – when he happened upon a forest. He probably happened on it quite quickly – this was Germany, so he probably couldn’t see the wood for the trees. But what he did see was the starry starry night, and was so enthralled by a starlit tree and how it recalled the star over Bethlehem, that he ran home to tell his wife of the beautiful scene. Words failed him, so he went back, felled the tree, and plonked the fir in his living-room, adding candles to recreate the starry night.

“There, it looked something like that.”

“You could have just told us, Martin…”

His was thought to be the first traditional German Christmas tree: the Christbaum.

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Luther amidst his family at Wittenberg on Christmas Eve 1536. Ah it says that above. You can read.

2. Mistletoe. After Luther started a-reforming, some thought the church needed even more reforming. Puritans for example, when in power under Ollie Cromwell, banned all sorts of potential idol worship – including the effigy of the holy family, hung above the front door. The effigies vanished but the sprigs of evergreen surrounding them stayed, especially the mistletoe. The priest used to greet the household under the effigy with a Christian kiss – so that became a kiss under the mistletoe, which handily had berries to pluck after each kiss, ensuring the smooches were finite.

3. The mince pie. Ultimately what used to be known as a ‘Christmas pie’ changed shape under the Puritans because once again, it was a bit idol-worshippy. The pie back then was shaped like a manger (or a coffin – how very theological) – so enterprising British bakers changed the shape to flout the ban – circular, not crib-shaped.

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A banned mince pie. Probably best banned. It’s weird eating the baby Jesus.

4. The fairy/angel/whatever you call the female sprite thing on top of your tree. Similarly a ‘tin-gold angel’ used to represent Jesus atop the Christmas tree. Again, that’s a tad idolatrous, so bye-bye Jesus, hello (thanks, eventually, to Queen Victoria and her in-fashion dolls) angel, fairy, or whoever else you want to put up there.

5. Santa – and a bit less Mary. Protestantism effectively downgraded Mary. Their Christmas focused in on the infant Jesus, rather than those around him. Saints’ days were discouraged, sparking an attempted coup on St Nicholas. His celebration day of 6 December had been a day of gift-giving for centuries – but that didn’t sound very reformed. It’s not that easy though to take gifts away, so instead they were postponed, to Christmas Eve. The “Christkindl”, the Christ-child, was said to be the new bringer of gifts rather than St Nick.

6. Santa’s workshop. Now alright – Martin Luther didn’t invent Santa’s workshop – but he paved the way for it. Helping St Nick’s transformation into Santa was the illustrator Thomas Nast. This Protestant Bavarian chap drew the jolly elf more than anyone else. Nast’s anti-Catholic polemic was undoubtedly a big influence behind his saint-lampooning caricatures – and he also added a list, a North Pole address and a workshop with elves.

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‘Merry Old Santa Claus’ by Thomas Nast, 1881 – lampooning Catholic saints (especially this one) for decades.

7. Thanksgiving, Hogmanay, commerce and, well, everything. Yes, then there’s the Puritan takeover (sparked by the Reformation) cancelling Christmas, shaping American culture, letting in Thanksgiving, and allowing the shops to get the jump on Christmas while the church was still working out whether to celebrate Christmas or not (see this previous blog on ‘happy holidays’ for more on that).

Meanwhile in Scotland… well this may be just for the real history geeks, but here are the rest of Reformation’s Christmassy moments:

  • 1517… On Halloween, reformer and alleged Christmas tree co-inventor Martin Luther nails what’s wrong with the church to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther permits celebration of Christmas; other reformers disagree.
  • 1521… In Wittenberg, Protestant reformer Andreas von Carlstadt performs Christmas Mass in German rather than Latin, probably lasting considerably longer due to the length of the words.
  • 1522… Luther translates the New Testament into German, so that people can check the reformers’ complaints against the papacy. As long as they read German.
  • 1526… William Tyndale translates the New Testament into English, although it’s illegal for fifteen years. It’s just in English and German to begin with; Cockney and Klingon translations come later (though are now available).
  • 1536… Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries, changing the face of English religion. Unemployment rises by 2%, with thousands of monks, friars, and nuns suddenly out of work. And yes, sorry – a lot of canons were fired (no really, it was very serious at the time).
  • 1541… The mock role “the Boy Bishop” is one of the first Christmas traditions to be stopped by the Reformation. Spoilsports.
  • 1559… John Calvin publishes his “Institutes”, picking up Luther’s mantle and running with it (not too far because the mantle was nailed to the church door. This is all very metaphorical, by the way). Unlike Luther, Calvin does have a problem with Christmas, because it’s not biblically sanctioned. He doesn’t quite outlaw it; he grumbles to one minister to follow “the moderate course of keeping Christ’s birth-day as you are wont to do”. Christmas is safe. Just not in Scotland…
  • 1560… Scotland goes the extra mile (or 500 miles) – Christmas is banned by the Church of Scotland under John Knox. For about four centuries.
  • 1575… Christmas Day called “Yule Day” in Scotland; punishments handed out to those found playing, dancing, and singing “filthy carols”.
  • 1585… Philip Stubbes’ Anatomie of Abuses records that, “Especially in Christmas time there is nothing else used but cards, dice, tables, masking, mumming, bowling, and such like footeries… Do they think that they are privileged at that time to do evil?… Be merry in the Lord, but not otherwise, not to swill and gull… The true celebration of the feast of Christmas is, to meditate… upon the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ, God and man.”
  • 1602… Shakespeare’s latest footery – Twelfth Night, or What You Will – debuts on, when else, 2 February – not Twelfth Night, but Candlemas. Elizabeth I’s habit of requesting Christmas plays often forces Shakespeare to write at very short notice. This was intended to close the Christmas season, though it’s not a Christmas play. It’s more Roman Saturnalian, full of cross-dressing and mistaken identity.
  • 1607… King James I of England (where they celebrate Christmas) a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland (where they don’t) requests a play for Christmas Day, as well as after- dinner games. The suggestion angers Puritans, Scots, and the king’s players who thought they had Christmas off.
  • 1618… King James reinstates Christmas in Scotland, but hardly anyone turns up to celebrate it.
  • 1640… Scotland bans Christmas again.
  • 1958… Scotland officially reinstates Christmas three hundred years later. In the meantime a New Year celebration, Hogmanay, has filled the gap.

…But apart from Santa, the Christmas tree, mince pies, mistletoe, the Christmas fairy, Mary, Hogmanay, Christmas lights… what did Luther ever do for Christmas?

Indulge yourself: Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available for all good people who click that link.

What’s Bonfire Night got to do with Christmas? Only everything.

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“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”

Ah yes, like a Nativity scene artist who’s illustrating the accommodation, the nights are drawing inn. And in early November in Britain, that means Bonfire Night. Guy Fawkes Night. Fireworks Night. Whatever you remember remember to call it, it’s just the latest in a long line of wintry bonfire celebrations, going back far before we decided to commemorate a 17th century cutlery-named terrorist each November 5th.

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A bonfire. French for ‘good fire’.

Thousands of years before Christmas, there was Yule – one of the world’s earliest known festivals. It dates right back to the birth of agriculture. And for those who prefer to think of Christmas’ origins in the Holy Land, that’s ok, because agriculture started in the Fertile Crescent, smack in the middle of which, pretty much, is Bethlehem. Except it’s not the manger we’re looking at here, but the seeds growing beneath it. When the Ice Age ended, Earth’s larder defrosted and we learned to raid it.

But like all larder raids, sometimes you take too much, and for the first time we discovered what a food surplus looked like. Especially in the icy north, supplies were rationed but couldn’t be stored for long, so winter’s midpoint became the perfect time to bring out some grub, partly through necessity, but also because it’s good to pop a cork when the worst is over, when the sun stands still – translated as ‘solstice’.

But would the sun come back? Well yes. But what if it didn’t? Well it would. Ah but what if it DIDN’T? Alright, go and worship the sun then, see if I care! Go on, encourage it back by recreating sun on Earth. Make fire. Big wheels of fire to resemble the sun, how about that? Then have a big ritual where you roll it into the sea.

Or continually burn, day and night, a giant Yule log, to show that no one messes with mankind, that no one extinguishes OUR fire. The fact it had to burn day and night meant it had to be one giant log (no sniggering)… which is why we don’t have many Yule logs today.

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Should burn a while. You’ll spend a day trying to light it with newspaper, vodka and a pack of Swan Vesta though.

In the olden days – up till the 19th century – they kept this tradition, ideally burning constantly for the full twelve days of Christmas, now that the Christian festival had superseded the Norse Yule. But even the Yule log burns out eventually… and with industrialisation and the middle classes and city living came smaller fireplaces. They halved in size, with no room for that giant Yule log. Besides, Prince Albert had just helped popularise the Christmas tree, so we exchanged one bit of wood for another (no sniggering, I said!).

In Paris, city-dwellers particularly missed their Yule logs. After romantically staring at their small fireplaces for some time and composing some poetry (probably), they turned to what all good French people turn to in times of crisis: confectionery. Thus, the Bûche de Noel: they forced out their chocolate logs (NO SNIGGERING!).

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Don’t forget a proper chocolate log has a little stumpy bit. And a dead squirrel inside. 

We may have stopped burning Yule logs, but we still like a roaring fire (pubs filled the gap, since most homes can’t provide any longer – though wood-burning stoves are coming back) – and then there’s the Yule log’s 2D return thanks to TV exec Fred Thrower.

In 1966, Thrower decided to “warm up” a few homes, as well as give his station staff some time off, by filming a log burning in the New York mayor’s fireplace. He then broadcast it on a loop for two hours, costing 4,000 dollars in lost advertising revenue. It became an annual hit running for twenty-four consecutive Christmases. Today the YouTube equivalents still garner millions of views, as we pretend our Yule log is burning away just as it did for centuries. Except rather than burn for twelve straight days, Thrower’s version burned for just seventeen seconds before looping around again.

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“Don’t turn over! This is my favourite bit…”

Meanwhile, our bonfires still burn every November 5th – and we still flock to the firework displays, our cotton-gloved hands getting all ketchuppy from hot dogs. One thing that never goes away is that yearning for communal gatherings in our wintry festivals, so whether it’s cheering as wheels of fire roll into the Scandinavian sea, gathering round a real log, a TV log or a French chocolatey one, or wrapping up warm for a Bonfire Night, fire has always lit up our winter nights – because Jack Frost is nipping at our nose.

My book Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available now and should not be burnt on fires for any reason. Stay safe, people.

Why it’s OK to have a happy ‘holiday season’

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If Halloween’s behind us, it must mean we’re into the holiday season. Alright, our Atlantically-distanced cousins mark it from Thanksgiving, but come on: Halloween, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving… whatever side of the pond you’re on, it’s one festivity after another this time of year. Like the lorry of sugary black stuff tells us, holidays are indeed coming. Happy holidays, everybody!

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Oh, hasn’t that term always bristled? Doesn’t it smack of Christmas-bashing? Of secular season’s greetings and watered-down Wintervals? But here am I – English, God-fearing, Christmas-loving chump that I am – to say that I think I’m happy with ‘holidays’. Happy, if not merry.

Till I researched my Christmas history book, I hadn’t fully appreciated the history of the U.S. holiday season. I knew that Cromwell banned Christmas over here in Blightyland in the 1640s, causing a good decade and a half of no legal Christmas in Britain. But I’d not realised the impact in America.

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Caption competition on Have I Got 17th Century News For You 

The Puritan Pilgrim Fathers banned Christmas in Boston a few decades later, and unlike in Britain, they didn’t have centuries of Christmas to build on (or knock down). They were banning something that had never had a footfall in the New World, so as a religious festival it never hugely came back, because it was never hugely there. Christmas was celebrated in pockets along the East Coast in the 17th and 18th century, but churches couldn’t agree: Was it a feast day? A fast day? A normal day? Christmas became an excuse for a riotous party, or just a riot.

Scotland had done a similar thing – with no official Christmas holiday from 1560 right up till 1958. That left a gap, so Scotland gained Hogmanay, while North America gained Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was celebrated as early as the American Christmas, with new (and hungry) pilgrims grateful for the harvest. Britain had its Harvest Festival, but things grew bigger in the New World – even festivals. It took till 1789 to become official under George Washington, marking the proper start of the ‘holiday season’, which now covers the Christian Christmas, the Jewish Hanukkah, and the African American Kwanzaa. So it makes total sense to be called a holiday season, given the holidays it covers include things like Thanksgiving, that had a foothold before Christmas fully did.

For Thanksgiving to go national as an actual day off, thank nineteenth century magazine editor Sarah Hale: a very creative, innovative and can-do American businesswoman. She wrote to each U.S. President over 26 years suggesting an official Thanksgiving Day (Lincoln finally relented), and also first published ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ plus stories by Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe in her mag. Oh, and she also printed something else for our Christmas tale: the American reprint of the famous ‘Victoria and Albert and family around a giant German Christmas tree’ picture, which went viral and pretty much created an industry.

To appeal to the American market, Hale’s version of the picture used one of the earliest examples of journalistic airbrushing, removing Victoria’s crown (to make her less royal) and Albert’s moustache (to make him less German). Spot the difference in the above pics, UK vs US… However anti-royalist and xenophobic it sounds, good ol’ Sarah Hale sold the Christmas tree to America – so give thanks to her for a couple of ‘holiday’ customs.

If ‘holiday’ is still sounding anti-religious, it’s worth remembering the word’s religious in origin in any case, being Old English for ‘holy day’. And in fact a century or two ago, ‘Happy holidays’ could have easily meant a Christian greeting to cover Advent, Christmas and New Year into Epiphany… as well as those other non-Christian festivals too.

So I have no problem with ‘the holiday season’. It’s a season of holidays. As for ‘Happy Holidays’… well the backlash against that is perhaps more valid, and more recent. It’s a greeting used at Christmas, instead of ‘Merry Christmas’. I see the point though. What if you’re wishing someone a Merry Christmas, and they’re Jewish, and Hannukah is their thing? Don’t you want to wish them a merry one of those? So Christmas shopping might be labelled ‘holiday shopping’. Perhaps it rankles to the British ear because holidays, for us, are what they call vacations, and are normally summery and as far from Christmas as possible. So is it a language thing then, or a multi-religious thing?

Maybe it’s more that in the U.S., when they say ‘Christmas’ they more often mean the religious Christmas – so when their festive season becomes more multicultural, they pick a new term that’s less religious. Over on our sceptred isle, we’ve been watering down our religion for some time, merrily ticking census boxes that claim us as Christian when really we mean we like the morals we learnt in R.E. forty years ago, and we sing along to Last Night of the Proms. If we’re happy to be labelled Christian without going to church, we’re also happy to label Christmas as ‘Christmas’ when actually we’re no longer celebrating Christ’s mass.

Either way, whether you’re enjoying Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Guy Fawkes Night or even Christmas, I know it’s too early and too annoying to wish you Happy Holidays. So I’ll just wish instead it to be as fun a holiday season as King Edward III had in 1348, when he spent Halloween to Candlemas (a.k.a. All Saints Eve to Groundhog Day) – three full months – on a masked animal-skin party in Guildford. I live in Guildford, and can report, it hasn’t changed a bit.

Ho ho horror stories for Christmas or Halloween…

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I’m no fan of Halloween. If you’re going to commercialise an old festival, make it positive and charitable and familial like Christmas, not shopsful of blood, guts and inappropriate fancy dress outfits, resulting in sweet-begging children and students resembling an out-of-control stag party.

I know. I’m a Halloween Scrooge. Humbug. (That’s another sweet they’ll be after.)

I clearly prefer Christmas (hence this book for you to buy/not buy but give a nice review on Amazon anyway). Except Christmas has its dark side too. While Santa was trying to find his way from being a 4th century bishop to children’s favourite jolly old elf, he made a few stops en route. So across Europe, just as Santa turned into not just a few cul-de-sacs, but he turned into a few of these oddities – and like Doctor Who, gained a few companions along the way. So if you don’t know your Sausage-Swiper from your Belsnickel…

Krampus (not Father Christmas after a night out)

Krampus (not Father Christmas after a night out)

  • BELSNICKEL AND KRAMPUS… The Ant and Dec of their day – that day being medieval Germany’s Dark Ages. The masked, long-tongued Belsnickel was said to carry a switch for beating, and had a horned goat-like chum: the Krampus. So you get pictures like the above one, that’s a bit of both. These early Germanic Chuckle Brothers (Chuckel Brothers?) could be kind… but like old Santy Claus, they would also punish. It’s their punishing nature that’s now the stuff of horror films.
  • KNECHT RUPRECHT… Germany knew about St Nicholas too, and he picked up some unlikely companions, including this rather frightening elf: a manservant said to have been rescued and fostered by St Nicholas. Knecht Ruprecht would ask children if they could pray; those who could were rewarded with fruit and gingerbread, but those who couldn’t were given lumps of coal, or a beating, or a beating with a bag full of lumps of coal. Knecht Ruprecht was Santa’s little helper – and still is on a certain animated TV show. In the German version of The Simpsons, the family dog isn’t known as Santa’s Little Helper; he’s Knecht Ruprecht.
  • JULNISSEN… These Scandinavian cheeky elves were said to live in attics and mischievously hide gifts around the house (perhaps helped out by the odd parent). Cheeky rather than anything too sinister…
  • CALLICANTZARI… Drifting into the downright nasty, the Greeks have horrible little creatures who live underground and spend all year gnawing away at the roots of the Tree of Life to try to bring all life crashing down for good. The jawbones of pigs would be hung to ward off these little monstrosities, and fires would burn all season to keep them at bay.
  • THE CHRISTMAS LADS… Not a work party gone out of hand – these are thirteen Icelandic trolls, who roam houses for thirteen days before Christmas. Each of their names is a Dahlesque BFG-like wonder: Bowl-Licker hides under beds waiting for someone to put their dinner on the oor, Sausage-Swiper snatches bangers while they’re being cooked, and you might hear Door-Slammer or catch sight of Window-Peeper. But their chief aim? To steal children… but only the naughty ones, so you’d better be good for goodness’ sake.

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    “Sausage-Swiper” – one of the Lads. That’s why Mum’s not gone to Iceland.

  • ST NICHOLAS… Lest we forget that St Nick himself wasn’t always painted as a generous toy-giver. William Caxton’s 1483 book of saints, Legenda Aurea, noted that Nicholas could be “cruel in correctyng”, whipping naughty children. Jolliness will follow…

     

…but let’s get through October first. Have a happy Halloween (or an unhappy one, I think is probably the idea) – and then we’ll get into the ‘holiday season’, onto a merrier Christmas and happy holidays. Ah yes, next blog, I’ll try and convince you why we shouldn’t be quite as annoyed about America’s ‘happy holidays’ as we generally are.

For more Christmas stuff, you could: buy my new book Hark! The Biography of Christmas (now back in stock after first print run sold out in two weeks), or let’s have a big-up for James Cooper’s WhyChristmas website (nowt to do with me, but he’s a good chap – and I’m here to treat, not trick…).

Dickens hosts Christmas (& a book launch…)

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Tonight I’m officially launching Hark! The Biography of Christmas in London’s glittering just-to-the-east-of-West End. I’ve particularly chosen the nearest bookshop to Dickens’ house and museum – because where better than within sight of “the man who invented Christmas”…

If you’ve not been to his house/museum, I thoroughly recommend it. I pondered it as a venue for the launch itself – though sole hire was a little pricey for little ol’ me, so the Blackwells/Caffe Nero a couple of streets away seemed as good a place as any.

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Charles Dickens (accurate depiction)

In tribute to, as Tolstoy called him, “that great Christian writer” (even though, yes, Chuck D’s version of Christmas almost pushed out the Christian Christmas – with values of charity, family and snow dominating most festive households), here’s a sample from the book that’s all Dickensian, like. Through the book I’ve pinpointed the 12 dates of Christmas becoming more like our current Christmas, so…

 

…On our ninth date of Christmas… (London, 19 December 1843)

As Mr Dickens steps into the London street, he can almost feel the snow beneath him – except this year he’ll have to imagine it. Sadly the weather has not played snowball with his wintry novella; London’s Christmas 1843 is the tenth mildest December on record. Still, the seven-degree day means that the streets are busier, and more are out seeking his book on its day of release. Perhaps as they read they’ll hark back to white Christmases of yesteryear – after last year’s even warmer winter, those wintry days may be behind us for good. Thankfully for us, Charles’ first eight Christmases were white ones, so for him and his generation, that’s what a Christmas should be, even if they’ve become rarer as he’s grown older.

The writer cannot help but smile as he hears a boy advertise his wares: that he has stock of Mr Dickens’ latest work, A Christmas Carol. He’s well-known but his star has been fading a little – perhaps he spent a little too long touring America. The written works too may not have quite delivered as promised. The recent Martin Chuzzlewit left Dickens and his publisher out of pocket after sales failed to match the success of Oliver Twist.

So Dickens is self-publishing this new book, hoping that a cut of the profits will prove wiser than taking a lump sum. Those printing costs have been high though, so this book needs to sell well to turn a profit. The look of this edition appeals to Charles, ever the perfectionist: the red cloth cover and golden pages reflect the colours of Christmas – far better than the ghastly olive endpapers originally printed. It was only finalised two days ago.

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Many are parting with their five shillings for a copy. Profiteering aside, Charles’ travelling has given him a new perspective on his career – more cultural commentator than writer-for-pleasure – and this is the first major publication since adopting this new role. He has campaigned against slavery in the United States, and following trips to Cornish tin mines and impoverished industrial Manchester, he has been determined to make a difference. In particular, Charles wishes to provoke his middle- and upper-class readers into action by highlighting the social injustices under their noses. After a faltering start turned this passion into a political pamphlet, Dickens has instead opted for a Christmas ghost story, a genre with “twenty thousand times the force… [of] my first idea”.

Christmas is a family occasion for Charles, and he’s looking forward to the two official days off next week with his four young children, wife Kate, and Kate’s sister Georgina who lives with them to support the house. What better time to commune with the family than Christmas, when the children can enjoy a parlour game or be baffled by his latest magic trick? One of Charles’ sons will later write that he adored this “really jovial time… my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on… And then the dance! There was no stopping him!”

He passes house after house, where later carollers will doubtless be reviving their tradition of singing for money. Charles smirks: he has a carol of his own. His novella is fully titled A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas. He’s no composer or lyricist, but was keen to add his voice to the carol renaissance of late, and he’s even written “staves” (or stanzas) instead of chapters.

The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from miser to philanthropist is a deliberate morality lesson of warmth amid snow, of hot turkey and family cheer. There are glimpses of a middle-class Christmas with party games like Snap Dragon and Blind Man’s Buff, as well as a barely struggling working-class dinner with a roast goose and Christmas pudding. There’s even mention of a mulled wine called “Smoking Bishop”, made from port, red wine, citrus fruit, sugar, and spice. Dickens enjoyed a glass or bowl of Bishop at the upper-middle-class Christmases of his youth, even as a child; after all, alcoholic punch is a safer bet than drinking water.

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This bishop is smokin’…

The book features nostalgic trips to past Christmases – essential in this fast-moving world of railways and factories – as well as a timely reminder to be truly present at our family festivities. There are, of course, ghosts; perhaps the Christmas ghost story will become a trend. Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present is based on the Roman god Saturn, figurehead of their Saturnalia festival.

Dickens is fond of pacing these streets. While creating this story, he walked “fifteen or twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed”. He wrote obsessively, starting just two months ago, and while writing, “I wept and laughed, and wept again.” Six weeks later the book was complete, with the last pages finished in early December. Already he is mulling discussions for New Year stage adaptations – several different productions will crop up within the month, with his backing or not.

Charles is recognised by one well-wisher out delivering an envelope via the new “Penny Post” system, established just three years ago. Perhaps one day Charles’ books may be delivered by similar means – though surely not for a penny. Dickens wonders if that envelope contains one of the brand new Christmas cards, on sale just a few streets away in Sir Henry Cole’s art shop. Time will tell if the enterprising experiment works. By Christmas, Sir Henry will sell 1,000 at a shilling each, while today alone, A Christmas Carol will sell six times as many for five times the price. Selling out in a day, more books will be printed to keep up with Christmas demand.

For now, Charles enjoys his walk through London. Next week he will take his young family through these streets to the toy shop in Holborn, for their annual custom of choosing one present each. Hopefully the book will sell well – Kate has a fifth child on the way. If he were visited by a Ghost of Christmas Future, he could be told that within a few years they’ll have ten children.

As for the book, its influence will be immediate. Within a few months, The Gentleman’s Magazine will attribute a boom in charitable giving to A Christmas Carol. One American factory-owner reads it on Christmas Eve and closes his factory the next day, instead giving a turkey to each employee. Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray says of the book: “A Scotch philosopher, who nationally does not keep Christmas Day, on reading the book, sent out for a turkey, and asked two friends to dinner – and that is a fact.”

 

I adore A Christmas Carol. I know it’s early in the season, but plan to read that between now and Christmas. Oh, and plan to read this.