There’s a new film out this week, telling the story behind A Christmas Carol – and it’s one heck of a tale. Such a tale in fact that I’ve been pitching around an idea for a film based on the story behind A Christmas Carol for the past year or so. Ah well. They beat me to it.
Such writerly misfortune – right idea, wrong place, wrong time – is the sort of thing that lies behind Dickens’ festive tale. As for the title, Dickens was known in his later years as ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’. When he died, so entwined was he with the festive season that a Covent Garden barrow-girl was heard to say: “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”
But invent Christmas? Yes alright, that’s a little far. He certainly helped revive it though. He gave us little bitesized Christmas presents, by popularising mulled wine in his book, giving us Scrooge and ‘humbug’, as well as one of the first printed greetings of ‘Merry Christmas’. (Earlier still was the “Merry Christmas” in the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, sung door-to-door in the mummers’ tradition of performing for money (or figgy pudding. No one quite knows when that song came about, though it pre-dates Dickens. Possibly the earliest recorded use of the greeting was in 1565 as “Mery Christmas”, though the more satisfying fuller phrase, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”, first appears in a 1699 letter written by an English admiral. There’s then a gap, then Dickens brings the greeting back in his 1843 book. By chance that very same week, the greeting was also revived for the first commercial Christmas card.)
He gave us bigger presents too – refocusing the festive season on family and charity. His book was so influential, that The Gentleman’s Magazine attributed a boom in charitable giving to A Christmas Carol. One American factory- owner read it on Christmas Eve and closed his factory the next day, instead giving a turkey to each employee. Vanity Fair author William Makepeace ackeray noted that, “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.”
But there were bigger Christmas changes afoot. Industrialisation was the big influencer: workers flocked to the cities, changing the focus of Christmas from village customs to urban ones, and household ones, as people sought to recreate the festival in their homes rather than the village greens. It meant people travelled home for Christmas for the first time (on trains rather than across fields). And it meant a new middle class, which meant that aspiration became a thing. The poor looked to the keeping-afloat, and their mid-sized Christmas trees, who were looking to the upper classes and their big Christmas trees, who were looking to the royals and their…
Ah yes. That’s where Prince Albert comes in.
See, I think that in terms of people there were three wise men of the Victorian period who changed Christmas celebration beyond recognition. So here are our three kings of the nineteenth-century Christmas, and the gifts they bring:
✧ WASHINGTON IRVING… The American brings the modern Christmas in from the cold. Irving was the world’s first international best-selling author, bringing us Rip Van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow, the word ‘knickers’, the pudding ‘Knickerbocker Glory’, and the New York nickname ‘Gotham City’. It was on the same visit to the East Midlands (rather backward) village of Gotham that Irving also swung by the West Midlands manor house of James Watt (of the ‘Watt’, yes). Here he was treated to a cosy stately home Christmas, and so Irving wrote it up in exaggerated fashion in the early nineteenth century, and the world read of the cosy classic English Christmas of roaring log fires, party games, carriage rides and family joy – even if Irving was making it up a bit. He also wrote a separate book helping to revive the Dutch settler St Nicholas tales, of flying over rooftops and delivering presents. So Irving’s our Ghost of Christmas Past. Our wise man who brings a sweet warm reviving feeling to Christmas: mmmmmyrrh.
✧ CHARLES DICKENS… The Englishman adored Irving’s writings: “I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me.” Easy, Charles. Dickens was inspired by Irving to write his Christmas classic (see below, when they met.) From the pages of Dickens’ novella, you can almost inhale the scent of Cratchit cooking, the chill of crisp snow underfoot, and the homely aromas of Fred’s Christmas party. So the gift of Dickens – our Ghost of Christmas Present – is a Christmas that tingles our senses. If you don’t agree, frankly I’m incensed.
✧ PRINCE ALBERT… The German brings old-world charm and nobility, to be emulated by all royal-watchers. So beloved is the Prince Consort that the customs he enacts, from Christmas trees to gingerbread and fruit and candle decorations, are copied throughout the land. Christmas cards with the royal couple’s image are the height of fashion. When Albert skates at Christmas (rather well actually, certainly far better than Her Majesty), everyone skates. He even once rode a sleigh from London to Slough (of all the places – one hopes it was just so they could call it a Slough Ride…). He even helped revive turkey (not a turkey – there was no reviving that…). So Albert, paving the way for home decoration and celebration for centuries to come, is our Ghost of Christmas Future, and his gift is the sparkling royal Christmas that we all crave: pure festive gold.
They all met, you know. Just not all three together. Here – true story – are the times our three wise men met each other:
✧ WHEN ALBERT MET DICKENS… The Prince Consort was a fan of Dickens, but the feeling was not mutual – simply because Dickens was in love with the Queen. On the royal wedding night at Windsor Castle in 1840, the already-married Dickens protested beneath the newlyweds’ bedroom window by rolling around in the mud. Not surprisingly it was ineffective. In further protest, Dickens rudely refused all royal requests for an audience for the next three decades. The royal couple attended some of his performed readings, but Charles continued to turn down offers of honours, or a request to contribute to Albert’s memorial fund after his demise. The Queen and the writer finally met, holding a cordial conversation, just weeks before Charles’ death.
✧ WHEN DICKENS MET IRVING… The two writers admired each other greatly, and Dickens stayed at Irving’s house in New York on 1 February 1842, during his American speaking tour. Dickens was inspired by the American’s tales of the classic English Christmas, as well as by the horrors of the slave trade that he glimpsed while on tour. So he felt moved to write something to help England’s poor; visits to Cornish tin mines and Manchester factories followed, then an attempt at a political pamphlet, before he had the idea to write a ghost story – but it began at Irving’s home, ‘Sunnyside’.
✧ WHEN IRVING MET ALBERT… The consummate traveller had grown a little world-weary by the time he attended a royal ball in London in May 1842, but his overwhelm at the sight of the regalia was classically American. Adoring the pomp and ceremony, he was impressed by Prince Albert, whom he noted “speaks English very well”. Ever the observer, Irving perceived that the Queen looked flushed and bothered by the entire event, continually adjusting her crown.
All this is from my new book Hark! The Biography of Christmas. Do buy.