From this morning, December 20th 2017 – a delve into Christmas past with Chris, Vassos and Lynn:
(Off-air Lynn took me to task for not including the Welsh Father Christmas, Siôn Corn. Sorry Lynn. Will fix for the second edition…)
From this morning, December 20th 2017 – a delve into Christmas past with Chris, Vassos and Lynn:
(Off-air Lynn took me to task for not including the Welsh Father Christmas, Siôn Corn. Sorry Lynn. Will fix for the second edition…)
One last Dickensian post in this Yule blog.
I know I’m a Christmas obsessive, but I’m in great danger of becoming a Dickens obsessive too.
But he gave us so many Christmassy things! The new film picks up on one nickname in the later years of his life – ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ – and though much of that is right place/right time stuff (industrialisation, new middle class, aspiration, London as the world’s biggest and most influential city at the time…), he did one heck of a lot for the Christmas season. And it’s pretty much entirely contained in that one little novella, that you could (if you had mind to) read in one sitting. A Christmas Carol.
Yes you’re more likely to watch the Muppets’ version this year, but here are a dozen reasons why Dickens’ original is even better than you thought (and you probably thought it was quite good).
Happy Thanksgiving! Or if you’re not in the United States – or just ungrateful… then Happy Unthanksnotgiving.
The Thanksgiving turkey gets in a good month before the Christmas turkey. So today’s the day that, once again extracted from my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas, we’ll delve into that particular festive treat.
The bird landed on Western dinner plates around the sixteenth century, not long after roast dinners were starting to resemble today’s a bit more. Root vegetables were eaten nearly as much as meat and newcomers like sprouts were joining the plate. Such perennial “favourites” (personally I still have to gulp my one-sprout-a-year down with a glass of red) offered highly nutritious vitamins through the season, oddly growing in even the roughest of winters.
New foodstuffs arrived in the hand luggage of explorers. Sugar was an expensive luxury but helpful for the traditional Christmas sweetmeats; sugared bacon was a Tudor delicacy. But the prized souvenir was a meat, because after all, a special occasion such as Christmas deserves a special bird – and goose, swan, and peacock had all been done.
The Southern Mexican turkey was a domesticated bird, making it very easy to transport, so by 1525 these birds started appearing in European ports. Originally it was confused with the African guinea fowl, arriving via the Ottoman empire, land of the Turks. So the turkey suered a case of mistaken identity; though it had never even been to Turkey, the name “turkey” stuck.
The whole naming of this bird is one giant fiasco, to be honest. The country it was thought to be from wasn’t even called Turkey until after World War I, so the bird was (wrongly) named first. Then there’s the fact that the bird they thought it was wasn’t even from Turkey (which wasn’t called Turkey) but East Africa – the birds just changed hands a few times between Turks en route. Finally, the world over, they all seem to call it different names based on other places that it’s not even from. The Turks themselves called it “an Indian bird”, as did the French who call it an “Indian rooster” (a “coq d’Inde”, now abridged to “dinde”). In Malaysia it’s a “Dutch chicken”, while the Portuguese call it a “Peru bird”. The humble turkey should really be called “Mexican guinea fowl lookalike”.
Yorkshireman William Strickland bought six turkeys from some Native Americans and brought them to British shores via the Spanish Netherlands; the first turkeys were sold in Bristol at the price of tuppence – unsurprisingly at that rate, the locals gobbled them up.
But this was at least a two-bird race to the dinner plate. The goose was faring well as a seasonal bird to eat, just not necessarily at Christmas. Instead Michaelmas on 29 September was the day that each goose should look over its shoulders. They’d been popular with the Celts in their Samhain festival and also in our very old friend Yule.
Long before the Dutch/American/Mexican/Peruvian/Indian turkey could get its claws onto our Christmas menu, the goose beat it to it, all thanks to another sea explorer, not bringing anything back from the New World but defending the Old World…
Sir Francis Drake and Lord Charles Howard led the defence against the Spanish Armada, and on 29 September 1588 word reached Queen Elizabeth of their success. She was tucking into her traditional Michaelmas goose at the time, and was so overjoyed at the victory that she decreed that goose become celebration food from then on. That Christmas, roasted goose was the bird of choice. So when Michaelmas later waned, the goose clung to Christmas instead. In the next century though, James I preferred turkey to boar’s head, so the goose’s old rival was back on the table. In the Victorian era, popular Prince Albert began a fashion (for those who could afford it) for the more succulent turkey – and the goose’s goose was cooked.
Victoria did of course find a variety of meats placed in front of her each Christmas, including exotic birds like swan, snipe, or capercaillie. In 1851, the royal menu contained turkey for the first time, and that meant that the nation would copy. Thanks to Victorian methods of mass production, this was now possible at an affordable cost.
Over in Norfolk, these turkeys would be raised with the sole aim of the Christmas dinner plate. So how to get hundreds of turkeys from Norfolk to London in time? Simple. Starting in October each year, you make them walk to, yes, their own execution. is annual procession of the doomed birds was quite a sight, especially thanks to the shoes they wore. To protect their feet, each turkey had hard-wearing leather boots for the 100- mile one-way commute to market. At least they had a big meal waiting for them in London; the weary birds were fattened up in time for Christmas.
For more trivial cutlets and factual drumsticks like this, grab yourself a copy of Hark! The Biography of Christmas, rrp £7.99.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
…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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been blogging about the history of Christmas since, well, long before it was acceptable to even talk about Christmas. It might have even been August.
See the other rest of this blog for longer posts. But for those (like me really) with goldfish-sized attention spans, here’s a countdown of my 12 favourite brief-as-poss things I learned about festive history:
12. Traditional Japanese Christmas dinner is KFC.
11. Corporal Hitler refused to join in the Christmas Truce, and stayed in his trench.
10. Turkeys used to be marched from Norfolk to London, each wearing leather boots to protect their feet.
9. Before he sold Coca-Cola, a red-wearing Santa advertised ginger wine.
8. In the Vietnam War, ‘White Christmas’ was the warning alarm for troops to get out of Saigon.
7. ‘Jingle Bells’ was written in a Sunday school, for Thanksgiving. It was the first song in space, sung by astronauts pranking NASA by pretending they’d spotted Santa’s sleigh.
6. As King George V sat to broadcast the first British royal Christmas message, he fell through the seat of his chair.
5. The cover of the first Christmas Radio Times featured a family turning their backs to the fireplace, but turning to the radio.
4. The first personalised Christmas card was sent by celebrity sharp-shooter Annie Oakley.
3. The writer who popularised St Nicholas among New Yorkers, and spread the idea of the cosy English Christmas, also created Rip Van Winkle, Sleepy Hollow, the Knickerbocker Glory and Gotham City.
2. Due to a theological disagreement, St Nicholas punched a priest in the face at the Council of Nicaea.
1. King Herod had a wife called Doris.
On last week’s episode of ITV’s Victoria, Doctor Who companion Clara Oswald (who has been guised as the Queen in this several-series length spin-off, presumably since The Doctor abandoned her in 19th century ITV-land) found that the divide between rich and poor was becoming tricky for Vicky. Her Maj chose to have a ball to support London’s poor merchants; London’s poor merchants thought she was having a laugh. Her realisation that regal pomp clashed with the impoverished everyday lives of millions was a very real historical issue, with outcomes that paved the way for the welfare state and charitable causes today.
So as I clumsily blog about Christmas history when it’s not really Christmas (still very awkward as I write in September – but I do have a book that’s now available and I wish to urge you to buy by reading these blogged words), I thought it might be good to zoom in on the wealth gap and ensuing charity that came in during Victoria’s reign, which then swiftly attached itself to the festive season.
A year prior to taking the throne, Victoria was so moved by a visit to a gypsy camp that she urged her mother to send for provisions and blankets. She later established a Christmas tradition of handing out hampers at Windsor Castle, providing a ton of bread and half a ton of plum puddings, as well as plenty of beef, potatoes, and coal.
But when she dined, she didn’t skimp on portions herself. Ignore the size of actress Jenna Coleman – Big Vic Regina was a big eater, and a fast one too. Her Majesty could put away a seven-course dinner in just half an hour. Unfortunately for her guests, custom was that once the Queen had finished a course, everyone’s would be cleared. So hundreds of guests attended, only to find that many weren’t even served their food before the Queen (served first) had finished eating hers. In such a vast hall, inevitably many didn’t eat. There was a side table at least, for anyone peckish between courses (if you had courses at all), plus a public gallery where any public could watch this gorging spectacle. But do we really want to just watch someone else eat? Let them (watch me) eat cake…
The Victorian era changed Christmas more than any other period of history. And the biggest influence? Not Dickens, nor crackers, cards, charity, Christmas trees, Victoria nor Albert… but industrialisation. It created a middle class, and it made people flock from country to city. There were a million Londoners in 1800 and nearly 7 million by the end of the century, making London the world’s largest city. City life has benefits in terms of employment, but at the cost of community spirit – so our olde Englishe Christmassy customs – wassailing, orchard blessing, mummers touring the village, the parish priest blessing each family home – all were under threat, and largely absent from city life. In the country, more effort went into decorating the village church; urbanites instead decorated where they lived – with whatever their low incomes could afford. Public feasting became private feasting.
The home itself, rather than the house, was becoming a new phenomenon of its own. While the workhouse was in no way a good place to be, advancements in heating, plumbing, and eventually electrics soon meant that for many, evening and winter had the potential to be enjoyable like never before. (Just wait until radio and television.) The domestication of Christmas was the festival’s biggest leap for a millennium. Now customs didn’t belong to the community but to the family.
With the workforce gravitating towards cities, there developed the idea of returning home for the family Christmas. In the past, villagers had but a short walk to see relatives; now hordes of city-dwellers made that seasonal exodus back home, like the holy family for the census. New modes of transportation made this possible: trains, or even the omnibus. As the railways spread, people could move further from their birthplace to find work, meaning that a Christmas family reunion was something to anticipate, compared with a stroll over a field to say hello to Mum. To this day, we’re still moving – as recently as the 1990s, the average Brit lived five miles from their birthplace; at the time of writing, that’s now 100 miles.
With a new middle-class (thanks to new technology and employment) came aspiration. Before it was serfs and royals – now the middle-class could look to the Queen, while the working-class could look to those middle-class types looking to the Queen. Social mobility wasn’t easy – but it was at least an idea.
Then along came Dickens. More of him and A Christmas Carol on another blog post – but suffice to say his trump card was painting Scrooge as the hardest of hearts, showing that even he could become the humanitarian of the book’s finale. This ushered in a new charitable connection to Christmas, his contemporaries quick to recognize that this was one of the few books to improve the behaviour of those who read it. Just a few months later, 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 Thackeray 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.”
Charity had been associated with Christmas for many years. In 1667 Samuel Pepys reported in his diary that he “stopped and dropped money at five or six places, which I was the willinger to do, it being Christmas”. For many years churches had rattled their boxes and monarchs had rewarded their poorer subjects. Bosses emptied their charitable boxes to employees the day after Christmas – though this custom faded away in the later Victorian years, just as she encouraged ‘Boxing Day’ as an official holiday – so at least it would be a day off for workers, if not ready cash in a box.
Whether inspired by Dickens or not, four years after A Christmas Carol Victoria ensured extra funds for Christmas dinners at workhouses across the country. So that’s nice. Hopefully she didn’t turn up too – otherwise she’d finish them all off in thirty minutes, knowing her.
Another time, we’ll look at her husband Albert’s festive contributions (from the Christmas tree to paper decorations and German markets), and another time still, far nearer Christmas, we’ll get all Dickensian.
For now, buy the book. Thanks.
It’s tricky trying to plug a Christmas book in September. But I did say I’d blog from the book leading up to its launch on Sept 15th, and into the festive season, so here’s everything summery that I can find…
It’s long-known that the media industry gears up to Christmas in August. As you’ve been enjoying time by the pool, a team hired by John Lewis have been faking snow and throwing loveable animals into it, hoping to pull on the heartstrings this December if accompanied by a plinky-plonky cover version of a song we used to like.
What’s less well-known is the summer origins of these Christmas classics:
THE CHRISTMAS SONG:
Allegedly the world’s most performed Christmas song, this was written in – and inspired by – the sweltering summer of 1945. Sick of roasting in the open sun, lyricist Bob Wells wrote four wintry lines about chestnuts and carols to take his mind off the heat. Perhaps he could (snow-)drift off into these words, of Jack Frost nibbling at toes, Yuletide choirs and kids dressed up like eskimos.
His collaborator, noted jazz singer Mel Tormé, saw the scribblings and forty minutes later – poolside – they had their song. Nat King Cole recorded it but knew he could improve on his first rendition, so insisted on a new version, with the now famous string arrangement. Shame about the ageist lyrics – excluding a Merry Christmas for anyone below the age of one or over the age of ninety-two. Tut tut.
LET IT SNOW! LET IT SNOW! LET IT – oh what is it again, oh that’s right – SNOW!:
The same hot summer of 1945, just up the boulevard (it was Hollywood), this snowy favourite was written. Dean Martin made it his own, with a voice as warm as mulled wine. But really it was written in a city far hotter.
Perhaps aware of the previous summer’s festive inspiration, Sleigh Ride was penned during the equally sweltering summer of 1946 – apparently again as a distraction from the unbearable heat. Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like a Hollywood heatwave.
Even the best-selling song of all time has warmer origins than many think. Writer Irving Berlin never warmed to Christmas – not only because he was Russian Jewish, but because his young son had died on Christmas Day years earlier. While others were celebrating, Berlin was working, on the soundtrack for Holiday Inn. He normally wrote a song a day, but this one was something special. To remind himself of his snowy family mountain home back in Colorado, Berlin was inspired by the mild Hollywood December to write a song he knew would be a classic. He didn’t write musical notation himself, so told his secretary (who did it for him), “I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written – heck, I just wrote the best song anybody’s ever written.”
Its missing first verse gives it the warmer Hollywood context:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA
But it’s December the 24th
And I’m longing to be up north
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know…
When Bing Crosby travelled the world performing for WW2 troops, he’d be requested it even in the height of summer, to remind them of cosy home – he resisted to start with, then swiftly relented.
The song was also played out of season at the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. Operation Frequent Wind’s evacuation plan was triggered when American Forces Radio broadcast the code: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising…” followed by Bing’s song. The theory was that the enemy wouldn’t spot it as a Christmas song – but that those who ought to leave would be shocked at hearing it and race to the helicopters.
As for other summery Christmas nuggets, well, Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ was written in August, especially to cheer up working Brits in the politically and economically murky 1973 – making Britain’s first Christmas-themed Christmas number one.
Miracle on 34th Street was a summer film. I know. What? The film about an in-store Santa called Kris Kringle? The studio thought that no one would go to the cinema at Christmastime, so opted for a May release – and tried to downplay the Santa references in all the publicity. So this poster’s a tad misleading…
1816 was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’ aka ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’. It was so bleak that Byron’s summer break had to be kept indoors, so he challenged his guests to write a horror story: Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, William Polidori wrote the first vampire story. Not very Christmassy… but the cold year meant thick December snowstorms and the end of the Little Ice Age, which were part of eight consecutive white Christmases for the young Charles Dickens, which meant that he associated snow with Christmas forever more – even though it rarely snowed at Christmas when he was an adult. And thanks to his snowy backdrop of A Christmas Carol, we think of Christmas as snowy to this day.
That’ll do. I’m all summered out. Can’t wait to talk about Christmas though…
Hark! The Biography of Christmas is priced £7.99, out Sept 15th and pre-orderable right on that link there.
Right. I know it’s barely September, but it’s back to school – and I’m steadily unwrapping the history of Christmas betwixt now and, well, probably Christmas. So no time like the present. (Speaking of presents, imagine the joy of giving a loved one Hark! The Biography of Christmas as a gift, And buying a copy for yourself… Alright, I’m pushing it. But that’s my job. To push it. Now, to Herod’s job…)
We’ve got a long way to go till Christmas, so we won’t get too festive just yet – and we’ll start with one of the kickstarters of Christmas: King Herod. You know the fella. The snarly one in the Nativity story. Maybe you even played him in a school play, if you were effectively the school bully at the time, or looked like one.
As he’s top brass, he’s one of the few Nativity elements that can be verifiably checked against the secular history books. He was one of Rome’s ‘client kings’, delegated to rule on Rome’s behalf, since the republic had become so vast and unruly. Well not that unruly. Because Herod ruled it.
So what do the history books tell us of the “great” ruler (he named himself Herod the Great, but I ain’t buying that descriptive term)? Firstly, and perhaps crucially, he was raised Jewish – not common for Roman rulers. It meant that Rome decreed him “King of the Jews” in 40 BC. And no one was going to take that title away from him – especially not a baby. Even without his role in the Nativity story, he was known as a fierce tyrant, whose answer to everything was pretty much “Just kill them.”
So there you have it. All the stuff they leave out of the school nativity. Maybe one year they’ll do a Herod origin story – with a parental warning, I imagine…
Hark! The Biography of Christmas is published by Lion Hudson and priced £7.99, out Sept 15th 2017.
Alrighty, I’m writing this on a sweltering August Bank Holiday… but I’ve got a Christmas book to put out there next month! Needs must. (It is, have I not mentioned, called ‘Hark! The Biography of Christmas, and incredibly pre-orderable by clicking here.)
So please forgive while I start to veer towards that festival at the end of the year. You know the one. Crimbo. Xmas. Yule. Saturnalia. Winterval. I’ve already heard some vicars call it ‘the C word’, which hardly seems fair. I guess they get busy.
But we won’t get too snowy just yet. Plenty of time for that when the wind changes.
Instead, a light introduction to the chapters of the book. Each details what I’ve conveniently decreed the 12 dates when Christmas became our current Christmas. So here, exclusively (if that’s what passes for an exclusive nowadays), are the 12 dates ‘n’ chapters…
(Prologue: It’s Norse Yule and quite Games of Thronesy. It’s a story of ice and fire. And winter is definitely coming. There are no dragons but there is a burning log. (Oh, and it’s not so much ‘prologue’ as ‘prologos’, ‘before the Word’ or ‘before Christ’ as the Greeks would call it. Too early for ancient Greek wordplay?)
On my 1st date of Christmas, it’s approx May 20th, 4BC. Jesus is born. In May? Well, shepherds wouldn’t be watching many flocks by night in December. We take a look at all the key players: Mary, the shepherds, the angels, the many-not-three wise men, the non-innkeeper, the non-donkey and King Herod and his wife Doris.
My 2nd date of Christmas is December 17th, 33AD. Saturnalia! Roman festival of gift-giving, turning the world on its head, and general outrageous partying: ancestor of the office shindig. It’s 33AD because post-Christ, Jesus’ followers’ movement muddled in with other Roman religions, from Judaism to Mithraism. Emperor Constantine chose Christianity, and the rest is history. Oh, and at the Council of Nicaea, Constantine met one Bishop Nicholas, so that brings us to our…
3rd date of Christmas: December 6th 343, deathday of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. He gave out goodies, especially getting 3 bags of gold into 3 stockings by a fireplace (in another life, he’d make a mean NBA basketball player). And he lived in a town called Myra, named after myrrh. In Turkey, which sounds like turkey. You see?! St Nicholas is Christmassier than you thought, even before he becomes Santa Claus (spoiler).
Our 4th date is our first December 25th, in 1213. We zoom in on King John’s epic Christmas feast, including 16,000 hens and 10,000 eels. The medieval Christmas feast ties the season to gorging on birds from crane (chewy) to peacock (pretty but tough) to, oh yes, turkey. Later, even KFC, the Japanese Christmas tradition since the 1970s.
Our 5th date is a day short of a decade later: Christmas Eve, 1223. Francis of Assisi stages the first live Nativity scene, with genuine animals and a stone Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Soon, every fashionable home in Europe has their own crib scene. Meanwhile Francis is busy writing the first carols to be sung not in Latin but local languages – so people finally understand what they’re singing.
Chapter 6 zooms in on Christmas 1643 and those just after – or as Puritans preferred to call it, ‘The old Heathens’ Feasting Day, the Profane Man’s Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day, the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day…’ – that’s fasting not feasting, folks. Christmas is cancelled. Father Christmas is recruited as a political activist, mince pies became round to get around the law, and ‘the Christmas hoop’ loses the holy family icons, to leave simply mistletoe. Then there’s plum pudding, panto and candy canes – but Christmas is out of fashion. Did the Puritans win?
Our 7th date is one of my favourites. The Silent Night: December 24th, 1818. Some hungry mice, a church organ, a forgotten poem and a few panicked hours on Christmas Eve help create the world’s most performed Christmas song. Plus how Handel’s Messiah was written for Easter, how Jingle Bells was written for Thanksgiving (and became the first song in space, as part of a prank), and why While Shepherds Watched was the only legal carol for a hundred years.
Just four years later, in Chapter 8… now we’re talking. It’s December 23rd 1822 and Dr Clement Clarke Moore has written a poem, absorbing tales from Dutch New Yorkers about their favourite saint, Nicholas. Washington Irving (writer of Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow and inventor of the words ‘knickers’ and ‘Gotham City’), has brought St Nick into popular fiction. Moore runs with it: “Twas the Night before Christmas…”
December 19th, 1843: a biggie. Dickens stepped out of his home to see street-sellers launch his tale of Scrooge, charity, family, mulled wine and humbugs. The same week, the first Christmas card appeared. The same year, O Come All Ye Faithful appeared. The same decade, Christmas trees and crackers appeared (with sweets in). The new middle classes meant aspiration. The new railways meant far-away work, which meant returning home for Christmas. The new postal system meant cards and parcels and thankyou letters.
Our 10th date is December 24th, 1880 in Truro, Cornwall, as the first Nine Lessons & Carols service lures drinkers out of pubs. Commerce sees window displays, grottos, and a telephonist’s light-up desk inspires coloured Christmas lights. There’s a Christmas truce, a kickabout, and a grumpy corporal Adolf Hitler refusing to join in.
Date 11 is Christmas Day 1932: the first British royal Christmas speech. We’ve a stockingful of early broadcasting joy, from the world’s first ever radio entertainment show (being One Lesson & Carol) to the bumper Radio Times and the Queen’s first TV Christmas message, which was rudely interrupted by a cross line from a police radio, saying: “Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee.”
Finally, our 12th date is Christmas Day 1941, as Bing Crosby debuts White Christmas just days after Pearl Harbor. There are the strange summer origins of Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! and The Christmas Song. There’s John McClane. There’s a film of a Yule log that repeats every 17 seconds. There’s Alan Partridge in a Christmas jumper. There’s the unwatchable Star Wars Holiday Special. There’s Bob Geldof bumping into Gary Kemp outside of an antiques shop and starting Band Aid.
Then there’s today – somehow the summation of all this. Well, I say ‘today’. Today it’s a sweltering August Bank Holiday Monday. So enough about Christmas. For now…