Quite a lot, actually. In fact, we could say that modern Christmas is almost entirely the invention of these stoic death-obsessed ancestors. The Tudors, our medieval and Roman ancestors certainly had their part to play, the festive season wouldn’t be what it is without the Victorian pioneers, particularly Prince Albert and Charles Dickens.
At the beginning of the 19th century, it was hardly market except in ecclesiastical and monastic circles as a religious fast and feast period. But by the end of the 19th century, it became the celebration to look forward to once again.
A Very German Christmas
But Christmas starts, as it always does, with love. The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert brought many changes upon the United Kingdom. Although tragedy would separate them with Albert’s death at the untimely age of 42, his legacy remains to this today. We simply wouldn’t have Christmas as we know it without the decorated Christmas Tree. The first Christmas Trees made their way into Britain in the 1840s. Some evidence suggests that there was a tradition of bringing trees into rich homes before that, but it was limited and tended to be yew trees. This practice may be even older.
We know that Prince Albert sent trees to Windsor schools and local military garrisons. In Germany, they still hang gingerbread from the tree and light it up with candles. Here, we’ve adopted tinsel, ornaments and lights. Even Christmas Cards are the brainchild of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, especially with the rise of cheaper postage.
Our love affair with Germany and Christmas has never gone away. Today, we have accepted the tradition of the Christmas Market into our hearts too. Most of these have a continental feel but this year I’ve noticed a trend of breaking away to create a distinctly British flavour too. Today, there are few historic cities without it’s own Christmas market event. This year, I visited Stratford Upon Avon for the first time and was impressed with their enormous street market. It snowed!
What the Dickens?!
Our love of Christmas, the idea of goodwill to humankind, is most the invention of Charles Dickens. After Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate banned Christmas, the country fell out of love with the festive season. It remained an important religious tradition, but the previous secular associations – feasting, colour, mince pies, fell by the wayside. His short stint at the head of an extremist government had much longer lasting effects.
But for the idea of the reason for the season, we need to look only as far as one of Victorian England’s most celebrated writers. There are few stories in British literature more timeless than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The cruel and avaricious Ebenezer Scrooge receives a visit from his deceased business partner who warns him of the visit of three spirits who will teach him about what is truly important. The heartwarming tale and warning of Scrooge’s epiphany is one that still resonates today even if not enough people pay attention to it.
Dickens Other Christmas Ghost Stories
We tend to think of the writer MR James as being responsible for the tradition of Christmas ghost stories. James’ fiction is superb and feels festive, but only because of later associations. It was Dickens who began the Christmas ghost stories. His selected works include a volume called, imaginatively, Christmas Ghost Stories. The most famous of his Christmas stories that are not A Christmas Carol is The Holly-Tree Inn. It is clear that Charles Dickens loved Christmas and he imparted that love to the rest of the country, sometimes by using supernatural elements – something that rarely appeared in his other works.
This tradition carried on through into the 20th century. There is good reason why The Woman In Black (stage play) is recited by an elderly Arthur Kipps beginning with the line It was nine-thirty on a Christmas Eve. The main UK channels attempted to revive the tradition around ten years ago. BBC aired a three-part drama by Mark Gatiss called Crooked House. Another channel (may have been Channel 4) created a new version of the MR James classic Whistle and I’ll Come To You starring John Hurt and Gemma Jones.
Victorian Christmas Food
Eat, drink and be merry! What were Victorians eating? Pretty much what we eat today, to be honest. Those who could afford it had turkey while those who couldn’t made do with a goose. That’s one tradition that has changed. Most of us have turkey for Christmas dinner while those who can afford it choose goose. I like turkey when it’s cooked properly and the juices are maintained. There was a time when I preferred to have a pheasant (my partner at the time was a vegetarian) and I do recommend game birds such as pheasant and partridge for those of small families, or just for something different.
I mentioned in the Tudor article from last year that mince pies had actual meat and they did. But the Victorians revolutionised the recipe, swapping out the meat for dried fruit and spices. Christmas Pudding is also a Victorian invention. Stollen, another German transplant, is popular today. We come to associate certain spices with Christmas today – ginger, cinnamon, cloves – and it’s largely thanks to the Victorians that we do so.
Merry Christmas everyone!