The Victorian Christmas Revival
Part 1. Christmas In Literature
When Victoria was born in 1819, it is said that carols were only sung in a few isolated communities in rural England. Oliver Goldsmith (1731-1774) wrote that the parishioners of The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) "kept up the Christmas carol." A writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine for May, 1811, wrote that in the area known as North Riding in Yorkshire, he was awakened about 6 o’clock on Christmas Day "by a sweet singing under my window," and looking out he saw six young women and four men singing.
Washington Irving (shown left) wrote in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., (1818-1819) -- and primarily from the section known as Old Christmas -- that he was surprised on Christmas night to hear beautiful music from local citizens. He wrote:
In the "Christmas Eve" sketch, Irving continued:
And in the sketch "Christmas Day," Irving wrote:
In the early nineteenth century, Christmas was seeing a major resurgence, spurred by the popularity of
Dickens, in particular, helped to bridge the gap between the romantic past (as partially painted by the American, Washington Irving), and the bleak reality of the present. In pre-industrial England, the Squire and the traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 26 through January 6)8 were a reality for many. But as they came to the industrial cities in search of a better life, the old traditions died, and there was nothing to replace them. Eric Routley wrote:
In A Christmas Carol, however, Dickens showed city-dwellers a new way to celebrate the Christmas holiday. It was not the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany. Rather, it was the single day, Christmas Day, spend with family and a few close friends -- the extended family. And for many, there wasn't even that! Here then was a redefinition of the way in which Christmas could be imbued with meaning, beyond the traditions of the country squire.10
When critics allege that Christmas was "reinvented" by Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, they are correct. The country squire of "Bracebridge Hall" simply no longer existed. The secular celebration of Christmas has to be "reinvented" in order survive.
This is not to say, of course, that the Victorians, or people today, could not adapt the traditions of the 12 Days of Christmas -- December 25 through January 5 -- to their current situation. A lengthy article by Elsa Chaney shows how to "reinvent" a family's Christmas at any time.
1. Washington would have heard the waits towards the end of their existence. See page 5 above (and note) for details concerning the waits. As the waits disappeared from the English scene, an option became the "carol services." One of the first was in 1878 when the cathedral choir in the newly created diocese of Truro, England, switched from its usual practice of caroling around the city on Christmas Eve to holding a service in church at 10pm. It included two lessons, prayers and a sermon interspersed with carols. Two years later the service was expanded to a festival of nine lessons and carols, providing a model that was taken up in 1918 at King's College, Cambridge and subsequently by many parish churches and cathedrals. For more information about Carol Services and the Festival Of Nine Lessons and Carols, see Carol Services. Return
2. From "Christmas" by Washington Irving, The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). A number of sources have charged that Irving had never seen a holiday celebration such as was depicted in Sketch Book. See Nissenbaum, page 58 and "The Real Story of Christmas," The History Channel. In 1815, Washington Irving made his second trip to Europe, expecting to be absent for only a few months (although he remained abroad seventeen years). He first stayed with his sister Sarah and her husband in Birmingham, England. According to the curators of nearby Aston Hall, Irving stayed at the Hall and used the Hall as his inspiration for "Bracebridge Hall." Coincidentally, Mary, the daughter of the last owners, was married to Abraham Bracebridge; the couple lived at Aston Hall before James Watt, Jr., leased the Hall in 1818. There is also a Bracebridge Pool in nearby Sutton Park.
Irving’s notebook of 1818 included details about Aston Hall which are also found in Sketchbook, including that the hall was found at the gateway to a park, that the porter’s lodge was sheltered under trees, of a church spire rising, and of an old oak gallery. See Birmingham Assist, Irving and Aston Hall quoting Stanley T. Williams, The Life of Washington Irving, 1935. In addition to his stays in Birmingham, Irving also toured other parts of England, Wales, and the Highlands of Scotland during this time. See Evert A. Duyckinck, Cyclopaedia of American Literature, (New York: C. Scribner, 1856), quoted at University of Virginia Library Web site.
Van Wyck Brooks, in The World of Washington Irving (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1944) states unequivocally that Irving stayed in an old manor-house "...during the holiday season, when the old Christmas ceremonies were still kept up, the Yule log, the wassail bowl, the boar's head crowned with rosemary, the waits, the morris dances, the carols and the mummers, and the sword-dance handed down from the time of the Romans." However, Brooks cites neither a date nor a specific location. Return
3. Refrain or chorus of a song. Return
4. The charge of literary anachronism has been charged against some of the Christmas scenes depicted in The Sketch-Book . The author responded:
Irving gave the following account from Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey:
Mr. Irving's comments were fully endorsed by an eminent English authority:
The Dublin University Magazine, May 1835, page 554, remarked, in the same vein: "Bracebridge Hall is the only account we have which gives any thing like a true picture of the life of an English country gentleman of our own day." Source: Samuel Austin Allibone, A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1900), reproduced by the University of Virginia Library, Early American Fiction. Return
5. Notably for his description of the celebration of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. Return
6. Moore's poem quickly became a phenomenon after it appeared, anonymously, on Page 2 of the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823. The newspaper reprinted it each Christmas for several years, and in about 1830 began printing it as an illustrated broadside, handed out by carriers delivering the Christmas edition. Roger McBain, "Twas the Poem Before Christmas." Return
7. The Christmas carol of A Christmas Carol was "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen." William Sandys wrote "In the metropolis a solitary itinerant may be occasionally heard in the streets croaking out ‘God rest you merry gentlemen,’; or some other old carol, to an ancient and simple tune." The offender in this case was a young singer who fled in terror when Scrooge took up a ruler with "energy of action." A Christmas Carol (published December 19, 1843) was the first of five Christmas novellas; it was followed by The Chimes (1844), The Cricket On The Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargin (1847). All five were published in 1852 as Christmas Books. A Project Gutenberg e-text of Christmas stories titled Some Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens contains the following: "A Christmas Tree," "What Christmas is as we Grow Older," "The Poor Relation's Story," "The Child's Story," "The Schoolboy's Story," and "Nobody's Story." The e-text was prepared by David Price from the 1911 Chapman and Hall Christmas Stories (Volume 1). For a look at historical England in the time of Dickens, see Appendix D, English Society in the 1840s. Return
8. See: Come Follow, Follow Me. But for some, the Christmastide lasted a good deal longer. If you were really fortunate, the Christmas season extended from the first Sunday of Advent in late November or early December through Candlemas on the 2nd of February! Return
9. See Eric Routley, The University Carol Book (Brighton: H. Freeman & Co., 1961), Introduction, page vi. See also: Christmas - C. C. Cox (1857) which speaks of many traditions, in the past tense. Return
10. For more information about Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol, see Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol, a site that features information and activities relating to A Christmas Carol. Visitors can learn about the story, send holiday cards, play games and even ask Scrooge a yes or no question. Return
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