Why did 'A Christmas Carol' draw on Christmas Tradition?
Other than it provides a convenient plot device for a story of redemption? Lots of reasons!
In 1840 the young Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German prince. German people REALLY love Christmas, and he brought a lot of traditions into the British Royal Family. Victoria and Albert were held up as the perfect example of a family to the public, and in 1848 a picture of them with their wholesome, rosy-cheeked children around a Christmas tree was published. This became a huge trend from the next year onwards. The decorations would probably be sweets, candles and homemade ornaments.
Enterprising Henry Cole created the first Christmas card in 1848, and it took a while to get fashionable, but improved and cheaper printing meant that by 1880 11.5 million Christmas cards were sent. It’s also helped by a reform of the postal service meaning you could send a letter for around the price of lunch. 1848 was also the year of the first Christmas Cracker AKA let’s find a way to sell more sweets in the off season.
The charity collectors who bother Scrooge in Chapter One are a new phenomenon too. Campaigners like Joseph Rowntree had popularised the idea that we should HELP OTHERS (Wow, so crazy) via gifts of money or pledges, and popular causes like supporting veterans did generate a lot of donations from average people, rather than a single gift from a member of the Upper Class.
Decorating your house with evergreen branches had been around since medieval times, but by 1881 articles were published in womens magazines about how to do Christmas decorating perfectly. Not that much changes, I guess! It was similar with carols: while they had been around for hundreds of years, their lyrics were published for the first time in 1838 so they became standardised. We ended up with top hits like:
1843 – O Come all ye Faithful
1848 – Once in Royal David’s City
1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow
1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
1883 – Away in a Manger
Turkey was the new and fashionable meat for rich people, replacing beef and goose as the main point of Christmas dinner. This is interesting because when Scrooge brings a turkey to the Cratchitts, he’s bringing a new upper class food to them that’s now socially acceptable. Their old fashioned traditional goose is no longer acceptable for Dickens.
Similarly, Santa has a makeover too. He originally wore green and was part of the Midwinter celebrations, but Dutch settlers to America brought with them stories of ‘Sinterklas’…and these stories moved back to the UK…where this mythology of sharing toys and gifts worked out for everyone.
Bob Cratchitt would not have be guaranteed a day off. When we read the scene about Scrooge cruelly denying his employee the day off, he’s actually behaving quite normally as only the middle classes would take off a day or two. Dickens, of course, advocates for the poor and so makes Scrooge’s actions seem harsh to make a point that days off should be guaranteed. He readership would likely be the middle classes so they they’d be asked to reconsider their treatment of their employees.
Interestingly, on Christmas Day, Scrooge wakes up and spends the day with his nephew, THEN goes to the Cratchitts the next day, Boxing Day. Traditionally this was the day, in some areas, you’d ‘unbox’ your gift of money from a local landowner or employer, but instead of that Scrooge replaces money with his presence and the gift of companionship. Not the most subtle point, but Dickens clearly shows what he wants the interactions between classes to look like.
‘Christmas Carol’ for Dickens’ audience is fashionable. If it was written today, there would be snapchat and hashtags and grime and it would be so Lit. We love it because it’s #lifegoals2019, it’s a #glowup, it’s Paranormal Activity and it’s mean people getting taken down a peg.