The invention of Christmas

“Age-old” Christmas traditions that we take for granted grew out the invention of rapid and reliable transportation, improvements in printing and postal technologies, mass marketing, the rise of the middle class. It also had the help of some inventive writers like Charles Dickens, Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore.

Diedre Goode, professor of New Testament at General Theological Seminary writes:

In 1843, Dickens published “A Christmas Carol.” The manuscript is currently on display at the Pierpont Morgan Library. It’s a tradition in our household to go and view the manuscript at this time of year!

When the manuscript was returned after printing Dickens arranged for it to be finely bound in red morocco leather and presented it as a gift to his solicitor. It was purchased by Pierpont Morgan in the 1890s. Beginning on November 20, visitors to The Morgan Library & Museum can view the original manuscript by Dickens in a special presentation in the museum’s famed McKim Building.

The manuscript reveals the author’s method of composition: the pace of writing and revision, apparently contiguous, is rapid and boldly confident. Revisions are inserted for vividness and immediacy of effect.

Deleted text is struck out with a cursive and continuous looping movement of the pen, and replaced with more active verbs and fewer words to achieve greater concision. Dickens’s manuscript shows vividly his efforts to create the highest-quality literary work in the shortest possible time.

Christians appear to have had an ambivalent relationship with Christmas.

In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.

The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.

In 1789, Congress was in session on December 25th and would not declare Christmas a national holiday until 1870.

Washington Irving’s descriptions of Christmas pre-date Dickens by about 15 years.

In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status.

Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended—in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.

We would not be the Episcopal Cafe if we left out another Bible scholar from General Seminary, namely Clement Clarke Moore who also contributed to the invention of modern Christmas. Moore is said to have written the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas for his children in 1821.

Charles Dicken pulled all these traditions together in A Christmas Carol, which reflects the drastic changes and challenges facing British society in the early 19th century. Judith Flanders talks about how rapidly changing technology–and the social shifts that accompanied it– shaped the celebration in Britain:

We have in our minds an idealised vision of Christmas: all rosy-cheeked angelic children singing carols while the picture-postcard extended family gathers around the tree. Well, this must exist in some parallel universe, because what I discovered is that this picture is no more Victorian than I am. The Victorian traditional Christmas turns out to have been just a myth.

Even Dickens was a surprise. When he first described a typical Christmas, in 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne, while some of the standard markers of the festival were already in place – family parties, mistletoe and holly, plum pudding and mince pies – just as many traditional Christmas symbols were missing. There was no tree, no carols, no cards, no stockings, no crackers, no Father Christmas and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, no presents.

It was only in the 1830s that the most abiding representation of Christmas arrived: the decorated pine tree. There was one brief reference to a Christmas tree in Britain in 1789; then, for the next 40 years, nothing at all until, in the early 1830s, German merchants in Manchester imported one of their cultural traditions: ‘pine tops’, as they were known. Even so, the custom did not prove strong enough to feature in Dickens’ work. And Prince Albert, who is often assumed to have introduced the tree into Britain, did not set up the first ‘royal’ tree for another decade.

…Dickens had called his most famous story ‘A Christmas Carol’, so carols had to be common, right? Nope. Most had been suppressed by the Puritans in the 17th century – to them, the whole idea of Christmas was pagan – and it was only in the 1850s that carol singing really took off. Its success had nothing to do with religion. Instead it was the arrival of pianos in middle-class homes and printing technologies that could produce sheet music cheaply that created the demand. Families could now gather around the piano and carol away together.

Railways also brought about a change in the main course, which traditionally had been goose. In the early 19th century, turkeys, originally from North America and then bred in East Anglia, were driven to London wearing little leather boots to protect their feet. They had to begin their trek in August, because they lost so much weight on their forced march that the fattening-up process had to be recommenced once they reached the market. It was the arrival of the railways that made it possible for people across Britain to have this foreign festive bird.

Cards and shopping

One of the last Christmas ‘traditions’ to arrive was the Christmas card. Until 1840, it was a letter’s recipient who paid for its carriage, and paid a heavy price – as much as 9d for an ordinary letter (£2.39 in today’s money). But then the penny post arrived: now minimum weight letters cost only 1d (27p). Even then, it was only when printing technology caught up and cards could be coloured cheaply that the seasonal card became a reality: by 1878, 4.5 million cards were being sent every December.

Then the Post Office set up a parcel-post department. This changed everything. In the early part of the 19th century, it was food that had symbolised Christmas, but as time went on, it became presents. Even so, as late as the 1840s Christmas presents were still mainly for adults.

What I also realised was how international it all was: Germany supplied the trees, the United States both Santa Claus and mass advertising, the Dutch the origin of Santa Claus’s name and shoes to hold presents (even though somehow, in the transmission, the shoes turned into stockings).

So, by the end of the century, the traditional Christmas – that luxurious moment of home-grown tradition – was produced by manufacturers, delivered by railways and advertised by newspapers and magazines. Everything had been reshaped, reordered and repackaged, to be sold commercially as the perfect image of the home-made holiday.

The history of modern Christmas teaches us that our rituals and customs reflect our ideals and values while at the same time they are shaped by changes in culture, technology and how people live. While these customs help us make meaning out of our world, they can also live in tension with our theology and beliefs. Who knows what Christmas will look like in future generations?

No matter what, Christians will still attempt to peel back popular custom to find the essential truth underneath: that God is with us in Jesus Christ, and in him we find the fullness of God and humanity for the redemption of the world.

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