If you asked anyone who best described the Christmases of long ago they might well reply Charles Dickens. Dickens in fact wrote about Christmas three times: in his Sketches by Boz in 1836, the Pickwick Papers in 1837 and of course in A Christmas Carol in 1843. His descriptions of the energy of the social gatherings around the meals, and the aromas, tastes and appearance of Victorian Christmas food remain vivid in our imagination.
Nonetheless, the truth of the matter is that Dickens partly invented the Victorian Christmas. The traditional meal was based around roast beef or goose until turkeys were produced in sufficient numbers. In part at least Dickens’s writing was based on that of an American, Washington Irving, whose own Christmas stories based on his experience staying in England, at Aston Hall, and published in 1819-20.
There is little doubt these provided an imaginative basis for Dickens’ own description of the feasting while the two authors shared a strong belief in the potential value of Christmas festivities in restoring social order and harmony in a world that was becoming increasingly industrialised and driven by capitalism.Dickens’ wonderful descriptions of Christmas still influence the way we celebrate it and what we eat today.
However, we should remember the background against which he wrote was one of appalling poverty, infant mortality and inequality. This inflamed his social conscience and gave force to his eloquent indignation. But by 1844, only months after a Christmas Carol was published, Marx and Engels had met in Paris and were discussing altogether less paternalistic and sentimental solutions to working class deprivation.
Presently, the most popular main course at Christmas is turkey, the bird we most associate with the festivities. When Dickens was writing, most people went for the cheaper goose and even the cost of that may well have stretched some families’ pockets, although not their ability to enjoy themselves. In a Christmas Carol Dickens imagines a poor family enjoying their goose; but then almost magically lets his plot substitute a turkey. Dickens describes how the miser Scrooge is visited, as if in a dream, by the Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows him how his underpaid and maltreated employee Bob Cratchit and his family are celebrating Christmas. “There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet everyone had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!”
That goose is followed by a plum pudding, which again just goes round. “That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” The pudding was washed down by a hot toddy made with gin and lemons (strong alcohol was relatively cheaply available in the early Victorian period)
Scrooge, after his dreams or visions are over, is so overcome with remorse that he decides to buy Bob and his family a prize turkey, the sort that is so magnificent and so expensive that the butcher hangs it in the window to bring in trade rather than expecting to actually sell it.
In the earlier Sketches by Boz, Dickens describes a plentiful Christmas in a rich household. Interestingly, the plum pudding eaten on the day is homemade using real plums and the help of the entire family. “On Christmas Eve, grandmamma is always in excellent spirits, and after employing all the children, during the day, in stoning the plums, and all that, insists, regularly every year, on uncle George coming down into the kitchen, taking off his coat, and stirring the pudding for half an hour or so, which uncle George good-humouredly does, to the vociferous delight of the children and servants.”
The other tradition Dickens mentions, still in part preserved today, is kissing under the mistletoe. “When the church–party return to lunch, grandpapa produces a small sprig of mistletoe from his pocket, and tempts the boys to kiss their little cousins under it – a proceeding which affords both the boys and the old gentleman unlimited satisfaction, but which rather outrages grandmamma’s ideas of decorum, until grandpapa says that when he was just thirteen years and three months old, he kissed grandmamma under a mistletoe too, on which the children clap their hands, and laugh very heartily, as do aunt George and uncle George; and grandmamma looks pleased, and says, with a benevolent smile, that grandpapa was an impudent young dog, on which the children laugh very heartily again, and grandpapa more heartily than any of them.”
We believe that our Christmas food and festivities have been the same for ever and ever, because it makes us happy to do so and we want to believe our families and friends we are with will also endure for ever. Like all traditions, they are of course invented! But at this time of year we choose to celebrate them, and Charles Dickens as one of their principal inventors, rather than analyse them too closely. And that is exactly how it should be. Happy Christmas!