Central Library has a new display entitled ‘Dickens and the Victorian Christmas’. Here’s a taster of the exhibition which you can visit until the end of December.
It’s hard to imagine, but at the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many shops and businesses did not even consider it a holiday.
It was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who popularised most of the aspects of Christmas we recognise today. In 1848, The Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating round a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition carried on from Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany. Soon, many homes in Britain had a tree bedecked with candles, homemade decorations and small gifts.
The first Christmas card appeared in 1843 with an illustration showing a group of people round a dinner table and a Christmas message. By the 1880s sending Christmas cards had become hugely popular. 11.5 million cards were produced in 1880 alone!
Crackers first appeared in 1848 when a British confectioner, Tom Smith, invented a bold new way to sell sweets. Inspired by a trip to Paris where he saw bon bons – sugar almonds wrapped in twists of paper – Smith created a simple package filled with sweets that snapped when pulled apart. The sweets were replaced by small gifts and paper hats in the late Victorian period.
Christmas for the Victorians was a festival for the family and a time to gather in the best room in the house and play parlour games. Some, such as Blind man’s Buff, Charades and Twenty Questions, are still played today.
The custom of decking the walls and windows with sprigs and twigs took on a more elaborate affair with homemade paper decorations and colourful paper chains appearing in homes.
While Charles Dickens did not invent the Victorian Christmas, his book ‘A Christmas Carol’ is credited with helping to popularise the traditions of the festival. Its themes of family, charity, goodwill, and happiness encapsulate the spirit of the Victorian Christmas and remain central to the Christmas we celebrate.
Between 1843 and 1848, Dickens published five Christmas novellas, one of which was to become one of the most oft filmed, staged, read, sung, repeated, copied, adapted Christmas stories. ‘A Christmas Carol’ was written in October to November and published in December of 1843. By January of 1844 it was on its third edition. In February, the first theatrical production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ took place with a further eight productions appearing in quick succession. In the years that followed Dickens published ‘The Chimes’ in 1844, ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ in 1845, ‘The Battle of Life’ in 1846 and after a break of a year which he is said to have regretted, ‘The Haunted Man and the Ghost Bargain’ in 1848.
As well as being a prodigious talent, Dickens was a canny businessman and for all the later Christmas novellas, the theatrical production opened on the same day as the book publication.
Dickens was the owner and editor of two literary magazines, ‘Household Words’ and then ‘All the Year Round’, where serialisations of his stories appeared along with contributions by other writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins. In both magazines, Dickens regularly wrote Christmas stories and special Christmas issues were produced.
There are many Christmas tales in the Library by Dickens and others, why not borrow one today?
With thanks to our colleagues in Museums and Galleries Edinburgh and Information and Learning Resources for lending us the many curios included in the display.