Merry and Bright: How Charles Dickens Created Jolly Holiday Traditions
How the Victorians Made Christmas
The holiday season is a magical time of year. Throughout recorded history, cultures in the northern hemisphere have celebrated the winter solstice with a festival of lights -- possibly to remind us that merriment and light can be found in times of darkness.
As European cultures adopted Christian monotheism during the first millennium, many pagan solstice traditions morphed into Christmas.
By the time of the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, Christmas celebrations were seen by many reformers as examples of decadent popery -- and Christmas fell out of favor.
Cromwell and the Puritans accelerated the holiday's decline.
By the turn of the 19th century, Protestant England had largely left Christmas behind.
Then the Victorians came on the the scene. Modern Christmas as we know it was born.
How did the Victorians Influence Christmas?
When Queen Victoria ascended the British throne in 1837, Christmas wasn’t really a “thing” in England.
There certainly weren’t Christmas cards, Christmas trees, or turkey feasts. Most people didn't really observe the holiday, and workers certainly didn't take time off.
Then two things happened simultaneously to change Christmas forever: the Industrial Revolution -- and the influence of Victoria’s German-born husband, Albert.
Prince Albert and Christmas
Victoria and Albert are a legendary couple for a reason.
The Queen was deeply in love with her husband. She wanted the style of her court to reflect both of their tastes and cultural sensibilities. Albert’s German background featured prominently in the royal family’s new holiday traditions.
And since the royal family were the ultimate trendsetters in Victorian England, Christmas surged in popularity.
Did Prince Albert Start the Christmas Tree Tradition?
While Christmas trees had been around for centuries -- and were particularly popular in Germany -- they didn’t become part of English popular culture until the 1840’s -- when Albert made them part of the royal family’s holiday celebrations.
Victoria and Albert decorated the Christmas tree themselves -- using candles, gingerbread, and sweets. It was part of their Christmas Eve festivities with their children. The royal family also had wrapped gifts under the tree.
Albert popularized the Christmas tree with the public by sending decorated trees to schools and army barracks near Windsor Castle.
The royal family also published this engraving of them decorating a Christmas tree in 1848 -- a depiction that made holiday trees even more popular.
Other elements of the royal family Christmas -- such as wrapped gifts, gingerbread, and candles on the tree -- soon became part of England’s holiday tradition.
The Industrial Revolution helped gift giving along by making toys and other goods less expensive.
Prior to industrialization, most consumer goods were made by hand. Factory assembly made these goods cost-accessible to working families for the first time.
The availability of inexpensive toys coincided with Victoria and Albert giving their own children wrapped gifts under a tree.
And our modern Christmas begins to take shape.
How Did the Tradition of Christmas Cards Begin?
In 1840, the British government introduced the Penny Post. Finally, the middle class could afford to send a letter! The postal service had previously been a luxury enjoyed only by the very rich -- but trains made delivering mail faster and less expensive.
The first Christmas cards followed in 1843. Commissioned by Sir Henry Cole -- who was also instrumental in creating the Penny Post -- these simple cards showed now-traditional Christmas scenes such as caring for the poor and a festive family feast.
The cost of printing meant that Christmas cards were luxury items for a few decades. But by 1860, cheaper printing and the introduction of the half-penny postcard gave Christmas cards a surge in popularity.
By 1880, Christmas cards were a lucrative business -- with 11.5 million cards sold that year!
Christmas cards naturally crossed the pond to English-speaking countries in North America. They appeared on the scene as luxury items in the late 1840’s.
In 1875, a printer named Louis Prang began to produce Christmas cards en masse to make them affordable for the middle class.
In 1915, Hallmark Cards -- a name synonymous with holiday cards -- was founded by John C. Hall and two of his brothers.
And Christmas cards became a staple of the modern holiday season.
Charles Dickens Influence on Modern Christmas Traditions
We are all familiar with A Christmas Carol--it is the quintessential Christmas story -- retold by folks ranging from Bill Murray to the Muppets. It is timeless, nostalgic -- and groundbreaking in its day.
In writing A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens established the character of the modern Christmas season.
When Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, his new holiday fable reflected the changes that the Industrial Revolution had made to English life.
There was no weekend or any kind of holiday observance for industrial workers. Many of them left rural areas for work in the cities. The poor often lived in squalor, with comforts such as heat and medical treatment out of reach.
This brutal disparity is reflected in the relationship between Ebeneezer Scrooge and his counting-house employee, Bob Cratchit.
Dickens’s portrayal of the plight of the Cratchit family -- who keep the spirit of Christmas in spite of illness and misfortune -- gently encouraged the rising middle classes to share the wealth with those less fortunate.
He uses the darker imagery of the three spirits haunting Scrooge to drive home the importance of community and charity.
Throughout the novel, Dickens holds to what he came to call the “Carol Philosophy” -- "A good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
That about sums up the modern view of the Christmas season at its best. A focus on family, charity, and giving to others. Preparing for a joyous time of merriment with those we love.
With some turkey, gifts, caroling -- and candles -- of course.
Holiday Candles Inspired by A Christmas Carol
Since we are a bookish candle company, naturally we have holiday book candles inspired by A Christmas Carol. These unique Christmas book candles come in two literature-inspired scents:
Christmas at the Cratchit House
This Christmas book candle is a festive blend of all things merry and bright -- cranberry, orange, holiday spices -- and a whimsical touch of mistletoe. Smells just like a holiday party!
This Christmas book candle is a warm and woodsy blend of cedar, sandalwood, mandarin, and fern -- inspired by Ebenezer Scrooge’s love for his sister, Fern.
A cozy scent for feeling the family love this holiday season!
All of our holiday book candles come with a crackling wood wick for extra atmosphere -- and are packaged in gift boxes with a Victorian aesthetic.
Our Christmas literature candle line also pays homage to other holiday classics -- like The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and A Visit from St. Nicholas -- AKA The Night Before Christmas.
These holiday book candles make excellent teacher gifts or unique bookish stocking stuffers!
You’ll love having one on your bookshelf this holiday season.