Christmas in literature

It is often said that the modern way of celebrating Christmas derives from Charles Dickens and the publication of his short book A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843.

But as is so often the case, when we look into it, the matter is more complicated. Traditions do not have a simple origin, though in the case of Christmas, popular literature does indeed play a large part.

Dickens did not ‘invent’ Christmas, but in dire need of a bestseller that year, he exploited already existing notions. In any case, his focus is more on social justice than on merely celebrating and having fun, or on any religious view.

His richly sentimental tale, which owes a great deal to the marvellous illustrations by John Leech – who illustrated some of his other books – does play a part in the development of the modern festival.

But other writers and events have made important contributions too.

Take the Christmas tree, for instance. It is often said that this became popular because it was introduced into Windsor Castle by Queen Victoria’s Prince Albert in the early 1840s. The idea was also said to be made popular through images in such magazines as the Illustrated London News, which brought the images of the happy royal household into many thousands of homes, even in Ireland.

This is true enough, but it is not the full truth. As a matter of fact, the first Christmas tree in England was set up in Queen’s Lodge Windsor in 1800 by Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, under the influence of a popular Lutheran tradition.


The Hanoverians were intrinsically German, and the tradition is said to have derived from Martin Luther directly, though others trace the tradition back to the Anglo-Saxon missionaries to the pagan German tribes in the 6th Century, led by the Anglo-Saxon saint Boniface. He is reputed to have originated the idea of decorating a tree in honour of the nativity of Jesus, adapting a local traditional tree cult, though the early historical sources are unclear about this.

However, it was undoubtedly Queen Victoria, wishing to promote a sense of solid middle class family life, in contrast to the often raffish, even murderous, antics of the Hanoverians that made Christmas the popular bourgeois feast it has become.

Christianity as “morality touched with emotion,” in the phrase of the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, was very much the royal family’s thing. It was the popular press, especially the new illustrated news magazines as I have suggested, that reported annually on the royal Christmas tree and festival that made it universally popular, running against the long established puritan streak in British culture that had opposed the celebration of the feast at all.

The very early Christians seem not to have attended much to the birth of Christ. For them, Easter and the fact of the resurrection was where the emphasis of the religious year was placed.

Though the feast of the nativity and the days leading up to the feast of the Epiphany had been an important period in the medieval Church all across Europe, this changed with the Reformation. In England, for instance, an act of 1644 banned Christmas as “non-Biblical”. This law lasted down to the restoration of Charles II (married to a Catholic queen) in 1661.

These rules were imposed in Ireland wherever the republican Commonwealth writ ran; in royalist Catholic areas, older celebrations remained, in town and country.

Family feasts

During the more settled 18th Century in these islands, Christmas was a more sedate affair, largely involving family feasts and almsgiving to the poor and to tradesmen. It was a goose or a loin of beef, rather than a turkey, that was eaten by those who could rear or buy one.

With the rise of industrialisation and the dependence of the economy on factory output, the notions of present-giving expanded.

It was no longer a matter of the handmade gift; the industry of toy making in England and Germany meant that gifts were cheaper and so more popular.

It had become essential to the promotion of industry and employment that present-giving thrived. Churchmen might denounce ‘materialism’ as much as they liked. The world paid no attention. So today the ‘Christmas season’ opens earlier and earlier for commerce, in September in some cases.

However this is part and parcel of the enlargement of Christmas as whole, which began in the early years of the 19th Century, the late Georgian era, rather than the Victorian.

The most influential figure was not in fact England’s Charles Dickens, but America’s Washington Irving, a writer who straddles not only the two worlds of the New and the Old, but also the Georgian and Victorian periods. If he is recalled today Washington Irving is remembered as the author of Rip van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow – the latter better known from its spectacular film extravaganza perhaps.

He was born in the very year that a peace treaty finally secured American independence. He was a delicate child, and suffered ill health for many years, though he made a trip to Europe in 1804. He made his name with A History of New York, a comic book on the Old Dutch of New York, which became an established classic almost at once.

One of Irving’s most lasting contributions to American culture is in the way Americans perceive and celebrate Christmas. In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, Irving inserted a dream sequence featuring St Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon—a creation that cartoonist Thomas Nast would later dress up as Santa Claus from the 1860s onwards.

Washington Irving went back to Europe in 1815 – when the Napoleonic wars ended – and stayed for 17 years. During this time he published two books The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon (1819) and Bracebridge Hall (1824).

These gave expression to his intense delight in the old customs of England, especially the celebration of Christmas in Georgian England. A series of five essay-like stories was serialised as a set in January 1820, all celebrating “old Christmas”.

Irving developed after 1826 into a Hispanophile. Living in Madrid, he wrote a biography of Columbus, and an account of Ferdinand and Isabella and the unification of Spain, and another classic, The Conquest of Granada. It was Irving almost alone who made the Islamic culture of Spain of interest to the wider world through his book of The Alhambra (1832). This series of books ends with Mahomet and his Successors, the beginning, I suspect, of Western fascination with Oriental themes. Irving served as the US ambassador to Spain from 1842 to 1846.


But it is significant that the account of Old Christmas which had appeared originally in The Sketchbook was reissued with illustrations by Ralph Caldecott, the influential illustrator of children books in 1886, when the Victorian idea of Christmas was perhaps at its height.

In his five Christmas stories in The Sketch Book, Irving portrayed an idealised celebration of old-fashioned Christmas customs at a quaint English manor, which depicted harmonious warm-hearted English Christmas festivities he experienced while staying in Aston Hall, Birmingham. The “old Christmas” he celebrates was really that of the 18th Century. He was inspired too in part by The Vindication of Christmas (London 1652) which upheld the old Christmas customs against the Puritans.

The book contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States. Yet the stories were all conceived and written a generation before Charles Dickens’ tale. So it is Washington Irving, almost the first of the American authors to achieve wide popularity in Europe, who is the really proponent of Christmas as we now know it.

A very different vision of the celebration of the nativity appears in The Little Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree, a tale by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 1887. This was first published in January 1876 in the pages of a periodical he edited, and was later collected into A Writer’s Diary, a selection of stories and essays much like Irving’s book in form, but very different in content.

A beggar boy is enchanted by the view of a Christmas tree in the window of a great house. Inside, he sees well-dressed children dancing and playing, surrounded by toys and delicious food. This hungry boy has been abandoned by his unfortunate parents and is forced to freeze on the snow-filled streets of Saint Petersburg.

But the boy’s dream comes true when he finds himself amid New Year celebrations with other children. Carried there by a mysteriously quiet voice, he arrives at the “tree of Christ”, formed by his dying dreams.

‘“This is Christ’s Christmas tree,’ they answered. ‘Christ always has a Christmas tree on this day, for the little children who have no tree of their own …’ and he found out that all these little boys and girls were children just like himself; that some had been frozen in the baskets in which they had as babies been laid on the doorsteps of well-to-do St Petersburg people, others had been boarded out with Finnish women by the Foundling Hospital and had been suffocated, others had died at their starved mothers’ breasts (in the Samara famine), others had died in the third-class railway carriages from the foul air; and yet they were all here, they were all like angels about Christmas, and He was in the midst of them and held out His hands to them and blessed them and their sinful mothers… and the mothers of these children stood on one side weeping; each one knew her boy or girl, and the children flew up to them and kissed them and wiped away their tears with their little hands, and begged them not to weep because they were so happy.”

This is about as far removed as one can get from what modern Christmas has become. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was inspired, not by the sentimentalism of Charles Dickens, or the love of conviviality of Washington Irving. He was drawing instead on the deep religious feeling that shapes the thinking and actions of so many Russians, even today.

Perhaps it is to Russia that we may have to look for a renewal of an older vision, a more Christian vision of the meaning of Christmas.

Today, much of the literature produced about Christmas tends towards the idea of sentimental, “morality touched with emotion” ideal. The nativity of Christ seems to have lost ground, partly because in the US which has become the arbiter of Western culture, the coincidence of Christmas with the Jewish moveable feast of Hanukkah, which has become universal since the 1970s, means that people prefer to express to their friends their “Best wishes for the holiday season” rather than a “Happy Christmas”.

However, T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest of modern poets, himself a convinced and practising Christian, expressed something of the real meaning of Christmas far removed from mere sentiment in his great poem The Journey of the Magi. This was written in 1927, the year after he adhered to Anglo-Catholicism. For many of his admirers it remains, after The Four Quartets, a favourite poem.

One of the Magi – “the wise men” of Matthew 2.1-12 – recalls the occasion. He recounts the arduous journey of the wise men from Chaldea, but they finally reached their destination, “it was (one might say) satisfactory”.


All this was a long time ago, I remember. And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?

There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different;

This Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us,

Like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should he glad of another death.


And so, the poem concludes, the nativity was in effect part of the Easter event, the birth of Jesus presaging for Christians the resurrection of Christ, turning what had once been the happiness of one small Palestinian family into the universal joy of mankind.


For Americans, Thanksgiving Day is a more important day than Christmas, or so it might appear.

Though currently celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November by federal legislation in 1941, Thanksgiving has been an annual tradition in the US by presidential proclamation since 1863, and by state legislation since the Founding Fathers of the US. It was initiated indeed by President George Washington himself in 1789.

Yet having lived there, it strikes me that it is in fact less commercialised and more religious there than Christmas. (The commercialisation is reserved for the following ‘Black Friday’, though many homes vie with each other to mount the most elaborate front yard celebrations, often of a giant turkey drumstick.)

Of course, it grew out of the much older harvest festival in Europe, into which was compounded by the Pilgrim Fathers a thanksgiving for their safe landing in the New World and fruitful first year. But historians claim the link is tenuous, as a festival for a successful harvest was also a long-established religious rite in Europe.

However, among those icons of American life created by the great illustrator Norman Rockwell, none is more famous than one for a US government campaign supporting the war drive in 1943. This one of a series on “the four freedoms of American life,” which shows a Thanksgiving family dinner and is entitled “Freedom from Want” – though this is an unachieved ambition for many other parts of the world to this day. The image epitomises what Thanksgiving really means to Americans.