Saturday, January 10, 2009

Charles Dickens and Christmas in New England

“…The day arrived. A raging winter day, that shook the old house, sometimes, as if it shivered in the blast. A day to make home doubly home. To give the chimney-corner new delights. To shed a ruddier glow upon the faces gathered round the hearth, and draw each fireside group into a closer and more social league, against the roaring elements without. Such a wild winter day as best prepares the way for shut-out night; for curtained rooms, and cheerful looks; for music, laughter, dancing, light, and jovial entertainment!” (Charles Dickens, The Battle of Life, 1846; description of a party held at Christmastide)

Though it is more than two weeks past Christmas, I am still listening to music of the season, savoring goodies left over from our holidaycelebrations, and finding childish pleasure in the Christmas lights still twinkling from neighbors’ yards. And with a fall of snow just starting to overspread Connecticut this afternoon, as I write, it still feels very Christmas-y.

I’ve also been reading a lot of books, of course, particularly the works of Charles Dickens. Yes, A Christmas Carol draws me to the shelf each December, and I do re-read the novella each Christmastide. This year, a program annotation project led me to explore Dickens’ other Christmas writings, and to consider their lingering effect on our lives.

It was my privilege to prepare program notes for CONCORA’s holiday concert, "Christmas in New England," a delightful program of Christmas music by New England composers and authors. As I began sketching out the notes, I wondered about how our “New England Christmas” traditions got started, and I started reading and learning. Here’s what I found.

Our vision of the traditional New England Christmas — frosty weather, holly and mistletoe, sleighing and fireside games, turkey and plum pudding, and, of course carolers at the door — seems to come straight out of Charles Dickens’ Victorian-era novel, A Christmas Carol. This should come as no surprise, since it was about the same time that Dickens’ story was published in 1843 that Americans began to celebrate Christmas in much the same way that we do today.

In New England’s earlier days, lingering Puritan sensibilities had suppressed any celebration of days not specifically named in the Bible; thus until the 1850s or so, the 25th of December was generally treated as a normal workday, unless it happened to fall on the Sabbath. This was true in England, too, where, since the Puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell, the old Yule traditions (not a little colored by the ancient pagan Saturnalia festival) had been frowned upon. The Industrial Revolution, too, exacted a toll on Christmas, as factory and mill workers, with little money and almost no family time, did not have the means to celebrate.

Dickens and his stories — especially A Christmas Carol — enjoyed enormous popularity in America. On each of his two journeys here (1842-1843 and 1867-1868), Dickens drew large crowds eager to hear him read from his novels. On his second tour (during which the photo at right was made), he gave seventy-six readings of A Christmas Carol and other works, performing to capacity audiences in Boston and in what he called “the two or three best New England towns” (Providence, New Bedford, Hartford, New Haven), as well as in other Eastern cities.

Dickens, who was in Boston for Christmas in 1867, was charmed by New Englanders’ enthusiastic embrace of the Yuletide celebrations described in A Christmas Carol. In a letter to a relative at home, he wrote, “When we got here last Saturday night, we found that Mrs. Fields had not only garnished the rooms with flowers, but also with holly (with real red berries) and festoons of moss… The homely Christmas look of the place quite affected us. Yesterday we dined at her house, and there was a plum-pudding, brought on blazing, and not to be surpassed in any house in England. …A piece of English mistletoe [was] laid upon my breakfast-table. And there it was this morning. In such affectionate touches as this these New England people are especially amiable.”

Dickens’ tour manager George Dolby was also affected by the scene: “This was our Christmas dinner… A most brilliant company had been invited to do honour to the occasion, and all the well-known features of an English Christmas dinner-table, in the shape of roast beef and turkey, were placed before us, even to the plum pudding, made in England, and sent over specially for this entertainment. All feeling of depression at being away from home at such a time was dissipated by the geniality of our host and hostess; and there was universal regret when the hands of the clock pointed to the small hours in the morning, suggesting most painfully that the time for breaking-up had arrived.”

The “Dickensian” Christmas survives, and thrives, as “our” traditional New England Christmas. A few years ago, I prepared a Fezziwiggian feast, with turkey, goose, roast beef, capon, plum pudding, wines and ales to match, and everything else you can imagine.

It is important to remember, however, that Dickens’ conception of Christmas embraced much more than feasting and merriment. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens (in the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred) describes Christmas as “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.” This was what Dickens described for the rest of his life as the “Carol Philosophy.”
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“Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment, which abound at this season of the year? A Christmas family-party! We know nothing in nature more delightful! There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas.” (Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836)

In an interesting coincidence, the very day after I drafted these notes, there appeared in our newspaper a review of a new book: The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, by Les Standiford (Crown, © 2008). I immediately wrote to Santa to request the book for Christmas. It was an interesting book, which I’ll explore in a future posting.

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