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Modernizing the Yule
Compliments of the season
“I had called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891
As you may have heard, Christmas is a pretty big deal.
It’s one of the few holidays that is celebrated universally around the globe. It is so widely recognized that it even caused the famous Christmas truce during World War I, when German and British troops celebrated together on the Western Front.
It wasn’t always thus. Until relatively recently, Christmas was mostly another quarter day, in the same spirit as Lady Day, Midsummer Day, and Michelmas.
In mid-17th century England, Oliver Cromwell banned any kind of secular celebration of Christmas, insisting a returning to a more religious one.
Already by 1841, Queen Victoria had installed a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.
But when Charles Dickens published his novella A Christmas Story in 1843, Christmas was installed in the public’s awareness in a different way.
Thanks to the juxtaposition of the parsimonious Ebeneezer Scrooge — whose surname has become synonymous with miser — and his good-hearted and generous nephew Freddie (not to mention a trio of Christmas spirits with their lessons), we’ve come to view Christmas as a time of generosity and giving.
“I have always thought of Christmas time as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable time. I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good. I say, God bless it!”
And this is also when our language surrounding Christmastime began to change.
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Scrooge’s nephew Freddie gave us the first jolt, when he said
“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!”
And coincidentally, also in 1843, Henry Cole introduced the first Christmas card, a commercial venture that failed at the time, but that eventually became a staple. And that first Christmas card wished recipients a Merry Christmas.
From Dickens’ story, we also get some of the cultural influences that we associate with Christmas today:
The gathering which symbolizes Scrooge’s redemption became central to the modern celebration.
Including games like blind man’s bluff and charades and that evolved into celebratory gifts like Christmas crackers.
Mince pies, Christmas or ‘figgy’ pudding, and certainly the centerpiece of the meal: the Christmas goose.
The romantic notion of snow on Christmas is with us still, even though snow on Christmas Eve is comparatively rare in London today; they were frequent during Dickens’ childhood.
As the title of the book indicates, the singing of songs together has become such an inextricable part of the season that radio stations play Christmas songs shortly after Halloween.
So as we witness Christmas celebrated this year, you can thank Charles Dickens for making it part of our modern lives.
And if you’d like a little further related reading, LitHub provides a wonderful insight on How the Book Business Invented Modern Gift-Giving.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.