During the recent Christmas season I saw references everywhere to "Victorian" Christmas celebrations-- house tours, store windows, magazine advertisements, etc. I can understand people pining for a simpler time, provided we overlook such details as child labor, Jim Crow laws, and women not having the right to vote. What I wonder is whether people in Victorian times waxed nostalgic about prior eras. Did they have "Federalist" Christmases idealizing the late 1700s? For that matter, did the Federalists have "colonial" Christmases idealizing the late 1600s? Or did prior generations have enough sense to appreciate their own time?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Sense has nothing to do with it. It’s just that, to paraphrase musical philosopher Dan Hicks, you can’t miss it if it won’t go away. Nostalgia, like Rice Chex, antacid tablets, and Dan Rather, is a product of modern urban industrial society, which is continually assaulted by change (AKA progress, for the optimists among us) and where most people have lost their sense of connection to the land. In a traditional agricultural society there’s nothing to get nostalgic about, since you’re still living on the land and yesterday was pretty much the same as today.
Longing for the past dates from the early 19th century, not long after the start of the industrial revolution in England. (The word nostalgia wasn’t widely applied to said longing until after World War I, having previously signified a pathological case of homesickness.) Early promoters of nostalgia included the poet William Wordsworth and the novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose novel Ivanhoe (1819) launched a fad for chivalry. Romantic literature appealed to city folk, now a bit disenchanted with urban life (as the philosophes of a previous generation had not been) and thus inclined to a sentimental view of the lost joys of nature, childhood, and the past.
Not coincidentally, our modern idea of Christmas also dates from the early 19th century. Prior to that time celebrations of Christmas varied widely among regions. (In Puritan New England, Christmas wasn’t even a legal holiday until 1856.) Several things changed that, among them Clement Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (“‘Twas the night before Christmas . . . ,” 1822) and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). The success of the latter work and the many other Christmas books and articles Dickens wrote later was greatly amplified by the rise of large-scale commercial publishing and helped fix the Victorian era as the classic Christmas setting throughout the English-speaking world. Other contributors to the Victorian Christmas tradition include Prince Albert, husband of Victoria, who popularized the Christmas tree, previously a German custom. And we mustn’t forget English artist John C. Horsley–in 1843, the same year A Christmas Carol appeared, he designed the first Christmas card, depicting a family party with the words “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You” below.
Merchandised sentiment eventually replaced pre-industrial holiday traditions. Victorian celebrations had some inherent charm, of course. But it was only by dint of constant repetition in the media that frosted window panes, carolers, top hats and long dresses, and (in America) fat guys in red suits became “iconic” of Christmas, as we pop-culturati say. Harmless enough, I suppose. But next time you get the warm fuzzies watching some Victorian Xmas special on TV, remember you feel that way in part because you’ve been trained to.
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