I’m coming to you this weekend from New York City, which is, as far as I’m concerned, the best place to be the week before Christmas. The Salvation Army bell-ringers outside Grand Central Terminal were dancing with each other and with passers-by; driving down Second Avenue, a man dressed as Santa Claus was standing up through the moon roof and boogeying to the hip hop blasting from the car’s stereo; the tree is up in Rockefeller Center; the store windows are all decorated amazingly (the windows at Barney’s were designed this year by Lady Gaga, so that should be … interesting); and — perhaps best of all — there’s no snow. New York City may be the only place in the world where you don’t want to have a white Christmas, and the fact that we aren’t going to have one this year is just one more reason to be here.
Many years ago, a friend of mine went with his family to London for Christmas. He excitedly looked forward to the trip for months, but in the end he was disappointed. Of course, it wasn’t London’s fault. No matter how rationally my friend knew that it was the late twentieth century (I told you this was a while ago), on some level, deep in his reptile brain, he expected London to be full of carolers in long coats and tall hats singing from door to door and then being invited inside for a cup of cheer, horse-drawn carriages coursing through snowy streets, and cute street urchins shouting “Happy Christmas, guv’nah!” while they picked his pocket.
But y’know, I don’t really blame my friend, either. Sure, he was really stupid. But for him, and for all of us Americans, and probably most Brits, too, what we think of as a traditional Christmas was never really real to begin with. It all sprang from the imagination of one man: Charles Dickens. Why? Two reasons. He was a really popular writer, and he was in the right place at the right time.
Christmas Before Dickens
Way Before Dickens
In the second, third, and fourth centuries, Christianity spread from the Middle East out into Europe. As pagans converted to Christianity, they didn’t give up their traditional mid-winter celebrations, they just repurposed them. A truism passed on incessantly by nitpickers, naysayers, and nimrods such as me is that the historical evidence suggests Jesus was born in July or August. Nonetheless, for a good, long time, Christmas was a raucous, joyous blowout held in midwinter.
Less Before Dickens
The Protestant Reformation in the 1500s was a reaction against the pomp, ceremony, and other excesses of the Catholic church. Christmas became a somber occasion. In fact, the Puritans who settled New England in the 1600s didn’t celebrate Christmas at all.
Getting Close to Dickens Now
Things began to change in the 1800s. The Industrial Revolution had brought greater prosperity to the prosperous, and had lifted many out of poverty and into a new thing called the “middle class.” Times were good, people had money, and they wanted to celebrate. Not the poor, of course, or the servants, or others in the working class. But the 1 per cent were now joined by maybe another 10 percent (to pull a number out of my … off the top of my head) who had a disposable income and wanted to use it.
Of course, the Industrial Revolution had started in Britain, so it was there that the effects had had the longest to take hold. Also, the great British Empire had spread its way around the world, and everyone everywhere was paying attention to what happened in London. This is what I meant by being in the right place at the right time.
In England and the United States, in Victorian times no less than today, people’s perceptions were shaped by the media. And by 1850, Charles Dickens was the King of All Media, which was admittedly much easier back then because there were only two: print and theatre. Dickens owned the first one with his books and magazine stories, and his plays did pretty well, too.
I know you’ve heard of A Christmas Carol. But what you may not realize is that it’s merely the most famous one of many Christmas stories Dickens wrote over the years. Several of the stories involved ghosts, but all of them involved images of a dinner table covered with massive amounts of food, a fat turkey or goose sitting right in the middle, of carolers in long coats and tall hats singing from door to door and then being invited inside for a cup of cheer, horse-drawn carriages coursing through snowy streets, and cute street urchins shouting “Happy Christmas, guv’nah!”
So you see, Little Sally, most or all of what we think of as a traditional, old-timey Christmas was either invented by, or at least popularized by, one great writer.
And Now, a Personal Message, From Me … to You
Whatever holidays you may celebrate here at the end of December and the beginning of January, I hope you have a great time. Use the holidays to help you forget about the stresses of the world today, and use whatever you can to help you forget about the stresses of the holidays.
Me, I’m going to take a couple of weekends off. I’ll be back again in the new year, which I hope brings you good health, happiness, and success (however you choose to define it).