Christmas (Old English: Cri-stesmæsse, meaning “Christ’s Mass”) is an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ that is a widely observed global holiday, celebrated generally on December 25th.
While the birth year of Jesus is estimated among modern historians to have been between 7 and 2 BC, the exact month and day of his birth are unknown. His birth is mentioned in two of the four canonical gospels.
Christmas, along with Easter, is the period of highest annual church attendance. In Catholic countries, people hold religious processions or parades in the days preceding Christmas.
In other countries, secular processions or parades featuring Santa Claus and other seasonal figures are often held. As a feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it closes the Advent season and initiates the twelve days of Christmastide, which ends after the twelfth night, after which all decorations must be removed.
Christmas is also a civil holiday in many of the world’s nations that is ‘celebrated’ by an increasing number of non-Christians and is an integral part of the holiday season.
At the beginning of the Victorian era however, Christmas was hardly celebrated at all in Britain. Though the Victorians cannot be credited with starting Christmas they can at least be held responsible for its popularisation.
From Germany the customs of tree, snow and decorations was introduced into Britain first by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria.
In many ways Prince Albert was responsible for shaping how Christmas was celebrated by British Victorian families. The family was of utmost importance to the Victorians. They saw it as a time to focus on family relationships and most of the Victorian Christmas traditions (pudding stirring, tree decorating, carol singing, gift giving) were to be shared by all members of the family.
But when it comes to the creator of the images most associated with Christmas in Victorian England it must be Charles Dickens. On publication in 1843, his prose novella A Christmas Carol, (read, or better yet re-read it here) was extraordinarily popular. The success of the book was immediate and, at a stroke, set the bar for how the ‘average’ middle class Victorian family should approach the celebration of Christmas.
A Christmas Carol is the definitive Christmas story. Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life may try each year to dislodge it from its pinnacle but Dickens’ Victorian fantasy reigns supreme. The fact that there have been so many adaptations on film, television, stage and radio gives it an undeniable advantage. The images of the celebratory family occasion with its ‘Christmas bird’ and Plum Pudding are synonymous with the season!
The qualities of realism and idealism possessed by Dickens together with his naturally jovial attitude toward life in general, seem to have given him an appreciation of Christmas that the privations and hardships of his boyhood could so easily have stunted.
Nowadays it is nigh on impossible to imagine a proper English Christmas without Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.