Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas - Fact & Fiction

I’ve been reading about Christmas this week. Both the historic origins of Christmas & fiction published at Christmas time, usually with a Christmas theme. Over the past few years, Hesperus Press has reprinted several of the Christmas special editions of Charles Dickens’s Household Words magazine. These special editions, although “conducted” by Dickens, have contributions of stories or poems by other authors. The Seven Poor Travellers & The Holly-Tree Inn were first published in the 1850s & brought together by a theme, a surrounding story written by Dickens.

In The Seven Poor Travellers, the framing story is of a traveller who visits an almshouse at Christmas time & provides a lavish Christmas dinner for the seven poor travellers who are entitled to a meal & a night’s accommodation. In return, he asks each of the travellers to tell him a story. In The Holly-Tree Inn, a young man planning to emigrate after an unhappy love affair is snowed in at an inn & after reading everything he can find, relieves his loneliness by asking the staff at the inn to tell him a story. The quality is variable. Wilkie Collins’s contributions in both volumes are the best. I may be biased because Wilkie is one of my favourite authors & I’ve read a lot of his work this year but I enjoyed his stories very much. In The Holly-Tree Inn he tells The Ostler’s Story. This was subsequently reprinted as The Dream Woman & is a frightening tale of a man who dreams of his own murder by a woman who he subsequently marries. In The Seven Poor Travellers, Collins is the Fourth Poor Traveller & tells an exciting story about a wedding almost derailed by blackmail & a clever lawyer who foils the plot. I’d read both these stories in other anthologies but I enjoyed reading them again.

Dickens’s own contributions consist mainly of the framing stories but he also wrote The Boots’s Story in The Holly-Tree Inn & I’m afraid this is a dreadfully twee & sentimental story of two children who decide to elope. There are also stories very much of their time that read very uncomfortably today. George Sala’s story in The Seven Poor Travellers is a disturbing story full of anti-Semitic stereotypes. Adelaide Anne Proctor’s poetry is conventional narrative verse with moral pointed out at the end.

One of the most interesting stories for me was William Howitt’s Landlord’s Story in The Holly-Tree Inn. Howitt was a well-travelled man who spent some time in Australia & it immediately struck me when reading his story that he had been here in Melbourne. I know it’s changed a little in the last 160 years but I recognized his Melbourne. He tells the story of a family who emigrate to Melbourne in search of the wealth they’ve heard about from their friends. When they arrive, they discover the colony in an economic depression & the future looks grim. But, this is a story for Christmas & tragedy wouldn’t be appropriate. Mr Tattenhall buys up property with the little bit of capital he has brought with him &, eventually, after some lean years, he starts to recover & build up his wealth. This is the passage that had me smiling in recognition,

Bob had got a station out at the Dundenong-Hills, and told wonderful stories of riding after kangaroos, and wild bulls, and shooting splendid lyre-birds ... And really my brother’s villa on the Yarra River is a very fine place.   It stands on a high bank above the valley, in which the Yarra winds, taking a sweep there, its course marked by a dense body of acacia trees. In the spring these trees are of resplendent gold, loading the air with their perfume. Now they were thick and dark in their foliage, casting their shade on the river deep between its banks.

I can see the Dundenong-Hills from my house but now they’re called the Dandenong Ranges. I shuddered at the thought of shooting lyrebirds but I could smell the acacia blossom that we call the wattle. Not sure about villas on the banks of the Yarra but there are still plenty of 19th century mansions there. Howitt also wrote Land, Labour and Gold, about his time in Victoria, a book in every library’s Local History collection. It was lovely to come across this story. Both these books are lovely seasonal gems to dip into or read straight through. I think it’s a clever idea of Hesperus to reprint them.

I’ve also been listening to Miriam Margolyes read A Christmas Carol every day on the way to work. My favourite Christmas story. I read it every year & know passages of it by heart. My favourite part is the beginning. Marley’s Ghost. I can see & hear the ghost trailing its chains and cashboxes as it comes up the stairs to Scrooge’s fireside. The description of the ghost with the pigtail & the grave cloth around its head telling Scrooge, “I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day.” sends a shiver through me every time.

I’ve also read The Making of the Modern Christmas by J M Golby & A W Purdue. This beautifully illustrated book is about the history of Christmas from the earliest times to the present. The authors discuss the pagan origins of the Christmas tree, the holly & the mistletoe & how the old festivals of Misrule & Yule were changed into Christmas. How the Christian Church gradually took over pagan festivals as its influence grew & how some of the traditions we associate with Christmas are of much more recent origin than we think. Most of the customs we think of as traditional were started in the 18th or 19th centuries. They were popularised by Dickens’s A Christmas Carol & the Christmas chapters of The Pickwick Papers & Washington Irving’s story, Old Christmas. There are chapters on the differences between the American & English Christmas & how Christmas was celebrated during the World Wars. A really interesting look at the historical origins of Christmas.

After all this 19th century tradition, tomorrow I plan to reveal the technological leap I've taken into the 21st century. Stay tuned for further details!


  1. I do wish I had thought of seeking out A Christmas Carol in audiobook form. I can see it working very well. I have no time to do a reread now, but I am definitely going to be picking up one of the Hesperus editions next week.

    I'm very curious now to see what your leap forward involves...