This article has been transcribed from a copy of the Cardiff Times in the online collection of scanned Welsh newspapers 1804-1919 in the National Library of Wales, with grateful recognition of the free access accorded to all readers. Paragraph breaks have been introduced for easier reading.
This article reminds us that the feeling that Christmas is not what it used to be has a long tradition. Socially , emotionally and theologically Christmas had extraordinary power to move the Victorians, and we see several favourite Victorian techniques used to enhance the impact of this article. The phrase 'writers under the earth' is a reminiscence – irrelevant as far as I can see – of Genesis 1:7 ('the waters that were under the earth'), an example of how irresistible it was in the period to echo biblical phrasing, even when the relevance was obscure or worse. 'Dead-Sea-faint-mockery and pretence of peace and good-will' has a quasi-biblical ring to it, despite the fact that it is in fact derived from 'Dead-Sea fruit', as described by Thomas Moore in his Lalla Rookh (1817) as 'Dead Sea fruits, that tempt the eye, / But turn to ashes on the lips!' (222-3). 'Dry-as-Dust' has a different heritage, which lends it weighty seriousness.
It is Walter Scott’s satirical name for a writer who accurately though tediously accumulates facts, and presents them with scant regard to their human interest. The name is subsequently used to great effect by Thomas Carlyle in his Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches. It is easily forgotten that Scott had an unchallengeable status as poet, novelist and ideologue. Alfred Tennyson too had worked his way into the very fabric of the language of the age.
his is truth the poet sings,
That a sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things
Then we come to the great nineteenth-century Christmas mythologiser, Charles Dickens himself: ‘there are at our very gates children who never were children except in years, miserable, benighted little ones in whose hearts there is no joy, in whose lives there is nothing save shadow and a struggle that is not of youth.’ This is not Dickens, but could almost be a quotation from A Christmas Carol or Dombey and Son. Dickens would also have appreciated Samuel’s suggestion that workhouse inmates were treated like animals in a zoo. All we need now is a sprinkling of a classical condiment, and the recipe is complete, and here it is: the Chimera which in Greek mthology was a fire-breathing female monster resembling a lion in the forepart, a goat in the middle, and a dragon behind, which devastated Caria and Lycia until she was slain by Bellerophon. And just as we have settled it that the Victorians we slaves to nostalgia, we have the image of an announcement on that creature and creator of modernity, the railway.
The slang word ‘masher’ is explained by Samuel as 'the sort of young man who fancies that he can overcome and overawe everybody by the potency of his attractions?' See 'Samuel on some of the Art of Dressing Well' (4 December 1886) —— David Skilton
Direful effects of Christmas on a small boy.
GOOD old Christmas; sad old Christmas; with all your gaieties and your junkettings and your wassail, what a reflective, if not a sober, period (sober it certainly is not with some folks) it is. There is a lot of jollity about it, isn't there, dear sir – that is when we remember past Christmases; I don't think. You remember the poetic couplet of dear old Tennyson, I daresay, though this is a prosy age, when a good deal of the real poetry of life seems dead, or obscured under a mask of nil admirari indifference and an affect[at]ion of unconcern as to all things on earth or in the writers under the earth (as in the case of the accepted British young man masher of the day) or sunk in the dry-as-dust existence of sordid business. But all the same the lines apply. Here they are piping hot:–
'This is truth the poet says,
That a sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering
I think that my individual experience is a unique one, for I seem, after duns and impecuniosity are taken into account, to have led a fairly happy life; but I have generally found that, especially about Christmas time, I have realised of late years that the poet was speaking truth in those immortal (for as such I regard them) lines. If any season could make a man reflective, surely it is Christmas. Primarily speaking, it marks one of the milestones of our lives, and in an equal degree it is the period when all men who boast or call themselves Christians must necessarily begin to remember that, after all, there are higher duties in life to be performed than the mere acquisition of this world's goods, and the attainment of a position in 'society,' the most unstable and evanescent of all chimeras that ever lured a human being on. If I were asked the question, sir, I should hardly dare call myself what the multitude locally describe as a 'good living man' – I shouldn't like to – but still I always regard with some degree of regret the increasing disregard of the religious, mark ye, religious significance of the period of Christmas. We all kill the fatted calf, or at least we eat it, or its equivalent, and we revel, and we make ourselves bilious, and we drink to the health of men we know would never lift a hand to help us out of the mire (we do so like the hypocrites and humbugs that we are) were the wine-cup not flowing merrily at our expense, and we profess a Dead-Sea-faint-mockery and pretence of peace and good-will to all men, and we never give ourselves time to contrast our own comfortable position with that of the truly miserable of God's earth; the outcasts and the waifs and the beings of the same creation and mould, whose life is despair, and hopeless, grinding poverty. Perhaps we fulfil a species of Christian duty (Christian according to our comfortable lot of so-called Christians most of us are) by attending at a workhouse dinner with a member or two of the board of guardians, and we haply say as we see the inmates dine (as though they were creatures in a menagerie, where threepence extra is charged to see the lions fed)[,] 'Poor things; isn't it nice to see them enjoy themselves;' or, we give a shilling here and a shilling there – generally to dependents who, when all is said and done, can render us some little service afterwards, or who have some service done previously and are expected to repeat the offence. We do this, and then we complacently shake hands with ourselves and think what charitable folks we are.
The usual –but not a good as he used to be.
Say what folks will, if a man have any consideration in him Christmas is one of the saddest of seasons. Be it a Christmas of the good old sort, with snow on the ground and a biting blast that bears to us the sound of the carol singers and revellers; phantoms still rise out of the glowing coals, the phantoms of friends long dead, who were wont to toast us across a groaning board; the phantoms of those nearer and dearer to us yet than all others; the phantoms of women and children, the very sound of whose well-remembered voices the bleak winds themselves seem to whisper to our inmost souls. Can we all – especially those of us upon whom the pressure of the rolling years is beginning to tell – cast our 'nighted colour' off[i] when we remember such things, and are there, too, no social contrasts ever before our minds when we see our rosy, well-clad children laughing and romping about us as only childhood can? Do not a good many of us realise that there are at our very gates children who never were children except in years, miserable, benighted little ones in whose hearts there is no joy, in whose lives there is nothing save shadow and a struggle that is not of youth? Does not hackneyed jubilation sometimes sound as a mockery? Do not the chimes of the bells on the Christmas morn sometimes seem to intermingle in our mind with the doleful clanging of the passing bell, as we remember the Christmases that are dead with all their joys and fears and hopes? It is a merry world, my masters, when we can take it as such and accept calmly what is given to us, and live but for the present.
Change here for the New Year.
We Englishmen are said to take our pleasures sadly, if not soberly, and I am afraid that in this latter regard a good many Britons are certainly not sober at Christmas, however sad they may be afterwards. That wife must be adam[an]tine indeed at heart who does not say of her staggering good man at such a season, ‘Well, it's Christmas after all, and a drop too much is excusable.’ It is rather strange, is it not, that so many men of various classes of life do make Christmas and other festivals of Christianity the excuses for a thorough ‘drunk?’ I doubt not that in the case of such men there is, quite apart from their love of drink, a predisposing cause, a desire to get thoroughly out of themselves and their own surroundings, to step entirely out of the picture wherein they are usually cramped and framed, and small blame to them.
Links to Related Material
- Dickens "the man who invented Christmas"
- Fathering Christmas: Charles Dickens and the (Re)Birth of Christmas
Armstrong, Neil. "Christmas in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America: A Historiographical Overview." Cultural and Social History 1(2004): 118-125.
Butt, John. "Dickens's Christmas Books." Pope, Dickens, and Others. Ed. Geoffrey Carnall. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1969. 127-148.
Chesterton, G.K. Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. New York: Dodd Mead, 1906.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004.
Gillis, John R.. A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual and the Quest for Family Values. Cambridge, US: Harvard UP, 1997.
Glancy, Ruth F."Dickens and Christmas: His Framed-Tale Themes." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35.1 (1980): 53-72.
Pimlott, J.A.R. The Englishman's Christmas. Hassocks, UK: The Harvester Press, 1978.
Rowell, Geoffrey. "Dickens and the Construction of Christmas." History Today.
Last modified 21 March 2022