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Inventing Christmas

· Christmas,Charles Dickens,Fine Book Collecting,Clement Clarke Moore,Henry Cole

This is the time of year for Christmas books. And you can select from a vast array of books on the subject; childrens books, cook books, song books, etc.. I typically stay away from Christmas books, but a couple of years ago, one such book caught my eye, I picked it up, bought it and read it right away. Why – because it was written by a collector of Christmas books, perhaps the foremost collector of Christmas books, undertaken so that he could find out where all of the Christmas traditions, that he obviously relishes, originated in his home country – the United States. The man was Jock Elliott and the book is Inventing Christmas – How Our Holiday Came To Be; Harry N. Abrams, Inc, Publishers, New York, 2001.

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Jock Elliott, at the time was Chairman Emeritus of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, and he had a collection of more than 3,000 Christmas books ranging from the first printing of the story of the Nativity in America (in the Algonquian language) to Charles Dicken’s reading copy of A Christmas Carol. He had put together his collection, and expertise, over some 50 years and in this book, he gives an account of the creation of so many of today’s Christmas traditions.

Christmas is regarded as a Christian holiday, but this was always the case. There were a number of pagan holidays celebrated around that time of year. December 25 was celebrated in honor of Mithra, the sun-god. Mithraism originally was a Persian cult, and the early Christians saw this cult as a real threat to Christianity. So, in the middle of the 4th century, the Church decreed that henceforth the 25th of December would be recognized as the Day of Christ’s Nativity. The Church hoped to draw the pagans from worship of the sun-god to worship of the Son of God. Within a century, the pagans had been won over but they had no intention of giving up all the hijinks of their mid-winter festival. So, what came to be known as Christmas developed a split personality: religious and secular, sacred and profane. This dual nature of Christmas observance, pious and pagan, continued through the centuries.

By the time of the Reformation, the vulgar, pagan celebrations of Christmas had overshadowed the religious. In 1647, under Oliver Cromwell, an act of Parliament forbade the observance of Christmas. In 1659, under the Puritan government in Massachusetts, it became illegal to celebrate Christmas. For a few years, Christmas went underground. Charles II revived the holiday in England after the Restoration, and the 1659 law in the colonies was revoked in 1681.

As late as the end of the eighteenth century, there was precious little resembling the Christmas we know today – no family togetherness, no Christmas trees, no Christmas cards, no Christmas shopping, and no Santa Claus.

Germany was the home of the Christmas tree and today the Christmas tree is the very emblem of Christmas, around the world. The Christmas tree was introduced into England and the United States by German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. The British people had little interest in the Christmas tree, which they viewed as a Teutonic novelty, but then in 1840 Victoria married Prince Albert, a German. The Big Year for the Christmas tree was 1848. A full- page illustration of the royal family around their tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the London Illustrated News. This picture of family togetherness, tranquility, and happiness captured the imagination of people. Two years later an almost identical illustration appeared in the United States, in Godey’s Lady’s Book. Thus, the British and Americans were captivated by the tree and what is offered and thus was born the passion for Christmas trees that is unbated today.

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Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, lived in what is now known as the Chelsea section of Manhattan, and on the day before Christmas, 1822, he was driven in a sleigh down to the city to buy a Christmas turkey. On the way, he composed in his head his famous poem, which he wrote down on return. On Christmas Day, he gathered his family around him and read for the first time “Twas the night before Christmas…” Later a family friend read the poem and was so enchanted by it that she made a copy and sent it to the Troy Sentinel, a newspaper in upstate New York, which published it for the first time on December 23, 1823.

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Henry Cole, an Englishman, became well known as a founder of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the penny post, perforated postage stamps, and postcards. But before all of this, in 1843, he commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to design the first Christmas card. At the top of the card, there is a dotted line for the name of the addressee. And at the bottom another one for the sender’s signature. The card’s message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. How many times have we heard that exact phrase? One thousand of these cards were printed and hand-colored and sold for one shilling each. Twenty-one of these cards are known to exist today.

The first nine months of 1843 were worrying ones for Charles Dickens. The first monthly installments of Martin Chuzzlewit were poorly received, and his reputation was beginning to suffer. He was living beyond his means in a large house on Devonshire Terrace, with a wife pregnant with their fifth child. Adding to his disturbed state of mind was a growing sense of social conscience. He considered writing a pamphlet to be called “An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child”. While broodingly walking the streets of Manchester, a better idea than a pamphlet occurred to him – an idea for a story. Dickens hurried back to London, where he began feverishly writing. He worked day and night. By October 24, he had been working on his “little scheme” for less than 3 weeks but had already written enough to hire illustrator John Leech. Less than a month later, the manuscript was complete. (The original manuscript now belongs to the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, where it is on view each Christmastime.) Dickens became so possessed by his story that, as he described, he “wept and laughed and wept again”. On November 25, a tiny newspaper advertisement, less than one inch deep, announced the publication of A Christmas Carol and on December 17, the first 10 copies were delivered to Dickens. The book was an instantaneous success. The entire first edition was sold out by Christmas.

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It would be hard to overestimate the influence A Christmas Carol had on our Christmas. When Dickens created Ebenezer Scrooge, he invented a character almost as familiar as Santa Claus, himself.

And as written in 1843 “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”.