Original publish date: December 12, 2010
Reissue date: December 12, 2019
Perhaps no single Indianapolis community has a stronger connection to the Victorian Era than Irvington. The Victorian era is defined as the period of British Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 until her death in 1901. Irvington was founded in 1870 at the height of the Victorian Era. The man widely acknowledged as the most prolific chronicler of this Era is English novelist, Charles Dickens. It is Dickens whom we look to when we envision a Victorian Christmas and it is Dickens beloved story “A Christmas Carol” that most Irvingtonians think of at Christmas. After all, it just wouldn’t be Christmas in Irvington without the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, now would it?
However, Irvington’s ties to a Dickensian Christmas are stronger than you might think. Charles Dickens drew upon many personal memories and influences while writing “A Christmas Carol”; grim memories of his father’s imprisonment for debt, his depressing year spent working in the cellar of a shoe factory as a 10-year-old, his outrage over the condition of the poor and uneducated (especially the children working in the mines and industry), and remarkably the influences he found in the works of his literary hero, famed American author and Irvington namesake Washington Irving.
Dickens’s memorable descriptions of Christmas scenes in “A Christmas Carol” owe a great deal to Irving. In February of 1842, while attending a New York dinner hosted by Irving, Dickens amusingly revealed his devotion to the great American author when he rose his glass in a toast and said, “I say, gentlemen, I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me.”
Dickens drew upon Irving’s, “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon Gent”, to recreate the joyful warehouse party scenes that the ghost of Christmas past reveals to Ebenezer Scrooge at the start of Dickens classic novel. Irving’s “Sketchbook” featured a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s influence can be found elsewhere in the novel as Mr. Wardle tells the party that it is customary for party guests to play games or tell ghost stories until Midnight on Christmas Eve.
Irving traveled extensively throughout Europe recording his experiences in notebooks, and he was especially fond of England and its old world character. He spent a couple of years living in Birmingham, where he wrote “Bracebridge Hall” in 1822, a blend of fact and fiction centered on an old manor house, its residents and guests, and their elaborate parties and tales. It was here that Irving enjoyed and later chronicled the grand Christmas festivities and rituals that had largely faded from English history. Irving’s descriptions of the Bracebridge Hall Christmas celebrations, with their dancing, singing, games, tales, mistletoe and holly clearly helped to shape those seen in Dingley Dell, site of Mr. Fezziwig’s ball, and at the home of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Not coincidentally, these Irving inspired Dickensian images are now the visions we dream of when we conjure up a Victorian Christmas.
Irving’s descriptions of the short and cold winter days in his story “Old Christmas” make their way into the moral landscape lacking in Scrooge’s character in Dickens “A Christmas Carol”: “In the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other’s society, and are brought more closely together by dependence upon each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms; and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.”
Irving’s romantic memories of Christmas clash with his characteristic dark writing style prompting Dickens to offer his own vision, shaped by personal painful childhood memories from his past and his sympathy with the suffering of children brought on by the Industrial Revolution from his contemporary reality. Irving’s ancient Christmas rituals were set in an idyllic country mansion populated by stage coaches crowded with cheerful travelers over a broad, snow-covered landscape. Dickens places his Christmas tale squarely in the heart of London. Dickens setting is a claustrophobic fog choked, bone-chilling city seemingly caught in the grip of a final ice age: “the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in the brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.”
Dickens Washington Irving inspired story popularized the phrase “Merry Christmas” and introduced the name ‘Scrooge’ and exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ to the English language. However the book’s legacy is the powerful influence it has exerted upon its readers. A Christmas Carol” is widely credited with the “Spirit” of charitable giving associated so closely with the holiday today. Victorian Era examples can be found many places; in 1874, “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stevenson vowed to give generously after reading Dickens’s Christmas book, a Boston, Massachusetts merchant, expressed his generous hospitality by hosting two Christmas dinners after attending a reading of the book on Christmas Eve in 1867, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey and in 1901, the Queen of Norway sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love.”
Historians claim that our modern day Christmas celebrations are largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by “A Christmas Carol”. Charles Dickens restructured Christmas as a family-based festival of generosity in place of the community-based and church-centered observations most prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries. Dickens Washington Irving inspired story influenced many aspects of current Christmas traditions found in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.
Despite Dickens description, the cold London streets do not preclude the warmth of Christmas. Christmas, Dickens seems to be saying, can now be celebrated by anyone, that its rituals and joys are no longer the exclusive province of the upper classes in their country estates, but can be found in a London warehouse or in a simple London home, such as that of the Cratchit family. Because the population of London was growing exponentially its inhabitants could look to A Christmas Carol for much needed inspiration during a period of great economic and social stress.
Speaking solely for myself, I often find myself drawing upon Dickens description of Old Fezziwig when I think of how others may observe me. In the novel, the Ghost of Christmas Past conjures up the memory of Scrooge’s old employer, Mr. Fezziwig, who converts his warehouse into a festive hall in which to celebrate Christmas: “Clear away. There is nothing they [Fezziwig’s employees] wouldn’t have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.” Thus the ledger books, the daily grind, and the cold give way to music, dance, games, food, and fellowship.
As the ghost observes Scrooge wistfully watching the spirit riddled vision from his past he remarks, “A small matter,” mocks the Ghost of Christmas Past, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude. He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” To which Scrooge replies, “Fezziwig had the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lay in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gave was quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” I’ve often thought of this passage when I lament the high cost of Christmas and marvel at the eloquence of Dickens prose. I’m even prouder to learn that Washington Irving’s talent for the turn of a phrase contributed to that eloquence.