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Dickens and Christmas as we grow older



Christmas traditions as we know them were originally the creations of three people in England, in a happy conjunction of effort at about the same time. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's German husband, is usually credited with the introduction of Christmas trees into England in the 1840s, but the Queen herself was half-German, and presumably knew of this custom of a decorated tree: her growing family always had one.

Ghost of Bill Shorten as ghost of Jacob Marley accosts Scott Morrison as Scrooge with a tombstone that says 'climate change'. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonIn 1611 James I had been sent Christmas cards, but the practice failed to catch on. The Royal Mail began only in 1840 with the introduction of the Penny Black stamp, which meant that the sender of the letter henceforth bore the cost of postage.

Commercially minded public servant Sir Henry Cole, anxious to increase the nascent post office's business, hit upon the idea of greetings cards, and had an artist friend design one. At a shilling each, they were expensive: note that Charles Dickens's Scrooge, for example, paid clerk Bob Cratchit 15 shillings a week. But such is the value of novelty that they were a sell-out from the start.

It was also in 1843 that Dickens published A Christmas Carol, his first and most famous Christmas story, which has never been out of print. He published four more similarly-themed novels during the next five years, but then turned his attention to weekly magazines such as Household Words. Even so, he still wrote stories centred on 'the great birthday', and included them in the weekly publications. I have just finished reading one such: What Christmas is as We Grow Older, which appeared in 1851.

Dickens was a prolific writer, and one of patchy quality: the threat of sentimentality was never far away, so that this brief work is not one of his best. But in this consumer age it is salutary to have his definition of the Christmas spirit, which is one 'of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance'. He places emphasis on the last two, and also dwells on the matter of the unaccomplished visions of our youth, and ponders whether we might not be better off because of the failure of these dreams.

But dreams always have a place, a 'shelter underneath the holly', and so do those people lost and gone. Much of this essay is about memory, and Dickens teaches what we all must learn, the fact that the older one grows, the more important memory becomes.

So I cling to the summer memories of my late sister and me on the Christmas Days of long ago. Three generations of family camped by a river in NE Victoria, and we always attended carols by candlelight in the heat: nobody thought it strange that we regularly sang about snow 'deep and crisp and even'. We children woke early to the liquid notes of magpies in the trees and grey light visible through the tent flap.


"I had read that George Johnston and Charmian Clift, when first on Hydra, had been unable to provide their children with a tree, and the same became true of me: a decorated olive branch had to do."


The day had a set pattern: our bulging pillowslips, the present-giving at the tree, the hot dinner (how was the chicken cooked?) and Granny's pudding stuffed with threepenny bits that was always lovingly transported from home. An evening church service.

I remember, too, my early December festivities in Greece. It was freezing, and we had to go to church at six in the morning. I had read that George Johnston and Charmian Clift, when first on Hydra, had been unable to provide their children with a tree, and the same became true of me: a decorated olive branch had to do, so I told myself it had its own symbolism.

My sons were stunned to learn that presents, if any, were exchanged on New Year's Day, the feast day of St Basil. Toys were in short supply: the shops had cars and guns for boys and dolls for girls. Nobody sent cards. It was, to put it mildly, a time of adjustment.

Everything has changed now in a mixed blessing/curse of shopping and spending: Greece has caught up with the commercialism of Europe. Cards are sent, and my grandchildren have trees and a variety of presents. I usually make a traditional fruit cake and buy puddings in Athens, and hope that my four young descendants are building their memories and reserving a place underneath the holly. For me.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Charles Dickens, Christmas, Scrooge



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Existing comments

'A Christmas Carol' is a significant piece of English Literature and a real period time capsule. Unlike Conan Doyle, Dickens was not interested in Spiritualism and the Preternatural. His ghosts, like Shakespeare's, are literary devices. Excellent devices. The novel is about redemption. It is profoundly Christian in the word's true sense. Memory is also about Time, another device in the novel.

Edward Fido | 16 December 2019  

Thanks for an interesting article Gillian. I wasn’t aware that many Christmas concepts as we know them now were imported into England from Germany during the Victorian era. Christmas has become sickeningly commercialised these days and the simple pleasures of this season are often drowned. My favourite Christmases will always be the simple and austere ones just after the war, during which time I grew up in hot country Victoria. There seemed a certain lingering feeling of relief that war had finished. My greatest Christmas memory as a child growing up in a small town I think was of the local brass band playing carols in the rotunda where my uncle played the bass drum. People would be in shirt sleeves and insects would be milling around the lights. Next day would be very special with Grandma and Uncles coming to our place for dinner; well before the days of Christmas arguments and too much. I remember a special Boxing Day with picnic basket and thermoses and a wind up gramophone, on a quiet sandy bank of a bend in the barely flowing Wimmera River. These are my favourite memories of early Christmases.

John Whitehead | 17 December 2019  

An interesting article as always. Christmas in my non-believing extended family gathering used to see the children totally absorbed by new possessions and adults contemplating more than they ever wanted. Now each child is given a single gift and the adults none. We can all concentrate on company and, of course, the marvellous cherries

Juliet | 19 December 2019  

A lovely rumination - thanks, Gillian

Anne | 19 December 2019  

At Christmas my family would sing carols together, either playing on the piano or with Dad accompanying us on guitar. Recently I discovered a sweet little Christmas song called Upside Down Christmas, sung to the tune of a NZ hymn, about a warm sunshiny Christmas. My son and I sang it, along with the traditional carols, at our piano this Christmas.

Kate | 10 January 2020  

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