Thursday, December 25, 2014

"How in the Dickens did Charles save Christmas?"

Welcoming you to our annual holiday tradition of celebrating the climate and cultural origins of our Christmastide festivities, each year featuring unique new twists we uncover in our research into the reasons behind the seasons.  

If you enjoy delving into the stories behind our holiday celebrations and would like to be part of an expanded effort for Christmas 2015, contact us at

A Currier & Ives Classic:"Winter Homestead" Circa 1867

9:00 AM 12/25 (Forecaster Foot) With a blaze of bright sunshine having returned to areas recently doused with a Blue Christmas Eve, we take a moment to share our favorite tale of the climate and historical connections behind our most cherished winter holidays. Most notably, we focus on why our society yearns more with each passing year to recapture a "Victorian-like Christmas." 

So grab the Peppermint Spice coffee creamer, relax in a warm corner, and enjoy this special story about why we dream for a White Christmas, and how many of the December 25-focused holiday traditions were influenced by a little red book conceived in the mind of a popular author who caught an idea walking the grimy streets of industrial London.


Mount Lebanon
The historical and religious reasons for marking December 25 as Christ's birth, was preceded by an influence of climate and geography. Even though some historians note that Jesus may have been born in November or March, and not December, it is likely that snow was present for the first Christmas.   "Lebanon" , which is the nearest mountain range to Bethlehemin the original Hebrew is associated with "white." At the time, the Lebanon range was generally snow-covered year round.  

4TH CENTURY ORIGINS. Christmas was not recognized as a formal religious holiday until the 4th century. The Catholic Church reorganized late December holidays, and imported traditions from the pagan "Feast of Saturnalia" which occurred on the 25th. It is believed this compromise is the origin of present day food-related revelry during our winter holidays.  

ILLEGAL CHRISTMAS? A thousand years later, Puritan settlers in the New World viewed the event with scorn. The Catholic- and Anglican- church having assigned a date to Christ's birth, was anathema to their desire for non-state controlled worship. Records in New England from 1660 show that celebrating Christmas was actually illegal in Boston. The puritans, helped along by Cromwell's edicts following the English Civil War in 1645, fueled resistance a "holiday" they viewed as an immoral temptation from once-pagan festivals. In England by the early 1800s, Christmas as an official event had nearly died out. 

But, the spark of old ideas to be made new again began burning once more, through serendipitous actions of a few creative - though unconnected- men in the early 1840s.


A "Frost Fair" on the River  Thames in London, 1683.
In the gritty streets of London in 1843, Christmas was not widely marked with evergreen wreaths and merriment for all. However, there was snow, and for a brief period in the climate records, it was decidedly powdery even in southern England. A three-hundred year period from the 16th to 19th centuries was later known as  "Little Ice Age."

The height of this chill, from 1645 to 1710, is now known by climatologists as the Maunder Minimumdue to many years where virtually no sunspots were observed, resulting in sharply reduced solar activity. Over 26 winters, the River Thames in London froze so thick that grand  "Frost Fairs" were held on the ice! This excellent report by AccuWeather's Jesse Ferrell details many of the climate connections to our visions of White Christmases, due in part to the wide ranging impact of the Little Ice Age. 

A CHILDHOOD INFLUENCED BY CLIMATE. During Charles' early childhood in the 1810's, his Father, though a poor manager of the family finances, would compensate by investing considerable time into creating a unique celebration of the Christmas date. At the time, this event was falling out of favor across England. Rise of the Industrial revolution and decline of agrarian communities led to many families moving to the city and becoming shackled to harsh working conditions in factories. The young Charles was no exception, having worked several years as a child laborer in several jobs.

The debt struggles of Charles' father altered his son's life forever, forcing him to work in a "Blacking factory" by the age of 12. Although he escaped this difficult life by adulthood, millions of children did not. By the 1840s, a writer also now raising a family - and seeking to help them to a better life-  Charles saw with a unique perspective the on-going plight of poor children in his era. As noted by the Houston Chronicle in 2014, 
"In the months leading up to his writing of "A Christmas Carol," Dickens witnessed conditions of factory workers in the grimy industrial town of Manchester and children working in tin mines in Cornwall. He also visited the Field Land Ragged School, [an] institution set up for London's destitute street children. Along with the release of a government report detailing the Industrial Revolution's effects on poor children, those incidents prompted Dickens to make a strong public statement about the plight of the poor."

In remembering the time-honored traditions we showcase today, it is easy to forget what life must have been like for a school-aged boy lumbering through the streets of his city, seeing baker shops and meat parlors brimming with food, but being unable to afford any of it. Nowadays, living in a land of plenty for many, we can take for granted that those delicacies we celebrate around the table may have started out as a dream of a hungry child watching the well-to-do enjoy from afar. 

THE WHITE CHRISTMAS CONNECTION. A lesser-known observation of history that may have played a major role in Dickens' thought process in the writing of his story was a special gift courtesy of the Little Ice Age. Research reported in the Times Online of London noted that in the years when Dickens was a young child, snow was observed six years in a row in London, right on Christmas Day!  Years later, as an author, with firmly ingrained memories of heavy snow blanketing the country on that particular day, Charles traversed the streets of London up to 20 miles a day...taking notes for his novel, A Christmas Carol. 

In observing the then-disparate activities throughout the city, thinking about the harsh conditions and treatment of the poor, and seeing the value that all people no matter of income status, should be able to enjoy a festive well-cooked meal-- Charles began to synthesize these ideas and facts into a narrative. It was intended to be part political statement, part religious mission and a hopeful source of new revenue to feed his family.

The turkey dinner, baked pies, spiced drinks, exchanging of gifts, hanging of greens, giving of cards... Dickens did not precisely "invent" all these activities. The combination of events taking place in the country at the time, such as Prince Albert's affinity for the German Christmas tree and gift-giving for his children, and the public's longing for simpler times before the railroad, and their strong positive reaction to Dicken's story, quickly cemented into the cultural DNA a decidedly reinvigorated Victorian view of what had long-been a second-rate holiday.

In 2006, this present-day librarian-blogger  summed up how the beloved characters of Mr. Dickens, enshrined in a red- and gold-bound book, may have "saved" Christmas. What started as an effort by Dickens to restart his literary career, led to a holiday-themed revolution which influences our present day visions of sugar plums and sleigh rides down snow-glistened streets. 

Charles may have been the original "Powderhound," for the story refers to frequent winter weather clogging the streets of London, a climate truth in the height of the Little Ice Age. Now that era lives on in our wrapping paper, Currier & Ives engravings and in the music that enriches our lives for just a few short weeks.  

As we celebrate December 25 as the agreed-upon date for Christ's birth, we also know that the pristine look of snow knows no religious doctrine, and can be freely enjoyed by people of all creeds and colors whenever it graces the land. Even if for a few moments, it gives a gift like no other: That brief reliving of childhood thrill and innocence, even for those whom have long lost theirs, whether it be the young factory workers or London, or those in a digitally-saturated modern era. 

We hope that someday, wherever you are, you'll be able to soon enjoy some White in the winter night, helped along by a little red book written by a man who remembered his snowy youth, and desired to see that the ideals of Christmas could someday benefit, and "bless us, everyone!"  .

No comments: