Merry Christmas to all our readers! Over the last 24 days we’ve posted a daily Christmas fact about some aspect of literature, and now we’re gathering together all of these Christmas literary facts into one bumper blog post. So, if you missed some or all of our advent calendar posts, you can now read them all in this collected ‘omnibus’ post. We hope you enjoy them. Ho ho ho!
1. The first Christmas cards were sent in 1843, the same year as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was published. They were designed by London artist John Calcott Horsley. Of the original 1,000 cards that were printed, only 12 are still in existence – nobody seems to have foreseen the longevity of the Christmas card-giving tradition, so few of them were preserved. Robins on Christmas cards are, in fact, a little Victorian joke: Victorian postmen were nicknamed robins because of their red uniforms, so if you sent a Christmas card through the post, the robin on the front of the card was a nice little reference to the fact that it was being ‘delivered by a robin’. For more on this, read the full post here.
2. The earliest use of the specific phrase ‘Christmas-card’ recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is in an 1883 work by an art critic. John Ruskin (the man who also coined the phrase ‘pathetic fallacy’) is the art critic in question. The phrase appears in a work by Ruskin called Fors Clavigera, a series of letters which Ruskin addressed to British workers during the 1870s advancing Ruskin’s own ideas of moral and social improvement. (The sentence which contains the phrase runs: ‘There is a Christmas card, with a picture of English “nativity” for you.’) For more on this, read the post here.
3. T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘Journey of the Magi’ was originally commissioned to be included in a Christmas card (or pamphlet). Eliot wrote the poem – about the Magi’s journey to visit the infant Christ – at the request of his publisher, Faber and Faber, who wanted a poem to go inside a series of shilling greeting-cards. How did he come to write the poem? Unlike many of his poems, Eliot supposedly wrote ‘Journey of the Magi’ quickly. Very quickly, if his own account is to be believed. ‘I had been thinking about it in church,’ Eliot told his second wife, Valerie, years later, ‘and when I got home I opened a half-bottle of Booth’s Gin, poured myself a drink, and began to write. By lunchtime, the poem, and the half-bottle of gin, were both finished.’ You can read the full post here.
4. Jean-Paul Sartre’s first ever play was a nativity play, performed at Christmas 1940 by his fellow prisoners of war. The play was called Bariona ou le fils du tonerre (or ‘Baronia, or The Son of Thunder’) and was performed at Stalag XII at Trier in Germany, where Sartre was himself a prisoner during WWII. For more on this, read the post here.
5. Peter Jackson’s adaptation is not the first time Tolkien’s The Hobbit has been adapted for the screen. It was made for the small screen back in the 1970s, made by the same company that created the stop-motion ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’. You can watch a Youtube clip from this adaptation here. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the casting is the fact that John Huston, famous for directing The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen, voices Gandalf. You can read the post here.
6. Between 1920 and 1942, Tolkien wrote a series of letters to his children – letters from ‘Father Christmas’. The Father Christmas Letters were published posthumously in book form in 1976, and document in a light-hearted way some of Father Christmas’s adventures – mostly what he has been up to at the North Pole since the previous year, although some letters tell a more sinister tale involving Goblins, which break into Father Christmas’s house and steal some of the presents. For more on this, read the full post here.
7. Father Christmas makes his first appearance in literature in 1616, in a masque by Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson. Christmas, His Masque is a work by Shakespeare’s great contemporary, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), the playwright who is more famous for writing plays like The Alchemist, Volpone, and Bartholomew Fair. Jonson’s Christmas masque was first performed at the court of King James I (James VI of Scotland) during the Christmas season of 1616. Read the full post here.
8. Much of our modern idea of Santa Claus comes from a very famous poem, the 1823 work ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’. More commonly known by its first line, ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’, this poem popularised the image of St Nick as a jolly fat man wearing fur-trimmed red robes (long before the Coca-Cola adverts popularised the red robes). The poem also introduced us to the names of all of Santa’s reindeer (with the exception of Rudolph, who would not come into being until the 1930s). For more on this, read the post here.
9. The red robes we now associate with Santa Claus slightly predated the creation of Coca-Cola. Thomas Nast’s cartoons of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly in the 1880s appear to have been the first occasion on which the world glimpsed a red-clad Santa. As Joseph J. Walsh puts it in his book Were They Wise Men or Kings? The Book of Christmas Questions, ‘The poor man has not had the opportunity to change his clothes since.’ Indeed, Coca-Cola weren’t even the first soft drinks giant to depict a red-robed Santa. It was another soft drinks company, called White Rock Beverages, that had the idea to use a red-clothed St Nick to advertise their mineral water, in a series of ads run from 1915 onwards. You can read the post here.
10. Dickens’s first published piece of writing was a short ‘sketch’ – published when he was in his early twenties – describing the perfect Christmas dinner. The piece offers an insight into what the average nineteenth-century family did at Christmas time. This was in 1835, just before Queen Victoria came to the throne and the idea of the modern Christmas would become firmly entrenched in the national consciousness – and just before Dickens’s own literary career went stratospheric. Read the full post here.
11. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known use of the phrase ‘Christmas pudding’ is in Anthony Trollope’s 1858 Barsetshire novel Doctor Thorne. Trollope wrote six novels set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire, and Doctor Thorne, the third in the series, is slightly less famous than the previous book in the saga, Barchester Towers. Perhaps this pudding-themed nugget is the most famous thing about it. For more on this, read the full post here.
12. The lyrics to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ were written by the same person who wrote the words to the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Her name was Mrs Cecil Alexander, and her version of ‘All Things Bright’ is but one of several (although it is the most famous). However, although she’s known in quite a few circles as the Victorian writer of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, she’s less celebrated for her role in Christmas-carol-writing. Read the full post here.
13. Christina Rossetti, the prolific Victorian poet, wrote the words to the Christmas carol ‘In the Bleak
Midwinter’. It was written some time prior to 1872 when Scribner’s Monthly magazine requested a Christmas-themed poem. But it was only published in 1904, ten years after Rossetti’s death. You can read the post here.
14. Tiny Tim was not the original name for the little boy in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Originally he was going to be called ‘Little Fred’, possibly after one of Dickens’s brothers, two of whom were called Frederick and Alfred. Dickens altered the name just before the book went to press. For more on this, read the post here.
15. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in just six weeks and, despite selling 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve – five days after it was published – the book did little to solve Dickens’s financial problems. This was because the author insisted on a book jacket design that was costly to produce but made cheaply available to the public – so that the book could reach the largest number of people possible. Read the full post here.
16. There is a species of Fijian snail called Ba humbugi, named after Scrooge’s famous exclamation in A Christmas Carol. This may have been because the snail was discovered on the island of Mba, and this suggested ‘ba’, and, in turn, Scrooge’s catchphrase. We say ‘catchphrase’, but Scrooge only utters the words ‘Bah, humbug!’ twice in the whole story (though he exclaims ‘Humbug!’ a number of times). For this and other Dickensian facts, read the full post here.
17. A Christmas Carol wasn’t the first Christmas story Dickens wrote. It wasn’t even the first Christmas ghost story Dickens wrote. He’d already written ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’, featuring miserly Gabriel Grub, an inset tale in his first ever published novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7). The tale shares many of the narrative features which would turn up a few years later in A Christmas Carol: the misanthropic villain, the Christmas Eve setting, the presence of the supernatural (goblins/ghosts), the use of visions which the main character is forced to witness, the focus on poverty and family, and, most importantly, the reforming of the villain into a better person at the close of the story. For more on this, read the post here.
18. Washington Irving, the author of fairy tales such as ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip van Winkle’, helped to inspire the modern American notion of Christmas. Irving drew on traditional English Christmas celebrations that had, at the time, fallen out of fashion on both sides of the Atlantic. Irving spent some time in England and appears to have learnt of various festive traditions during his stay. You can read the full post here.
19. The Grinch didn’t first appear in Dr Seuss’s classic Christmas story. Most sources will tell you that the Grinch first appeared in the 1957 book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – see, for instance, this Wikipedia entry. But it’s a little-known fact that the Grinch actually made his debut in print two years earlier, in a 1955 poem, ‘The Hoobub and the Grinch‘. This 32-line poem appeared in the May 1955 issue of Redbook. Read the full post here.
20. The only Christmas presents that William Faulkner would accept from his family were pipe cleaners. William Faulkner (1897-1962), author of The Sound and the Fury (1929) and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, was quite an easy person to buy gifts for, by all accounts – or by his stepson’s account, at any rate. For more on this, read the post here.
21. In December 1956, Nelle Harper Lee, better known as Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, received a rather useful Christmas present from her friends, Michael Brown and Joy Williams Brown. It was a short note which read: ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.’ Enclosed were a year’s wages, which Lee could only accept on condition that she give up work and write for a year. She accepted. Over the next year, she wrote the novel that became To Kill a Mockingbird. Read the full post here.
22. The phrase ‘Christmas present’ is first recorded in the diary of Samuel Pepys. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it was first recorded in a 1663 entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys. Pepys began his diary in January 1660 and continued it until 1669, when failing eyesight put an end to his daily jottings. For more on this, read the post here.
23. A Poet Laureate wrote the words to ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’. Nahum Tate (1652-1715 – he was born Nahum Teate) held the post of Poet Laureate between 1692 and his death, and penned the words to this enduring carol. You can read the post here.
24. Michael Bond bought ‘Paddington Bear’ in 1956. He felt sad for the teddy bear as it was the only toy left on the shop’s shelves on Christmas Eve. Bond named the bear Paddington as he was living near the famous railway station in London at the time. For more on this, read the post here.
If you enjoyed these festive literary facts, check out our pick of the best Christmas poems and our post delving into the histories of classic Christmas carols.
Images (top to bottom): The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Calcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843; public domain; Bust of Tolkien in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford (author: Julian Nitzsche); Cover of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1912 edition); Wikimedia Commons; Title page of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, John Leech, 1843; public domain; The Muppet Christmas Carol 2 (author: Eustace Dauger), Flickr, labelled for reuse; Ted Geisel, American writer and cartoonist, at work on a drawing of the grinch for ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ (author: Al Ravenna, 1957), Wikimedia Commons.