The Advent Calendar of Literature: Day 10

Over the last few days, we’ve been pondering, in a series of posts, the literary history of Father Christmas and Santa Claus. Yesterday, we looked at how Santa’s working relationship with the soft drinks industry is more complicated than we might think. Today, we’re moving from the world of drink to the world of food – and, in particular, to the important issue of Christmas dinner.

The relationship between Charles Dickens and Christmas is something we’ll come on to in a series of posts over Bozthe next couple of weeks, but today we’d like to recommend this 1835 ‘sketch’ – published when Dickens 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. Dickens’s account of Christmas Day ends:

‘As to the dinner, it’s perfectly delightful – nothing goes wrong, and everybody is in the very best of spirits, and disposed to please and be pleased. Grandpapa relates a circumstantial account of the purchase of the turkey, with a slight digression relative to the purchase of previous turkeys, on former Christmas-days, which grandmamma corroborates in the minutest particular. Uncle George tells stories, and carves poultry, and takes wine, and jokes with the children at the side-table, and winks at the cousins that are making love, or being made love to, and exhilarates everybody with his good humour and hospitality; and when, at last, a stout servant staggers in with a gigantic pudding, with a sprig of holly in the top, there is such a laughing, and shouting, and clapping of little chubby hands, and kicking up of fat dumpy legs, as can only be equalled by the applause with which the astonishing feat of pouring lighted brandy into mince-pies, is received by the younger visitors. Then the dessert! – and the wine! – and the fun! Such beautiful speeches, and SUCH songs, from aunt Margaret’s husband, who turns out to be such a nice man, and SO attentive to grandmamma! Even grandpapa not only sings his annual song with unprecedented vigour, but on being honoured with an unanimous ENCORE, according to annual custom, actually comes out with a new one which nobody but grandmamma ever heard before; and a young scapegrace of a cousin, who has been in some disgrace with the old people, for certain heinous sins of omission and commission – neglecting to call, and persisting in drinking Burton Ale – astonishes everybody into convulsions of laughter by volunteering the most extraordinary comic songs that ever were heard. And thus the evening passes, in a strain of rational good-will and cheerfulness, doing more to awaken the sympathies of every member of the party in behalf of his neighbour, and to perpetuate their good feeling during the ensuing year, than half the homilies that have ever been written, by half the Divines that have ever lived.’

This short piece also reveals that many of the familiar hallmarks of the Christmas season – the turkey dinner, the Christmas pudding, the extended family getting together – were already established before the advent of Christmas cards, Prince Albert’s popularising of German yuletide traditions, and, of course, Dickens’s own A Christmas Carol.

Image: George Cruickshank’s illustration for the frontispiece of Sketches by Boz, 1836; public domain.

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