A tale of two Christmases (1) A Victorian Christmas

What words and associations come to mind with this picture I wonder?

ChristmasIt’s the cat I like most. A picture of utter relaxation and comfort; laid out infront of the cosy fire, truly at home. The surrounding presents, well decorated tree, and expectant santa socks all speak of secure family domesticity.

All is well in this picture.

The image captures for me our culture’s ideal of Christmas. Centered on the home, Christmas is a time for rest, relaxation, but most of all it’s a domestic festival centered on the family. It’s a time to retreat to the home castle, shut out the world, and enjoy the company of our nearest and dearest.

Of course this works perfectly well for many. But it isn’t such an attractive proposition if you don’t happen to have a family, or are far from home, or if the idea of spending several days in uninterrupted company with your closest relatives fills you with dread!

Here’s another image – this time of the first Christmas card, send in 1843.

1st Christmas cardHere is the Victorian ideal that continues to shape contemporary notions  of Christmas. A large prosperous family enjoying seasonal fare in their own contented company. The side panels speak of an awareness that such blessing should not be taken for granted. Christmas happiness should be shared with those less fortunate – so the acts of charity to those who do not belong in the centre panel.

And a third image of a great movie – the Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine.

Muppet Christmas Carol Dickens’  morality tale encapsulates Victorian idealism around Christmas. Scrooge’s heart is turned from stone to flesh so that he, the ruthless businessman, would see that Christmas is all about charity, compassion and care for others in need. There is more to life than capital. And it is in turning to look outward rather than selfishly inward that Scrooge is saved from himself.

I love this story – but as Clint Eastwood never said, ‘a story has gotta know its limitations’. The Victorian ideal has much truth and value in it. Christmas can be a fine time to enjoy family, domesticity and to retreat for while from the incessant clamour of work.

It is a good thing at the same time to think of others in need and give generously. And the enduring influence the Victorian Christmas is seen in how Christmas is a time to give to charities or do charitable things – like make up a shoebox of goodies for children in the developing world.

But this Victorian tale of a domestic Christmas is, on its own, a severely limited one. It is comfortable with the status quo for one thing. Yes Scrooge is moved to pay a fair wage, but the question of whether there are unjust social and political structures trapping Bob Cratchit in a vicious cycle of poverty isn’t addressed.

OK, those needing charity are helped – but in a one-off paternalistic sort of way that does not filter through to consistent long-term action to help people help themselves. The poor and unfortunate remain on the side panels of the Christmas card – they aren’t about to get invited in to join the private family feast going on in the middle.

We need another Christmas tale, beyond an idealised, stifling and claustrophobic domesticity.

The radical Dr Luke provides one (next post).[1]

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] With thanks for the idea of two Christmas tales to Steve Holmes, The Politics of Christmas. London: Theos, 2011


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