Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 25 April 2019

Five people who shaped Christmas as we know it today

Charles Dickens, a sweet-maker and a political cartoonist all had a hand in creating the Christmas celebrations we all know and love today

Charles Dickens wrote 'A Christmas Carol' in six weeks in the autumn of 1843.
Charles Dickens wrote 'A Christmas Carol' in six weeks in the autumn of 1843.

We all have our own Christmas traditions – one present to open on the 24th; leaving milk and carrots out for Santa and his reindeer; midnight mass – but do you ever stop and wonder where it all came from? And whether or not it was always this way? Actually, Christmas as we know it today has been shaped over the years by many individuals, inventions and religious stories. Five people from the 1800s, in particular, had a major impact on crafting Christmas as we know it.

Lithograph  of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, and family, in The Illustrated London News in the winter of 1848. 
Lithograph  of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, and family, in The Illustrated London News in the winter of 1848. 

Prince Albert

What did he do? Popularised the Christmas tree

When? 1841

As with many new trends and traditions in the UK, the use of Christmas trees was popularised by royalty. German Prince Albert, husband of Britain’s Queen Victoria, put up and decorated a large fir tree at Windsor Castle in 1841, and the custom caught on. Let’s get this straight: he did not invent the Christmas tree. He got the idea from Germany, where the tradition had been around since the 18th century, and – legend has it – can be traced back to Martin Luther in 1536. It’s Prince Albert who tends to get all the credit for the Christmas tree in Britain, however, especially since a drawing, ‘The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle’, was published in 1848 in The Illustrated London News. They quickly became all the rage among England’s upper-class, and now they’re a staple every year in households across the world.

First edition of Charles Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' with illustrations by John Leech. 
First edition of Charles Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' with illustrations by John Leech. 

Charles Dickens

What did he do? Wrote A Christmas Carol

When? 1843

Most people are familiar with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his four ghosts (don’t forget his business partner, Marley). If you haven’t read the book, then you most likely will have seen some film adaptation of it (from 2009’s animated version starring Jim Carrey, which is currently on Netflix, to The Muppet Christmas Carol and even the ‘80s “modern retelling” Scrooged, with Bill Murray). But did you know that a 31-year-old Charles Dickens wrote the novella in just six weeks in the autumn of 1843 as his already hard-won fame and fortune began to flag?

In a nutshell, the story follows Scrooge (Bah! Humbug!), who despises Christmas and general merriment, as he comes to look on the brighter side of life after he’s visited by four ghosts one Christmas Eve. They force him to look at Christmases past, present and in a daunting future – what they say awaits him if he doesn’t change his miserly ways. Of course – spoiler alert – it works; he has a change of heart, becomes a pillar of society by feeding the poor and befriending his clerk Bob Cratchit, and all is good with the world.

It’s this heart-warming story that captured Britain’s imagination and shaped the “season of goodwill”, alongside Dickens's other Christmas-themed stories from the time. Ultimately, it became one of the writer's best-known works, and phrases such as "don't be such a scrooge" are still common today.

The first Christmas card was created by Sir Henry Cole.
The first Christmas card was created by Sir Henry Cole.

Sir Henry Cole

What did he do? Sent the first Christmas card

When? 1843

When Britain’s royal family released their official Christmas cards – featuring family portraits – this year, it caused quite a stir. Interestingly, the world’s first known Christmas card wasn’t much different. Thought up by British civil servant and inventor Sir Henry Cole and designed by his friend, artist John Callcott Horsley, it had three panels: the outer two showing people caring for the poor, and then the larger middle panel featuring three generations of Cole’s family raising a toast and feasting. It was sold for a shilling a piece (extortionate at the time). Cole, who was the first director of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and who had a hand in reforming the British postal system, had been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of correspondence he was receiving that winter. As a solution, he devised a plan to send out Christmas greetings en masse. His contributions really set foundations for the commercialisation of Christmas, and the cards became particularly popular among middle- to upper-class Victorians. As the materials and postage became cheaper and more accessible, by the late-1800s festive card-sending was widespread and the designs became more varied, depicting more of the societal festivities than the religious aspects surrounding the season.

Tom Smith

What did he do? Invented crackers

When? 1847

Crackers in Australia are also known as bon bons. That’s because Christmas crackers as we know and love them today were actually inspired by the sweet of the same name. It was in 1840, on a trip to Paris, that confectioner Tom Smith discovered the bon bon; the sugared almond sweet that came wrapped in tissue paper which was twisted at the end. Later, the crackle of a log in his fireplace sparked yet another stroke of brilliance; and he was able to add a “pop” to his invention and commercialise it even further. Those two flashes of inspiration combined to create his version of crackers, which we see around most Christmas dinner tables to this day. His company, Tom Smith Crackers – which also creates Christmas cards, wrapping paper and gift bags – still exists and continues to be the official supplier of crackers to Britain’s royal household.

Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, 'Merry Old Santa Claus', from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly. 
Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, 'Merry Old Santa Claus', from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly. 

Thomas Nast

What did he do? Drew a cartoon of Santa Claus

When? 1881

American political cartoonist Thomas Nast caused a lot of controversy with his drawings during his 25-year tenure with Harper’s Weekly. He took on groups and individuals he didn’t agree with – politicians, the Ku Klux Klan – and wielded his pen to support causes he believed in – civil rights, wildlife conservation – but it was his depiction of Santa Claus that he’s now best-known for. He created Christmas Drawings for the Human Race, a series of illustrations that ran in the publication from 1863 to 1886, later published as a book in 1890, and encapsulated Clement Clarke Moore’s poem A Visit from St Nicholas (better known as Twas the Night Before Christmas). Nast’s work introduced concepts such as Santa’s sleigh and his use of reindeer, a home in the North Pole, a workshop to produce toys, and the infamous list of children who have been 'naughty and nice'. FYI, the idea that Coca-Cola designed the modern-day image of Santa Claus is a modern myth.

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Updated: December 24, 2018 02:28 PM

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