Please join me in welcoming author Emma Jane Holloway to the blog! Emma is the author of the Baskerville Affair series from Del Rey, a Steampunk series about the mystery and mayhem (and a touch of romance) that surrounds Evelina Cooper, the niece of the great detective Sherlock Holmes. The third book of the series, A STUDY IN ASHES, releases December 31.
WHEN CHRISTMAS WASN’T FOR WIMPS: A Curmudgeonly Retrospective of Holiday Festivities
Images of Victorian Christmas abound: skaters on a frozen lake, rosy-cheeked children, and carollers in frock coats and mufflers. Scrooge and Tiny Tim appear in quaint London streets. Angels waft and bells ring. It’s a marzipan world fit for the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Yeah, right. Let’s be realistic. A good old-fashioned Christmas was downright dangerous, and not just for the goose about to be cooked. We’re not just talking too much food and drink. We’re not even talking about the weather, epidemics, or the other hazards of daily living way back when. I’m talking about Christmas traditions themselves. It’s a miracle anyone survived to welcome Twelfth Night.
Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but let’s rewind a bit. A lot of traditions that we associate with the holiday season—singing, dancing, feasting and decorating with greenery—have their origins in pagan times. The Yule log dates back to Viking days when, after a few stiff horns of mead, burly men would trek into the frozen woods with axes and cut down a tree. Then they would burn it. There was mystical significance, of course, but I think at bottom it was a guy thing involving beer, fire and sharp objects. There are no statistics to say how many alcohol-infused idiots accidentally chopped their own feet or each other in the process, but there had to be a few. Happily, the modern-day Yule log TV channel only requires a remote control, although the male bonding routine just isn’t the same.
Then again, if your mead-swilling sweetie returned from the woods unscathed, you could kiss him under the mistletoe. That all sounds great, except the plant is a poisonous parasite that survives by draining the life out of its host. As romantic symbols go, it kind of sucks. Maybe the vampires invented it.
Anyway, if we fast-forward to the seventeenth century, the Puritans made Christmas illegal in order to get rid of all those pagan trappings. Sadly, it wasn’t for safety reasons—this was the time of the English Civil War, and the new government took itself very seriously. That meant no fun at any time, but especially at Yule. There are countless reports of riots springing up between pro- and anti-Christmas factions as Cromwell got his Grinch on. Offenders were jailed and/or questioned by the army, who sounded about as much fun as Imperial Storm Troopers. No one got candy canes.
Of course, Cromwell can’t be blamed for everything. Puritan New England had a similarly uneasy relationship with the holiday, and it wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that Christmas really caught on in parts of America. It’s hard to imagine what interpretation those fun guys in Salem would have put on something called Black Friday.
And so we make it to the Victorian era. Charles Dickens is often credited with recasting Christmas from an adult event to a child-focussed family holiday. Really, I think he tapped into growing mood and gave it form. After all, the Victorians were very concerned with public welfare, family values, and a revival of serious sentiment. Queen Victoria and her family served as a popular model for wholesome living, very different from the rakish excesses of King George IV and his Regency drinking buddies.
Roughly around that time, the Royal Consort, Prince Albert, imported a number of traditions from his native Germany. The best known is the Christmas tree, which—given the snowy woods and ax connection—is a mere pine needle away from the whole Yule log episode. However, instead of sensibly putting pitch-soaked wood in the fireplace to burn, the Victorians decorated these trees with live candles, adding a thrilling element of suspense to the festivities.
And the fun didn’t stop there. The British have a game called Brandy Snap, which involves plucking raisins out of a burning bowl of punch. Yes, our ancestors knew how to make their own fun before television and the advent of the emergency room. And if that wasn’t enough, Twelfth Night cakes were baked with coins inside, evidently without regard to dental work or choking hazards.
Don’t get me wrong. I do love Christmas, and I do love the fuzzy, gold-tinted version of Victorian Christmas that advertisers serve up like a syrupy confection. Sadly, that vision was no more truthful than our own holidays are perfect. And, by our standards, a Victorian Christmas would be drafty, dangerous, and woefully short on loot. Children generally got one or two presents, not a mountain of consumer goods.
In short, I can’t imagine how a real nineteenth-century celebration would fare in our risk-averse modern society. For instance, how many of us would encourage young children to stick their hands in flaming punch? How many apartments forbid live trees, let alone live trees with real candles? That greeting card version of an old-fashioned Christmas looks good on paper, but we’re too cautious to bring it to life.
Me, I’ll go for the Viking with the ax and barrel of mead. With any luck, he’ll be hot enough to melt all that snow.
Ever since childhood, Emma Jane Holloway refused to accept that history was nothing but facts prisoned behind the closed door of time. Why waste a perfectly good playground coloring within the timelines? Accordingly, her novels are filled with whimsical impossibilities and the occasional eye-blinking impertinence–but always in the service of grand adventure.
Struggling between the practical and the artistic–a family tradition, along with ghosts and a belief in the curative powers of shortbread–Emma Jane has a degree in literature and job in finance. She lives in the Pacific Northwest in a house crammed with books, musical instruments, and half-finished sewing projects. In the meantime, she’s published articles, essays, short stories, and enough novels to build a fort for her stuffed hedgehog. You can learn more about Emma at her website, www.emmajaneholloway.com