Christmas Gifts of Long Ago
What would it be like if today’s techno-spoiled kids were forced to have a good old-fashioned Victorian Christmas?
By Mary Beth Crain
The other night I watched “A Christmas Carol” on TV for the zillionth time. And, as usual, I discovered something new to think about. In the past, I’d always felt sorry for the Cratchits, who were so desperately poor even though they were rich in love. I mean, it’s great to take the Tiny Tim approach to life, but while you’re at it God, couldn’t you make that goose a little fatter, so the kids wouldn’t have to pick the bones? And throw in enough eggs and flour so that Mrs. Cratchit’s famous Christmas pudding would be big enough for seconds?
This time, though, I was struck by how happy the Cratchits really were, and how, precisely because they had so little, everything meant so much. Why, when Bob Cratchit returns from Scrooge’s miserable office on Christmas Eve with hot chestnuts for all, you’d think he’s brought home the Hope Diamond. And what fun the children have, singing carols with Mom and Dad after their glorious, if scant, Christmas dinner. Just think about what it would be like if kids today clamored to sit at mother and father’s knee around the fire, and sing and play games and tell stories, and even join their parents in a Bible verse or two, instead of gluing themselves to their violent computer games at the expense of communication, or watching lame movies until their eyes pop out of their sockets, or just generally responding to their glut of presents with boredom and ingratitude.
Oh for the days of simple toys and pleasures, when children appreciated what they got and appreciated the real spirit of the season to boot.
Back in Victorian times, Christmas was devoted more to ritual and tradition than gaudy decorations and mindless gift giving. People usually hauled the tree out on Christmas Eve Day instead of weeks beforehand (it was considered bad luck to put up greens until the day before Christmas), and trimmed it with ribbons and strings of cranberries and popcorn. Instead of today’s fancy, trendy ornaments, you’d hang baskets of candies, cookies and small wrapped gifts. As for the saucy mistletoe, it’s actually a distinctly unattractive plant whose name, which comes from the Old English words “mistel” (dung) and “tan” (twig), was thought to have been inspired by bird droppings on a branch. The Victorians were well aware of its religious symbolism, a reminder of Christ’s ugly crown of thorns.
And no flocking to Target and Wal-Mart, or engaging in the dangerous sport of door busting. Back in Dickens’ day, people valued handmade gifts above anything store bought. Needlework was prized, and adults and children spent all year painstakingly crafting useful items like mufflers, embroidered handkerchiefs, bookmarks and pen wipers for family and friends. Exchanging presents was far more than an obligation to be gotten out of the way. It was a deeply respected ritual that went back to ancient times, symbolizing good fortune, prosperity and happiness for the coming year.
A child might have received one toy, not dozens. A boy would be enraptured with a wooden train, perhaps, or a fife and drum, or the hoop and stick that promised many hours of outdoor fun, not to mention exercise. A young Victorian lady might be thrilled with the “Game of Graces,” in which you caught colorful beribboned hoops on slender sticks, while a little girl could make the joy of a porcelain doll last at least until next Christmas. Yes, somehow Victorian kids made do without IPods and Blackberrys and the latest DVD’s. They were a tough breed, after all.
And there’d be no rude exits after the gift exchange, to blab with pals on a cell phone for hours or get going on the Wii. Instead, everyone marched out to church. Then there was the Christmas dinner—an affair valued not merely as a gorging exercise, but as a symbol of the feast you gave to each other. As in the Cratchit’s Christmas, the serving of the Christmas pudding was the main event, the culmination of a time-honored tradition that began weeks before, on “Stir-Up Sunday,” at the beginning of Advent, when each family member took a turn beating the pudding with a wooden spoon that symbolized the Christ child’s wooden crib, making a wish and stirring clockwise for good luck. A ring, coin or thimble would be tossed into the batter. Then the pudding hung from a sack until Christmas day, when it was boiled in beef broth for eight hours. It was served with great ceremony; the head of the household would bless all who prepared it and distribute slices of the treasured delicacy. If you bit into a piece with the ring, you could look forward to marriage; the coin signified wealth, but nobody wanted the thimble, which foretold spinsterhood.
After dinner, there was the popping of the Christmas “crackers”—gaily wrapped cardboard tubes that when pulled open made a loud noise and revealed a little toy, or joke, or motto. Hey—is this where “Cracker Jacks” got its name? Then came the “programme.” Every family member down to the tiniest tot had a part in the theatricals. The younger kids would deliver “recitations,” while the older ones performed short plays and historical tableaux. (Even fun had to be instructive.) There might be parlor games, like charades; or shadow buff, where someone sits in front of a sheet with a lighted candle on a table behind it in a darkened room and has to guess the identities of the guests passing between the sheet and the candle; or snapdragon, a potentially lethal endeavor in which raisins piled in a bowl of brandy are set on fire in a darkened room, and the object is to try and snatch the raisins out of the bowl and eat them while they're still alight—without setting fire to your fingers, your tongue or your parlor. Finally, the entire enchanted day would come to an end with a jolly group sing.
Now, I’m no idealist. I know that life in Victorian times was hard and often cruel. I know that the 20th and 21st centuries have brought innumerable boons to mankind. But once, just once, I’d like to see our children engage in a good old-fashioned Victorian Christmas. Of course, they’d probably consider it a horrible punishment, to have to recite, and embroider, and spend the whole friggin day with retarded dad and mom and be content with a dumb doll that can’t eat or drink or talk or evacuate, or a bore-the-livin’-crap-outta-me train, or a stupid piece of cake with a thimble in it.
Are we having fun yet? Shut up and play with your fife and drum!
Comment on this essay here.
Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Giving Thanks in Thankless Times.
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