‘Popular Literature at Christmas: Reading and Ritual’ by Kate Forrester

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Figure 1. Illustration of ‘The Royal Christmas Tree.’ Illustrated London News (1848)

When Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol first appeared on Victorian bookshelves in 1843 it was a milestone in both Dickens’s career and the future of Christmas print. Written in a fever of emotion and energy, laughter and tears, Dickens’s Carol was the product of fits of writing punctuated by long walks in the middle of the night through the empty streets of London. He finished the narrative of Scrooge’s festive redemption in just six short weeks, but our fascination with this novella has endured. This “ghostly little tale” achieved huge popularity during the nineteenth century and has continued to be read and re-read ever since.

Christmas was a radical turning point for the British publishing industry during the nineteenth century. Dickens’s Carol sold 6,000 copies within days of its release, and only five months later its seventh edition had sold out. While Dickens’s second Christmas book, The Chimes (1844) never achieved the same popularity as the Carol, Dickens still made a net profit of £1,065 from the first edition of 20,000 copies released on 16 December 1844 (Schlicke, 94-8). Understandably, the seasonal surge in book sales, evident from the early 1840s, attracted the notice of publishers and in turn influenced the commercial connection between Christmas and print. Prior to the 1840s, books had been published during spring, but with the realisation of Christmas as a lucrative market, the publishing season was relocated to late autumn in anticipation of festive book buying.

In his study of Victorian publishing trends, Simon Eliot notes that by the late 1840s the number of titles published in the October-December period had reached the same heights as the spring season (33). After this shift had been established in the 1840s, it had huge significance for the rest of the century as ‘the size and importance of the Christmas season (October-December) grew dramatically in the period from 1850 to 1890’ (Schlicke, 33). Evidently the Victorian Christmas was more than, as Dickens writes in the Carol, ‘a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time’, it was also a commercial event, finely tuned to the vulnerabilities of a generous Christmas spirit. It is likely that another factor influencing the popularity of festive print at this time was the increase in income and literacy in urban areas, leading to greater demand for books and newspapers. This shift in the seasonal focal point of the publishing market, combined with the popularity of Christmas reading material, attests to the growing Victorian fascination with the festive season in print.

The canon of Christmas literature was not, however, limited to texts dealing explicitly with Christmas Day, or even the Christmas season. During the first half of the century Christmas was already being recognised as a widely significant event for publishers and booksellers. In the 1820s and 1830s, gift-books and scrap-books flooded the literary marketplace, and blatantly encouraged Christmas consumerism by promoting literature as the ideal gift. Among the festively titled Christmas works were gift-books, such as Blossoms of Christmas (1825) and Christmas Box (1828-9). Similarly styled juvenile scrap-books, which combined stories, poems and educational articles in one volume, were also published for Christmas. Two of the best-known Christmas scrap-books published during the 1830s were Frederic Shoberl’s Forget Me Not; A Christmas, New Year’s and Birthday Present (1833) and L.E. Landon’s Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book (1832-8).

The popularity of the gift book for Christmas fluctuated throughout the following decades, and its evolution is a phenomenon that clearly demonstrates how the Christmas book market was constantly being modified and refined in order to maintain its popular appeal and strong consumer base. In 1849 the Illustrated London News revealed that the ‘old-fashioned’ Christmas gift book was in decline as the public were weary of ‘Books of Beauty’ (426). By the 1850s however, newly packaged collections of literature, with decorative bindings and elaborate wood engravings were being released for the Christmas season, providing a means through which publishers were able to expand into the popular market (Kooistra, 49). The aesthetic charm of the decoratively bound festive book was clearly a marketing device, suggesting to would-be gift buyers that these texts had a dual function: to be read and to be looked at. Over the following decade the refashioned gift book rallied, revealing the hugely influential marketing power of the British Christmas book market. In November 1860, the illustrated gift books received great praise, but only three years later in 1863 the National Magazine referred to these books as volumes that contained nothing of merit between their covers: ‘weighty productions no less so by their contents than their covering of barbaric gems and gold: brilliant enough. Alas! that it should be on the outside only’ (144). When they finally lost their charm, these decorative gift books also lost their commercial viability and far fewer were published during the 1860s (Moore, 10).

As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth century, Christmas remained a hugely profitable market for booksellers. But as the Professor of Christmas Literature expresses in this sketch for The Speaker, there was an inherent mystery in the continuing appeal of the Christmas book:

“I never can understand this business of Christmas Books,” said the Professor of Christmas Literature. “There is a mystery in it.”
“You!” cried the Christmas Bookseller. “Not know your own subject!”
“That is the end of all knowledge, good-man-Bookseller,” replied the Professor of Christmas Literature. “All that can be known and understood of any subject deepens the mystery.” (645)

Indeed the Bookseller admits to the Professor, ‘the mystery to me is how they sell at all,’ before pointing to a shelf where ‘you see; the same dogged stuff, the same dogged writers; big, closely printed books with plenty of pictures. […] Everyone of these tells more or less the same story; they are written, published, illustrated and sold; it has become an established custom to do so’. He admits that the only reason he still stocks these Christmas books is because ‘I have to sell what my customers buy’ (645). Believing that it is now the ritual of buying Christmas books that appeals to his customers, rather than the content of the books themselves, the Bookseller expresses doubt that Christmas literature is even read at all. Outraged at his friend’s skepticism, the Professor argues that the Christmas book is still relevant in the 1890s: ‘I can […] assure you that these books are read. Ask at any free lending library, and you will see’ (645).

The influence of the nineteenth-century Christmas on modern celebrations is unquestionable. Christmas remains an important time for the publishing market, with writers such as Michael Morpurgo, Carol Ann Duffy, Julia Williams, Trisha Ashley, Cathy Kelly, Jenny Colgan, Scarlett Bailey and Katie Flynn contributing to the twenty-first century Christmas bookshelf. Moreover, the cultural preoccupation with the fictive imagery of a ‘nineteenth century’ or ‘Victorian Christmas’ is still used as the context for much contemporary Christmas media, strangely echoing many nineteenth-century writers’ own preoccupations with Christmas past. Bestselling author Anne Perry’s series of Christmas novellas frequently use Victorian Britain as a backdrop. Fiction aside, the nineteenth-century interest in Christmas remains pertinent for a modern society in the midst of its own digital revolution. Although there have been a great many social and cultural changes and advances since Christmas in the nineteenth century, the festival still remains a cherished annual moment for many.

While the influence of the Victorian Christmas is still recognised by many celebrants today, A Christmas Carol, which represents only a fraction of the vast amount of nineteenth-century festive print, is the only Christmas text from the period that is presented to the majority of twenty-first century audiences. In 1848, one writer for the Illustrated London News suggested: ‘Any one who would wish to examine the manners and customs of its people could have no better opportunity for the purpose than Christmas’ (407). By considering the pivotal role of Christmas print on popular reading habits, we can begin to uncover some of the issues dominating the social and cultural consciousness of nineteenth-century readers and writers. It also offers us an opportunity to think, perhaps over a mince pie or two, why Christmas writing from this period continues to shape our merry making and popular literature today.

Works Cited:

“Christmas Books,” Supplement of the Illustrated London News 15, no. 405 (Christmas 1849).

“The Monthly Mirror of Fact and Rumour,” National Magazine 13, no. 75 (Jan 1863).

“The Mystery of Christmas Books,” The Speaker 18 (November 26, 1898).

“The Streets at Christmas Time,” Christmas Supplement of the Illustrated London News 13, no. 350 (1848).

Eliot, Simon. “Some Trends in British book production, 1800-1919.” Literature in the Marketplace, ed. John O. Jordon and Robert L. Patten. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. “Poetry in the Victorian Marketplace: The Illustrated Princess as a Christmas Gift Book.” Victorian Poetry 45, no. 1 (2007).

Moore, Tara. Victorian Christmas in Print. Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.

Schlicke, Paul. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Figure 2. The first Christmas card, designed by J.C. Horsley for Sir Henry Cole (1843)

Bio: Kate Forrester completed her PhD, which examined temporality in nineteenth-century Christmas writing, at Trinity College Dublin. She currently lives in New York City and works in open education.

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