The Evolution of Christmas with “A Christmas Tree” in Charles Dickens’ Household Words Magazine, 21 December 1850

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Reading an anthology of some of the greatest works of Charles Dickens, such as Oliver Twist (alhough the depiction of Fagin, the Jewish criminal, is definitely cringeworthy) and David Copperfield, has been quite interesting and the only story in that volume read previously was that Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol, which, of course, is now far better known for its film and TV adaptations than the original short story, published on 19 December 1843.

The success of that work, though, led Dickens to pen other holiday tales, including “A Christmas Tree,” which appeared in the 21 December 1850 edition, naturally called “The Christmas Number of the weekly journal, Household Words, which the famed author launched earlier than year. While the holiday was still quite a minor one in America, paling in comparison to the joyous observances of New Year’s Day and Independence Day, it was growing in popularity in England and other European nations.

Tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings is that issue of the publication, bound recently in a marbled paper cover, and with “A Christmas Tree” as the first feature of several. There were no illustrations in the magazine, so we have to rely on the highly descriptive prose of the celebrated writer and his evocative purported memories of childhod inspired by the decorations found on the holiday tree.

The piece opens with the observation of “a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy” set on a round table, as Christmas trees were in those days, and “brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers” while decorations “sparkled and glittered.” Of the “motley collection of odd objects,” one child whispered to another that “there was everything, and more.”

Of these were dolls; actual watches; pieces of miniature furniture; human figures filled with sugar plums; musical instrumets; boxes of many kinds; baskets; guns and swords; witches; real and imitation fruit; and much else besides. Dickens noted that all of this,

clustering on the tree like magic fruit, and flashing back the bright looks directed towards it from every side—some of the diamond-eyes admiring it were hardly on a level with the table, and a few were languishing in timid wonder on the bosoms of pretty mothers, aunts, and nurses—made a lively realisation of the fancies of childhood; and set me thinking how all the trees that grow and all the things that come into existence on the earth, have their wild adornments at that well-remembered time.

It was that powerful memory back to youth that led the writer “to consider, what do we all remember best upon the branches of the Christmas Tree of our own young Christmas days, by which we climbed to real life.”

Paramount, of course, were the trees, including the rolling figure of a tumbler, and what many of us would call a jack-in-the-box, being “a demoniacal Counsellor in a black gown, with an obnoxious head of hair, and a red cloth mouth, wide open, who . . . could not be put away.” A frog with wax on the tail jumped in all directions, a cardboard female figure “who was stood up against the candlestick to dance, and a man made of the same material “who used to be hun against the wall and pulled by a string, were also mentioned.

More imprinted on the highly impressionable mind of a young one was a grotesque mask, which, when worn, “infused into my quickened heart some remote suggestion and dread of the universal change that is to come on every face, and make it still,” that is, death, was too frightening in its implications. Not even a cadre of drummers, a troop of soldiers, or others “could give me a permanent comfort, for a long time.

Dickens recollected the donkey with what seemed a real hide, a black horse with red spots, a wagon pulled by four horses and carrying cheese—all made to impress a litle one with a realism not found mid-century, when toy horses had a “their harness unceremoniously nailed into their chests.” Also impressive were a music-cart, another tumbler, and the Jacob’s Ladder “made of little squares of red wood, that went flapping and clattering over one nother, each developing a differentpicture, and the whole enlivened by small bells” and which was “a mighty marvel and a great delight.”

It was hard to top the doll’s house of which Dickens noted “I don’t admire the Houses of Parliamment half so much as that stone-fronted mansion with real glass windows, and door steps, and a real balcony,” though it was better to ponder it closed than opened so as to shatter any illusion of realism. He was partiularly impressed by the kitchen “with uncommonly soft fire-irons, a plentiful assortment of diminutive utensils—oh, the warming pan!—and a tin cook in profile, who was always going to fry two fish.” He did add that once he “drunk a little teaspoon, inadvertent;y dissolved in too hot tea” though “I was never the worse for it, except by a powder!”

Higher up the tree were books with smooth red and green covers and which covered the alphabet, but let the famed author tell us more in his inimitable fashion:

What fat black letters to begin with! “A was an archer, and shot at a frog.” Of course he was. He was an apple-pie also, and there he is! He wsa a good many things in his time, was A, and so were most of his friends, except X, who had so little versatility, that I never knew him to get beyond Xerxes or Xantippe—like Y, who was always confined to a Yacht or a Yew Tree; and Z condemned for ever to be a Zebra or a Zany.

Another level brought the bean stalk climbed by Jack to the house of the giant, though the young Dickens did wonder “whether there was more than one Jack . . . or only one genuine original admirable Jack, who achieved all the recorded exploits.” Nearby was Little Red Riding Hood, who “comes to me one Christmas Eve, to give me information of the cruelty and treachery of that dissembling Wolf who ate her grandmother, without making any impression on his appetite” and the juvenile added “she was my first love” and, if they had married, “I should have known perfect bliss.”

Also of interest was “the wonderful Noah’s Ark,” though “it was not found seaworthy when put in a washing tub,” as well as an Arabian Nights group, including a pair of Eastern Kings, “a coal-black Giant,” and a damsel kept prisoner until the monarchs could free her. Such flights of fancy engendered in these toys led the child Dickens to see flower pots as hiding treasure, to use trees, slabs of beef-steak, tarts, iron rings, dates and olives and other material as fodder for the imagination to run wild with stories of the ancient Middle East.

From the 1001 Arabian Nights, the imagination moves swiftly to Robinson Crusoe; plays with mimes, harlequins, fairies, and clowns; and a toy theatre with performers, attendees; and musical instruments and musicians. More powerful to the young man are an angel visiting shepherds, travellers following a star, the Christ child in the manger and scenes from Jesus’ life, whether raising a girl from the dead, walking on water, and restoring sight, hearing, strength and health. At Calvary, there is “a thick darkness coming on, the earth beginning to shake, and only one voice heard, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do!'”

Being on a break from school, of course, is part of the reverie and Dickens noted that “if I no more come home at Christmas time, there will be girls and boys (thank Heaven!) while the World lasts; and they do! Yonder they dance and play upon the branches of my Tree, God Bless them, merrily, and my heart dances and plays too!” But, he does return home for the holidays and “we all do, or we all should” and do so “starting our fancy from our Christmas Tree!”

The imagination works through a winter scene and an approach to a substantial house, apparently in the country, and there is the smell of roasted chestnuts and other edibles because “we are telling Winter Stories—Ghost Stories, or more shame for us—round the Christmas fire.” The idea is that “we are a middle-aged nobleman, and we make a generous supper with our host and hostess and their guests—it being Christmas-time, and the old house is full of company.”

In a very old bedroom, sleep is hard to come by and, in the middle of the night, a young woman with wet clothes from two centuries ago and her hair muddy appears, tries rusty keys in locks, stares at a portrait of a cavalier dressed in green and then leaves. After a restless night, Dickens hasbreakfsat and then is taken on a tour by the host who tells the story of a young housekeeper who, being taken advantage of by the cavalier, drowned herself in a pond and her ghost wanders the house frequently at midnight.

Other tales are of a blood stain from a suicide that cannot be effaced or a haunted door that can never be kept open or shut or houses filled with sounds of hammers, footfalls, cries, sighs, rattling chains and a clock striking thirteen times. There is the story of the Macdoodles, who are told by a guest of carriages driving constantly around the house and, when it was made known that such an appearance meant death, the lady of the house died shortly afterward.

Dickens went on to relate other stories of a man who saw the ghost of an old college friend; of a woman who saw her doppelganger and then died; of the appearance of a woman’s cousin, then living in India, but shortly afterward it was learned that he had just died there; of the Orphan Boy, who haunted a house where he had been killed by a guardian who wanted the dwelling and whose appearance led to the deaths of several young boys in a family which later occupied the residence; and of a German castles filled with supernatural phenomena.

He observed that “vast is the crop of such fruit, shining on our Christmas Tree; in blossom, almost at the very top; ripening all down the boughs!” and he followed this with the admonition that “encircled by the social thoughts of Christmas time, still let the benignant figure of my childhood stand unchanged!” Moreover, “every cheerful image and suggestion that the season brings” should be appreciated in the light of “the star of all the Christian world!” He writes of the “lower boughs” which “are dark to me” and of “blank spaces on thy branches, where eyes that have loved, have shone and smiled; from which they are departed.”

It is as he ages that Dickens, then 41 years old, aims to “turn a child’s heart to that figure [Christ] yet, and a child’s trustfulness and confidence.” Finally, the writer concludes with:

Now, the tree is decorated with bright merriment, and song, and dance, and cheerfulness. And they are welcome. Innocent and welcome be they ever held beneath the branches of the Christmas Tree, which cast no gloomy shadow! But, as it sinks into the ground, I hear a whisper going through the leaves. “This, in commemoration of the law of love and kindness, mercy and compassion. This, in remembance of Me!”

“A Christmas Tree” is said to be autobiographical, but, of course, Dickens was a novelist, even if elements of many of his masterworks do draw from his early life. Still, it is awfully interesting to read, even if we can presume that much of the story is fictional and if many of the aspects are foreign to us both in time and place.

The work is certainly a notable descendant of “A Christmas Carol” and we’ll return in future Yuletide seasons to this issue of Household Words and its other holiday-related material, including “Christmas Among the London Poor and Sick” (another core Dickensian concern), “Christmas In India,” “Christmas in the Frozen Regions,” and a series of “Household Christmas Carols.”

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