Christmas, so the cover of this book announces, "has been largely neglected by English historians", but Neil Armstrong's long bibliography rather refutes that claim, listing a considerable number of previous studies. Many have concentrated on 19th-century England, for it has become almost axiomatic that it was then that our modern Christmas originated and developed.
J.A.R. Pimlott's pioneering 1978 study, The Englishman's Christmas: A Social History, saw the Victorian period as the time in which the spirit and the rituals of the Christmas that we think of as traditional were created. He identified among its characteristics the emphasis on the family, the indulgence of children and the increased commercialisation that subsequent authors have largely accepted. Debates continue, however, as to the way in which the new Christmas emerged, the reasons for its development, its salient features, and the degree of continuity between the Victorian Christmas and the "old Christmas" that preceded it.
Did the Victorians invent Christmas? Armstrong is critical of the "invention of tradition" thesis used by several writers on the subject, including this reviewer, but if "invention" implies too great a degree of self-conscious intention, then Christmas was certainly reinterpreted and extensively refurbished during Queen Victoria's reign.
How much did the Christmas that developed in the age of steam owe to the Christmas of the turnpike age? At the heart of Christmas is nostalgia, for the festival is "never what it used to be", and several of those seen as architects of the Victorian Christmas, Charles Dickens among them, were nostalgic for the older Christmas they saw as a festival in decline that needed rescuing.
Images of that Christmas live on, for although the Victorians invented the Christmas card, stagecoaches making their way down snow-covered lanes and the lights of manor houses welcoming guests to a squire's paternalistic hospitality still appear on the cards of the 21st century. How vital or how moribund that older Christmas was is still debated. Was it even celebrated to any great extent? Armstrong discusses this issue and, like others, finds that the evidence does not justify a definite answer.
In his introductory chapter, he writes, "What needs to be done is for the history of the festive season to be reconciled with a number of historical trends in order to contextualise a series of distinct but related developments." He finds many such trends and developments: the idealisation of the family and the home; separate spheres by which male and female roles became firmly demarcated; consumerism and commercialisation; philanthropy given impetus by the social condition of the poor; the ability of the revolution in printing and journalism to bring images of what Christmas should be into many homes; and that catch-all, "modernisation".
Well-trodden ground this may be, but this is a well-researched book, for Armstrong has read widely among primary and secondary sources. By placing the development of Christmas in the context of the 19th century as a whole rather than just the Victorian period, he has made a valuable contribution to the study of the festival.
It is a pity, given the good use that is made of the four illustrations of Christmas cards in the chapter on "The print iconography of Christmas", that the book does not contain more illustrations, for Christmas is a subject that cries out for analysis of visual evidence.
Armstrong pays rather more attention than most writers to German, or what contemporaries saw as Saxon, influences, and discusses that neglected source, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's essay, Christmas Within Doors in the North of Germany. US influences on the development of the 19th-century Christmas are, conversely, given less prominence than those of us who see the modern Christmas as essentially Anglo-American would afford them.
Although this work adds no new or overarching thesis to the ongoing debates about the development of Christmas, it represents a sound and useful contribution to the study of its subject.
Christmas in Nineteenth-century England
By Neil Armstrong
Manchester University Press 208pp, £60.00
Published September 2010