Dickensian Christmas dreamt up by marketers, says historian

The idealised picture of a Dickensian Christmas, where contented families innocently played parlour games by a twinkling Christmas tree is a misleading invention of marketers, according to new research.

Historian Dr Julie-Marie Strange from The University of Manchester says the late Victorians and Edwardians were just as concerned about drunkenness, rapacious consumerism, greed, and living beyond their means at Christmas time as we are today.

The research, gleaned from newspaper reports and charity records in the 1880s and 1900s, will encourage shoppers to cast a more sceptical eye on Dickensian-styled window displays and marketing campaigns .

It is part of the Economic and Social Research Council funded project into fatherhood and poverty led by Dr Strange. “Just as they do today, charities and the church of the late Victorian and Edwardian period felt that Christmas had – at least in part – lost its meaning,” she said. “The newspapers were full of articles on the things consumers could buy, such as Christmas delicacies in bakeries, expensive clothing and Christmas cards. Shoppers with children were enticed into larger stores with the promise of Father Christmas in his elaborate grotto.”

Of the numerous examples found by Dr Strange, The well known social reformer and author Henrietta Barnett wrote a scathing criticism of Christmas excess in the Pall Mall Gazette. Barnett complained about families spending money they didn’t have and of festive drunken debauchery.

She also claimed the poor would break the social taboo of going to the workhouse just for a Christmas meal and sniff of brandy – a scathing criticism.

At the other extreme, some charities agonised that rampant seasonal consumption was immoral, urging shoppers to remember to make donations to the poor who would spend Christmas day shoeless and foodless. One Charity, the League of Welldoers, were so concerned that poor children missed out and poor parents would try to spend money they didn’t have that they sent a travelling Christmas tree into the slums

It was pulled by a horse to distribute Christmas presents to poor children and to advertise free Christmas dinners for ‘the poorest of the poor’.

Dr Strange blames the power of marketing for the giving the false picture. She added: “Charities and shops used the idealised picture of Christmas to play on people’s guilt to make them open their wallets. Films and literature have also played on this inaccurate view of the period. Even famous Victorians who promoted the ideal Christmas loathed its excess, faux sentimentality and sitting down to dinner with the in-laws’

“But if we are to allude to the Dickensian Christmas, then perhaps we ought to remember the central message of A Christmas Carol which is lost in the frenzy of consumption. That is one of compassion.”

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