Events

Friday, December 25, 2015

Traditions of Christmas Past: from boisterous to banned to bourgeois

From the vaults, via last year's Tumblr post:






“‘At Home’ in the Nursery, or The Masters and Misses Twoshoes Christmas Party,” by George Cruikshank (1792-1878)
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Etching with hand coloring.
Image dimensions: c. 214 x 267 mm (approx.  8.4 x 10.5 inches)
Signed in the plate, “G Cruishank fect” (left) and “Pubd. Augt 1st 1835, by Thos McLean, 26, Haymarket.” (right)

This is the second issue. The print first appeared in the 1826 collection, Holiday Scenes, published by Samuel Knight (active 1805-41). Thomas McLean (1788-1875) reissued it 9 years later in Cruikshankiana, an assemblage of the most celebrated works of George Cruikshank. He largely effaced the original Knight signature, but it survives as a ghost imprint above his own, at lower right:

“London Pubd Jany 3d 1826 by S Knight, 3 Sweetings Alley [{Roy[a] X'Change’}]
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Not yet "Victorian” in the strict (or any other) sense, the etching nonetheless lacks the ribaldry or bite of Cruikshank’s other early (especially political) work: it manages to be satirical and sentimental at once. We can already recognize in it our received image of Christmas as domestic idyll, familiar from Dickens to “The Nutcracker” (though the evolution of the latter is a tale in itself).

The fourteen (count 'em!) children–this, at a time when the average British family size peaked at around 6 children (1, 2)–play with a mixture of sedate enjoyment and abandon as a stout serving-woman brings in a tray of treats. The image is rich in period detail, from the toys and the copy of the Eaton [sic] Latin Grammar abandoned on the floor, to the delicate jelly-glasses (whatever possessed the parents of that day to put them in the hands of youngsters?) and the faux-bamboo “fancy chairs” on which the children sit or climb.

The etching also also suggests why the Calvinists and their American descendants held no truck with Christmas. Theologically, it was a problem for them because its celebration was not biblically mandated, and the date of Jesus’ birth was in any case unknown. The holiday was moreover associated with revelry–whether heavy drinking by adults or just boisterous behavior, as shown in our print–that seemed incommensurate with the spirit of a holy festival.

Such was certainly the attitude here in Massachusetts, where Christmas celebrations were banned in 1659, as the legislature put it: “For preventing disorders … by reason of some still observing such ffestivalls as were superstitiously kept in other countrys, to the great dishonnor of God & offence of others.” The state lifted the ban in 1681, but it took more than a century and a half before things really began to change. Under the influence of shifting national tastes, Christmas began to assume its familiar lineaments of wholesome domesticity and consumption. (In Massachusetts, Irish immigration also contributed to the shift.) The 1855 Christmas celebration at the Worcester Free Church under minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a symbolic turning point. The following year, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed, “We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so,” and the legislature officially recognized the holiday.

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