I recently re-read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and was startled by how much the value system of this cherished holiday story matches the daily lived experiences of the Gladstones. As we all know, after three ghostly visitors, the urge for personal salvation motivates Scrooge to contribute to the financial and emotional well-being of his family, employees and charities; benevolence and the blessing of family togetherness triumphs over capitalism. The narrator thus describes Scrooge’s dinner with his nephew Fred’s family as, ‘Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, wonder-ful happiness!’ Or as Tiny Tim famously observes, ‘God bless Us, Every One!’
Dickens did not single-handedly reshape Christmas along these cheerful familial lines, but A Christmas Carol was certainly highly influential in this regard. (Hitherto, Christmas had been a relatively unimportant holiday, celebrated primarily as a community festival.) Five years after A Christmas Carol was published, Queen Victoria was depicted in the popular Illustrated London News observing Christmas with her young family around a Christmas tree – a fairly recent addition to elite British homes. This formulation of Christmas as a time for loved ones to gather has taken such hold that today numerous holiday singers croon about a ‘Blue Christmas without You’ or promise that ‘I’ll be Home for Christmas’.
Treating the disadvantaged child as an extended family member, as Scrooge did with Tiny Tim, might even be said to be symbolic of a living liberalism. (I should probably note that my subject, nineteenth-century liberalism, is very different from modern theories of neo-liberalism and from Foucault’s late twentieth-century theory of liberalism.) In 1866, Mrs. Catherine Gladstone not only established an orphanage for boys who had lost parents in the London cholera epidemic, but placed the children's home directly across the driveway to the main entrance of the Gladstone home in Wales. Talk about walking the walk! In many ways, these orphaned children became extensions of the family, known to and cared about by all the Gladstones. Traditional liberalism and A Christmas Carol shared the conviction that if every individual did his or her own part to improve the lives of others, especially those who were less fortunate, then the nation as a whole would prosper.
Because the Gladstones were a devout family and attended church twice on Christmas day, Jesus’s birth was undoubtedly central to the holiday celebrations. Mary Gladstone, however, most clearly communicates that Christmas was a special time for family. Just fifteen years after the publication of Dickens’s inspiring story, eleven-year-old Mary wrote to her absent Mama, ‘The only thing we wanted this morning were you and Papa and Agnes’:
Mary penned this poignant Christmas letter during one of the few Christmases that the family was apart. Her parents and eldest sister Agnes left London on 8 November 1858 for Corfu, returning on 8 March 1859. Agnes, too, ‘felt very odd + rather sad spending this great Day [Christmas] away from England, brothers, sisters + friends.’
The Gladstones’ Christmases were especially family-oriented because several birthdays occurred during the twelve days of Christmas. Mary would usually help to decorate for Christmas on 23rd (or possibly 24th) December and then the family would attend Christmas services at St Deiniol’s Church on the 25th. Then, as noted in a letter below, Mary’s cousin Honora (Nora) had a late December birthday:
In retrospect, this Christmas would be especially poignant, for it was Nora’s last; she passed away in July.
After 1873 when Mary’s oldest sister Agnes married, her wedding anniversary was remembered on 27 December, followed by Gladstone’s birthday on 29 December. In Mary’s childhood, Papa’s birthday was more family-oriented, but in later life, it was a national celebration, bringing telegrams and up to 300 birthday letters. In 1889, Mary observed in her diary that seven people were required to work through these epistles and the accompanying gifts: ‘Flowers, blankets, braces, gingerbreads, pocket books, sausages, crumpets, pictures books, lamps, vases rugs, cushions etc etc’.
The bells from St Deiniol’s would ring in the New Year, followed in early January by a servants’ ball. On another day, children would visit Hawarden Castle to see a Christmas tree and receive a small present. Sometimes the family squeezed in a local benefit concert (in which Mary and her eldest brother performed). The Christmas season concluded with the double observation of Catherine Gladstone’s birthday and Epiphany on 6 January. Then the Gladstones’ youngest son, Herbert, celebrated his birthday on 7 January.
These wonderful letters reveal a sense of childhood fun – Victorian style. In the correspondence above, Mary welcomes her eldest brother home from Eton, pays charitable visits, paints on rainy days, enthuses over house and church decorations, roasts crabapples on a bonfire, acts in charades, plays with pets, and purchases Arabella, or the Adventures of a Doll, beautifully illustrated by one of Dickens's collaborators, George Cruikshank. The letter below shows the Christmas season extending into the first days of the New Year: there is a Christmas gift lottery, the children dig a miniature coal pit and they revel in a school holiday. The season ends with dismantling the decorative holly on the twelfth day of Christmas and fueling a bonfire with it in celebration of Catherine’s birthday.
With this calendar in mind, the Gladstone Christmas was essentially a season of birthdays (holy and family) and a time of 'wonder-ful' family cheer. Of course, by the mid-nineteenth century, households across the country were similarly focused on family, charity and church at Yuletide, but the Gladstones were the only family with a house in their yard devoted to children in need. There must have been many a Tiny Tim there who benefitted from this goodness and 'did NOT die,' as The Christmas Carol puts it in reference to Scrooge, a 'second father' to Tiny Tim. Might we even call him a sort of Father Christmas? Or possibly a proto social liberalist? After all, to liberal thinkers of the day, improving individual life was the bedrock of a flourishing nation.
[Letter transcriptions follows citation information]
Weliver, Phyllis. “The Twelve Days of a Gladstone Christmas.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. December 18, 2014. Web log post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2014/12/12/victorian-christmas-and-family-birthdays ).
Weliver, P. (2014, Dec 18). The Twelve Days of a Gladstone Christmas. Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2014/12/12/victorian-christmas-and-family-birthdays