December 24, 2008
Dreaming of a white Christmas? Put it down to Dickens’s nostalgia for his lost childhood
Paul Simons and Will Pavia
Small flurries of Christmas cards are falling on doormats across the land today, bearing pictures that combine idyllic village scenes with the snow conditions of northern Greenland. The Met Office, which tends to be less romantic in its outlook, provided an entirely different forecast for Christmas Day in Britain yesterday: it will be cloudy, mostly dry and rather mild.
Some will blame climate change for the discrepancy, and imagine snow-bound Christmas Days from distant childhood — yet the truly snowy Christmas of Christmas cards has occurred only seven times since 1900. Before then, sparse records suggest that less than a score of 19th-century Christmases were white.
It now appears that the true culprit was Charles Dickens, whose childhood coincided with a decade of freakishly cold weather. The novelist persistently described a Britain smothered in snow on Christmas Day.
He wrote A Christmas Carol before the Christmas of 1843, while suffering from a cold, walking at night in a feverish state through the streets of London and drawing inspiration from all he saw.
Records suggest the weather was mild at the time, yet Dickens would describe Scrooge in the city on a Christmas morning, watching inhabitants “scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses: whence it was a mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snowstorms”.
Speaking from Lakehead University in Ontario, where real snow lies up to 2ft deep, Philip Allingham, a specialist in Dickens’s Christmas books, told The Times: “The whole of A Christmas Carol is really an invocation of his childhood Christmases with his family before his father fell into debt and was sent to the debtors’ prison.”
Those dearly remembered childhood Christmases coincided with the second decade of the 19th century, the coldest decade in Britain since the 1690s.
Some regard those winters as the last hurrah of a “little Ice Age” that had gripped Northern Europe for several centuries, though the immediate cause of the cold was a series of colossal volcanic eruptions that enveloped the globe in dust and shrouded the sun.
Six of Dickens’s first nine Christmases were white. One of these fell in the winter of 1813-14, when Britain’s last Frost Fair was held on a frozen River Thames and Dickens was nearly 2. The ice around Blackfriars Bridge was thick enough to bear the weight of an elephant.
When, in 1843, Dickens came to raise the Ghost of Christmas Past, he did so with the spirit of those colder Christmases, with “quick wheels dashing the hoar frost and snow from the dark leaves of the evergreens like spray”.
The tale is now credited with establishing the Victorian genre of the Christmas story, and spurring a revival of the celebration of Christmas in early Victorian England.
“A Christmas Carol made Christmas respectable for the English bourgeoisie, who had come to regard it as somewhat antiquated,” Dr Allingham said.
Christmas trees, brought over to Britain by Prince Albert in 1840, were adopted too, after Dickens wrote a popular essay on the subject.
Other tales would later complement Dickens’s idealised snowy Christmas. From the mid-19th century a poem first published in America 20 years earlier gained currency. The Night Before Christmas put Santa Claus on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
It was also around this time that artists consistently drew Santa in red robes. But Dickens had done most of the groundwork, driven by an enduring obsession for the season. In The Pickwick Papers, published six years before A Christmas Carol, he had written: “Happy happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days.”
Humbug: an extract from A Christmas Carol
“They stood in the city streets on Christmas morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music, in scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses . . . The housefronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of carts and wagons; furrows that crossed and recrossed each other hundreds of times where the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist . . .”