Christmas 1848: revolution & the invention of tradition
The Royal Family Christmas Day 1848 with trademark Christmas tree
According to the conservative historian Andrew Roberts, 2016 can be compared with 1848 as a year of upheaval on a world scale. Well, perhaps. What is true is that 1848 can offer us some interesting pointers to the construction and nature of the modern Christmas
1848 was a year of revolutions throughout Europe. Britain did not of course have a revolution but between April and August 1848 the Government certainly believed it was possible. In April 1848 when the Chartists gathered on Kennington Common, Queen Victoria retreated to the Isle of Wight. Not until an attempt at armed insurrection at Seven Dials in central London in August 1848 was averted by the authorities did the threat of political upheaval recede
It is of particular interest in this context to see how Christmas was marked at the end of 1848.
The festival was only starting to come to its modern prominence at this time- New Year had been the occasion to celebrate. Christmas traditions which we are now familiar with were in the process of being invented.
For example the Christmas cracker containing sweets made its first appearance in 1848. The Christmas tree had already been introduced to the country but its role in the Royal Family’s festivities at Windsor Castle cemented its place in seasonal culture. Prince Albert was widely credited with popularising it.
The Royal Family’s Christmas arrangements were made known to a bourgeois audience by a special seasonal supplement- the first of its kind- to the Illustrated London News.
On the side of the Chartists and of the wider working class matters looked rather different.
Charles Dickens published the last of a series of special Christmas books in 1848 but it was an earlier volume, The Christmas Carol, that had captured the battle for the popular Victorian Christmas. The employer Scrooge was reluctant to allow his employee Christmas Day itself off, let alone any other time.
For the Chartists Christmas represented the conclusion to what ultimately had been a year of defeat. Key leaders such as Ernest Jones were in jail and trials of Chartists arrested during the year continued during December 1848. That required fund raising to support families and political solidarity. There wasn’t much time left for celebrating Christmas.
Indeed the Chartist Northern Star’s edition after Christmas indicated that if anything the habit of celebrating the New Year more than Christmas was still a popular tradition
The edition for 23rd December 1848 did however in a column titled ‘Christmas Garland’ address the question of the 25th December specifically.
It noted ‘Merry Christmas it may be to those who hold revelry in mansion and castle but not so merry to those who cowering over a fireless hearth feel their usual pinchings aggravated by the knowledge that the sons and daughters are indulging in more than ordinary luxury, profusion and waste’.
The article went on to focus on the realities of Christmas 1848 for many Chartist families:
And to some- not a few of our readers- this Christmas will be a time of terrible and more than usual suffering, and to all our readers a time of sorrow.
The author had in mind the Chartist prisoners, ‘victims of Whiggery’ who were in the ‘dungeons of the metropolis and York and Lancashire’. It would be a ‘mockery’ the piece says to wish these people a Happy Christmas and New Year.
A broad assumption might well be that the Royal Family and well to do bourgeois were determined to make a big spectacle of Christmas 1848 to underline their success in seeing off Revolution and remind the wider population of who had the power and money in society.
Christmas as it was being invented in 1848 was styled as a celebration of the status quo of wealth and authority, but promoted, too, as something all could participate in.