Christmas is the season for potted histories of the festival. Bolted on to the pagan solistice, celebrated for twelve feasting days in the middle ages, half stamped out by the Puritans under Cromwell, which caused pro Christmas riots. Christmas was fading from the scene under the Georges and then revived by the Victorians. Prince Albert brought the Germanic Christmas with him, the emphasis being on a family celebration. Charles Dickens turned it into the season of “hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness” via A Christmas Carol and the country Christmas among snow in The Pickwick Papers. The commercialising civilisation of the Victorians invented crackers and Christmas cards and left us with the mish-mash of goodwill and purchasing, feasting and family we enjoy today.
The 12 days of Christmas have been extended to 30 or so of less concentrated celebrations with pantomimes, Nativity plays, concerts, work dos and Christmas jerseys. I took part in all of these this December and thoroughly enjoyed them.
The awful family Christmas, bleakly comical or merely bleak – the antithesis of Slade’s cheeriness in Merry Christmas Everybody – has become a tradition in its own right (a very recent example of the genre is Tom Wrigglesworth’s A Christmas Not Special).
It turns up in literature a good deal, Christmas being a time when characters get together and do their worst.
As well as exalting the ideal Christmas, Dickens could show an unhappy one at the Gargeries with the bully Mrs Gargery, and her victims, her husband Joe and her orphaned brother Pip.
We were to have a superb dinner, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince-pie had been made yesterday morning … and the pudding was already on the boil.
It is a ceremonious occasion. Guests come through the front door – locked for the rest of the year– and sit in the parlour – in wraps for the rest of the year.
Pip is kept very much in his place as an orphaned dependent, nagged and lectured by the rest. He is also sick with anxiety because he has stolen food for Magwitch the convict:-
Among this good company I should have felt myself, even if I hadn’t robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the tablecloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn’t want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain…..
Joe, his ally, does his best:-
he always aided and comforted me when he could, in some way of his own, and he always did so at dinner-time by giving me gravy, if there were any. There being plenty of gravy to-day, Joe spooned into my plate, at this point, about half a pint.
Pip’s misery is interrupted by soldiers who visit the house when searching for Magwitch, and this chance of a hunt enlivens the company:-
As I watched them while they all stood clustering about the forge, enjoying themselves so much, I thought what terrible good sauce for a dinner my fugitive friend on the marshes was. They had not enjoyed themselves a quarter so much, before the entertainment was brightened with the excitement he furnished.
It is one of the most powerful scenes in the English novel, that Christmas dinner at the Dedaluses. Present:- Mr and Mrs Dedalus, Dante the aunt, young Stephen Dedalus, Uncle Charles and Mr Casey. Mr Dedalus carves, of course (always the man’s job).
the warm heavy smell of turkey and ham and celery rose from the plates and dishes and the great fire was banked high and red in the grate and the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy and when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top.
The green flag is for Irish nationalism. Tension starts rising between the devoted followers of Parnell and the devout Catholic Dante:-
Mrs Dedalus laid down her knife and fork, saying:
—For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year.
(As the host carves, the hostess tries to keep the peace).
He heaped up the food on Stephen’s plate and served uncle Charles and Mr Casey to large pieces of turkey and splashes of sauce. Mrs Dedalus was eating little and Dante sat with her hands in her lap. She was red in the face. Mr Dedalus rooted with the carvers at the end of the dish and said:
—There’s a tasty bit here we call the pope’s nose. If any lady or gentleman…
He held a piece of fowl up on the prong of the carving fork. Nobody spoke.
It ends with Dante angrily leaving the table and the two Parnellites, Mr Casey and Mr Dedalus, weeping over the disgraced Parnell.
An atheist, Elizabeth Taylor had no time for Christmas at all, regarding it as something Christianity forced on the rest of society.
Richard, the young businessman, trapped with his wife and mother-in-law wishes despondently Christmas might be over. On Christmas Day he walks through the dull village “Lighted trees in the little houses, holly wreaths on front doors already looked old stuff. Christmas was petering out.”
He has a glum time while his wife has a childish enjoyment for Christmas including a stocking by her bed. Meanwhile their friends are depressed in London. Patrick waits in for his capricious boyfriend, “it should be possible.. to ignore the dismal Christmas scene outside, groups of people homing fast, back to Mother and Father, until they were all cooped up in their families, leaving the streets deserted. . . the deadly silence of the day.”
The boyfriend turns up, with a present of a tie that his uncle had given him, and he has his own memory of deadly family Christmases .. “It was a true sacrifice to this spirit his mother tried to foster when he, year after year, offered his cracker to his cousin. Taking one end, she would turn her head away and screw up her eyes, ready to give a little cry of alarm at the bang. Playing her part too he guessed. Wearily, but wearing his fixed, Christmas grin, he would read out the motto, put the paper hat on his head.”
1976 Ending Up by Kingsley Amis
It was adapted for television in 1989 and the Christmas scene starts at 31:00. (H/t JD)
The five main characters would in an allegory be called Malevolent; Boring; Affected; Put-upon; and Drunk. They live together in a cold cottage. Their accumulated years are strangling their bowels and hearts and brains. The grand-children and great-grand-children of Affected have turned up for a much begrudged duty visit. They sing carols and then:-
.. they had the presents. Those from the guests to the hosts were chiefly a disguised dole: tins or pots of more or less luxurious food, bottles of hard liquor, wide-spectrum gift tokens. Hosts showered guests with diversely unwearable articles of clothing: to Keith from Adela, a striped necktie useful for garrotting underbred rivals in his trade; to Tracey from George, a liberation-front lesbian’s plastic apron…
Christmas dinner was something of a success; it passed off, at any rate, without bloodshed.
Then there are parlour games which bring out the vicious hostility or bewildered stupidity of Malevolent and the rest. This grinding celebration is seen mostly from the point of view of the young relations who experience it as “boredom – a poor word, for the consuming, majestic sensation that engulfed him, comparable in intensity to a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience”. The young are full of repulsion and fear of the sight of “age, and then the only end of age.”
2001 Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is structured around whether the mother Enid will manage to gather her grown up children to enact the rituals of Christmas. I haven’t got the book to hand, but here’s a summing up:-
The fetish she makes of Christmas has uncomfortably recognisable comedy and pathos. (Her seasonal round-robins – laboriously written out on hundreds of cards, doing their best to spin the family’s numerous disasters into sunny good news and looking forward to a “heavenly” family celebration – are a classic example of the transparent denial so common in these missives.) When she finally wheedles her reluctant brood into attending, the event is hobbled by the accelerating decline of her husband and the cross-currents of resentment and misunderstanding between the family members. Mistletoe and wine this is not.
Any other examples of the bleak Christmas in literature?
Is that you all organised then? Have a nice Christmas!