The Forgotten Christmas Authors
The yuletide season must already be upon us because the Christmas decorations have been up in Oxford Street for ages. It’s a season full of lost pleasures. John Grossman is the owner of one of the world’s largest collections of Victorian and Edwardian artifacts and ephemera, and wrote ‘Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas’ with the intention of reminding us about what we’ve forgotten.
Some of the old yuletide imagery conjured in songs and stories and on cards is best left behind, especially with its uncomfortable ethnic connotations. Devils armed with whips and demons dragging off naughty children formed the basis of common yuletide stories in Northern Europe, while the Krampus, a horned creature In Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, was a monstrous green-tinted figure who punished misbehaving children. Coal-eyed imps scampered about terrorizing children in much Pre-Saint Nicholas literature. The Jólakötturinn was an Icelandic cannibalistic Christmas cat, and while Germany had the most frightening collection of anti-Santas, France had Père Fouettard, or ‘Father Whipper’, the child-chopping mad butcher.
The modern Santa’s red and white outfit probably mimicked the vestments of the original Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in the 4th Century, but the American image we adopted was cemented into place by a Coca-Cola illustrator who added the fat suit, white trims and big fluffy beard, basing the look on Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (which begins ‘’Twas the Night Before Christmas’).
A number of Dickens’ Christmas stories have now vanished, including ‘A Christmas Tree’ and the eerie ‘Haunted’, a magical tale about a seasonal gift passed on with tragic consequences. Many fine Christmas ghost tales designed to be annually told around a fire have been lost. In these, trains are marooned in snowdrifts, cottages and castles become places of imprisonment for gathered guests, while ghosts visit with dire warnings and children rarely feature at all.
In these tales Christmas is a time for introspection and the examination of one’s life, a time for regrets and recriminations, and never moreso than in ‘A Christmas Carol’. In the Victorian era children were made to be quite clear about the consequences of leading an immoral life and were treated like small adults, whereas now even adults behave like children.
The young had Christmas shows to look forward to, but much has been trimmed from these for modern tastes. More popular than ‘Peter Pan’ was the extraordinarily creepy ‘Where The Rainbow Ends’, which began at the Savoy in 1911 and continued for decades – you’ll find the full story about that in ‘The Book Of Forgotten Authors‘.
While modern Christmas pantomimes have gaudy costumes, pop hits and double-entendres, Christmas at London’s two surviving music halls, Wilton’s and the Hackney Empire, can see veterans like Roy Hudd unearthing forgotten music hall routines with elaborate wordplay, taken from unauthored Victorian scripts. Filled with topical jokes, such entertainments were written at great speed and were never meant to be preserved for posterity. There were always writers who did not seek fame with novels, but who were happy to provide ephemeral amusement. The early panto routines involved a lot of verbal and physical dexterity, as well as a high tolerance for screaming anklebiters.
Almost every writer employed by a newspaper or magazine has at one time or another been required to ‘do something for the Christmas issue’, whether short fiction or a heartwarming seasonal feature. Such work is usually evanescent and quickly buried, but trying typing in ’20 Famous Christmas Stories’ and you’ll be confronted with a selection of tales from authors as diverse as Tolstoy and Wilde, as well as memorable stories from less remembered authors. There’s also a book out at the moment collecting PD James’s best commissioned Christmas stories, now with a foreword by the always excellent Val McDermid. Martin Edwards has also edited a volume of Golden Age Christmas crimes for the British Library.
A couple of years back I produced what was effectively a Christmas book with ‘Bryant & May: London’s Glory’, and as it went down rather well with readers I’ll be doing a follow-up to be called ‘Bryant & May: England’s Finest’ – both are phrases taken from old Bryant & May matchboxes.