’TIS THE SEASON
How Charles Dickens Started the Christmas Feeding Frenzy
He just whetted the appetite. Then came insatiable shopping and the seasonal orgy we know today.
When did Christmas become a consumer binge machine?
I ask this not as a scold but as a victim.
Christmas has become the most industrialized bacchanalia of the year, in which the gluttony is amped up now by the ease with which once exotic goodies are commonplace on the gourmet websites.
In my case the appetite arousal begins immediately after Thanksgiving, and sweeps me up into an orgy of stuff that I try to avoid for the rest of the year—puddings and pies, pastries and candies, all wrapped in the festive colors.
This feeding frenzy began in my English childhood where the tastes were hard-wired into me along with millions of fellow addicts.
Much of the blame for initiating this is often given to Charles Dickens, mostly on the basis of one voluptuous paragraph from his magical moral fable A Christmas Carol:
“The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts… There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions…There were pears and apples…there were bunches of grapes…piles of filberts…there were Norfolk pippins…The Grocers’! Oh the Grocers’!...the blended scents of tea and coffee…the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon…the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar…the figs were moist and pulpy…the French plums blushed with modest tartness…everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress…”
However, blaming Dickens is misleading and unfair to him.
Dickens had not set out to write a blurb for gluttony. His idea was driven by a Christian impulse to awaken his readers to the vast social inequities of his time. Walking at night through some of London’s poorest neighborhoods he said he had composed the story in his head “weeping and laughing and weeping again” at sights of grinding poverty and stubborn spirits. The spirits he embodied in the family of the clerk Bob Cratchit and the uncaring greed in Cratchit’s employer, Ebenezer Scrooge.
At first, the book seemed a flop. By Christmas 1843, its first year of publication, it hadn’t made back the publishing expenses and Dickens had a bank overdraft.
Slowly, though, the miniature masterpiece became one of the most popular Christmas stories of all time and his biggest hit in America, selling 2 million copies by the middle of the next century.
Dickens’s narrative genius was underpinned by an instinctive empathy for his subjects. A Christmas Carol was the most sentimental of his works. The dark actor, Scrooge, repents as few greedy men in the real world ever do. A few years on, as Dickens found success and wealth, he embraced the story’s final celebratory flourish and began his own family’s Christmas feasts with the toast right out of the mouth of Tiny Tim, Cratchit’s lame son: “God bless us every one!”
A Christmas Carol outlived the urban squalor that gave rise to its creation and, instead, became more remembered for its role in the received idea of the Dickensian Christmas as an orgy of degustation. In fact, Dickensian London was beginning to disappear almost as soon as Dickens invented it.
Forces far bigger than popular literature were at work. Mass consumerism was being born.
London was becoming the richest city the world had ever seen, thriving at the center of the world’s biggest empire. Bob Cratchit was not trapped in a dead-end job, he was the harbinger of a new middle class—the white-collar clerical class that was needed to run the vast new commercial enterprises, staff the banks and the law offices.
Simultaneously women were needed to staff booming retail businesses. This new white-collar wave introduced to the economy a huge rise in purchasing power. And with this came a new mobility. The London subway opened in 1863, supplementing a rapidly growing suburban rail network. The white-collar class were able to leave the dark streets of Dickensian description to new suburban dormitories.
They needed to shop more efficiently, and a new kind of shop found them: the department store.
Department stores looking for seasonal ways to spike sales realized that Christmas could be appropriated as the engine for a new level of obsessive shopping that would seduce the whole family. A London department store introduced the first Santa’s Grotto in 1888, and all the kids wanted to sit on Santa’s knee. After that, their families were suckers for every temptation, particularly the food.
But it was an American, Gordon Selfridge, who turned the department store into a branch of show business when he opened a London store in 1909. Selfridge invented the sparkling Christmas window displays and the ticking clock of demented Christmas shopping with the idea of “…only X days to Christmas.”
In London today the food hall at Selfridges is one of the three most diet-destroying displays for super-size appetites in the capital. The other two are at Harrods, the legendary Knightsbridge emporium, and Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, which was in the business of selling luxury edibles to royalty and the gentry before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.
Was Dickens himself a glutton?
I was hoping to find a clue to this when, earlier this year, I visited the Charles Dickens Museum in a house with an interior recreated to be exactly as it was when he and his family moved into it for three years, from 1837 to 1839.
It’s in Doughty Street, in a long row of elegant town houses built in the early 19th century on the edge of Bloomsbury—exactly the kind of address that a new literary star risen from very modest means would take pride in as a mark of his status. Its exclusiveness was then underlined by having gates at each end.
There are 12 rooms on three floors, plus a basement and attic. The dining room, on the ground floor, was the center of Dickens’s social life, where he frequently entertained friends and his literary and artistic contemporaries.
But walking into this dining room produced a real shock. Everything seemed so small. The dining table, the chairs, the china, the glasses. It seemed like throwing the time machine into fast reverse and realizing that the point was not so much that everything in this room had suddenly shrunk but that in the rush of human development we have become so bloated that we need all our furnishings and utensils to be super-sized as well.
In fact, the place seemed more suitable for the imagined modesty of the Cratchit family rather than for the expansive hospitality that, for the first time, Dickens was able to offer to his friends. He was not a small man for his times, five foot eight in height and still slim. He would often walk up to 30 miles at a time as he gathered the human material for his stories. Admittedly this was not all strenuous. There were frequent pit stops at ale houses and inns.
The table at Doughty Street was supplied from a kitchen in the basement. This, too, was a shock: a dark place heated only by a coal fire burning all day and night breeding soot where servants often slept on mattresses among a population of rats. Dickens, the devastating chronicler of the lives of the Victorian underclass, kept a piece of it in his own household.
The wines, stored in the adjacent cellar, show how different Victorian tastes in booze were. Dickens stocked a lot of fortified wines that were the bookends of any meal—to begin a whole range of sherries from dry to sweet and to end very old port and madeira, a wine rarely seen now because of its heavy, unctuous taste and suspicious ability to remain drinkable for months after the bottle is opened. Madeira is often called a pudding wine in Britain because it can be used both to flavor puddings and to drink with them—particularly at Christmas when puddings and pies weigh down the tables.
This brings me to my own weakness for sticky dishes, recently magnified because the British baking industry, riding on the addictive success of the TV series The Great British Bake Off, is loading the supermarket shelves with Christmas specials.
First up for me are the mince pies, and I can’t get enough of them. Mince pies are filled with mincemeat, but there is no meat in mincemeat. Or rather, there isn’t any now but there once was. Stay with me.
The pie itself is small and round with a double crust, barely more than one mouthful for a healthy appetite. I often knock off four at a time. The pie is filled with a mixture—the mincemeat—of currants, sultanas, candied peel, baked apple, sugar, spices, suet, butter and rum. I often add a topping of thick cream.
Until Dickens’s time the pies did include minced meats of various kinds—tongue, sirloin, lamb or mutton. But once exotic fruits were available from various corners of the British Empire the meat vanished, probably for reasons of cost and because the Victorians developed a sweet tooth that has never really left.
For example, another pastry fatal to my resistance is treacle tart, a wide uncovered tart filled with a mixture of bread crumbs and Golden Syrup, the brand name for inverted sugar. This provides the tart with a viscous patina combining glucose and fructose so dangerously delicious that generations of dentists have thrived on the consequences of enjoying it. (The best treacle tart in London comes from Fortnum & Mason.)
However, my weakness for British Christmas pastries is a mere trifle in the history of their development.
For the pie to end all pies there is the case of a certain Sir Henry Grey of Yorkshire. In 1770 a newspaper reported that Sir Henry’s housekeeper had prepared for him a Yorkshire Christmas Pie that contained four geese, two turkeys, two rabbits, four wild ducks, two woodcocks, six snipes, four partridges, two neat’s tongue, two curlews, seven blackbirds and six pigeons.
The pie was nine feet wide and weighed 170 pounds. It took two men to lift it into a box that had four wheels for conveyance. There is no record of how many people sat down to eat it. Surrounded as we now are with an epidemic of obesity, annually accelerated by Christmas excess, we still have a long way to go before equaling Sir Henry.
A Happy Christmas, and God bless us every one!