"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."
-- From Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Stop a dozen people at random on the street and ask them what the term "Victorian" means, and their answers may vary from furniture and architecture to the mention of a short, pudgy queen of Great Britain. Asking about Charles Dickens' version of Christmas will improve your odds.
The truth is that we are more indebted to holiday customs of Queen Victoria's reign than we realize, thanks in part to Dickens.
Who were the Victorians?
"Historically they were people born in the 1820s who came into maturity in the '30s, '40s and '50s," said Donald Gray, professor of English at Indiana University and editor of a journal dealing with Victorian life and literature.
He explained that "Victorian" usually refers to people who had certain standards of decorum, style of dress and customs.
Gray believes that at Christmas time the most distinctive of those customs were feasting and benevolence.
"The middle class had come into its own by the time Victoria was queen, and Christmas was certainly a middle class feast," said Gray.
Even Dickens' Bob Cratchit was a member of the British middle class, but just barely, according to the professor.
"A clerk probably made less than a skilled artisan, but a clerk lived a genteel life. He went to work with a coat and tie on."
Gray thinks the reason why Christmas was such a popular holiday was that it was a time of feasting, when the Victorians could show their affluence. But it was also an occasion for benevolence and charity.
"One of the characteristics of the Victorian period was a strong public conscience," he explained.
That conscience is reflected in Scrooge's conversion from a stingy, bitter old man to a charitable one in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Gray said that the same spirit of sharing is reflected in the scene from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women when the sisters decide to give their long-anticipated Christmas dinner to a poor family.
Tangible gifts were less important in the Victorian period, according to Gray.
"There were more hand-made presents. Christmas wasn't the mercantile occasion that would cause merchants to stock up goods. It was more about food than gifts, because what you gave to one another or to your friends was a feast."
When the Victorians sat down to Christmas dinner, what did they eat?
"Victorian feasts were sumptuous. There would certainly have been a fowl of some kind, maybe a goose. There would have been a pudding. In a more affluent home, there might have been a clear turtle soup," said Gray.
Boxing Day (Dec. 26) was the day when those who had provided services were remembered. "Because the public aspect of the Christmas season was charitable, Boxing Day was a time to do things for people either dependent upon you or who were less fortunate than you," Gray noted.
According to Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore by Margaret Baker, Boxing Day took its name from a 17th-century custom of presenting the gifts (usually money) in earthenware boxes.
For more information, contact Rose McIlveen, Office of Communications and Marketing, 812-855-0063 or 812-855-3911, firstname.lastname@example.org