Christmas would not be as we know it without the Victorians. Christmas cards, Christmas crackers, and even Christmas presents are all Victorian traditions. More importantly than all of that (in our eyes anyway!) is the huge contribution Victorian composers made to Christmas music. The importance of music at Christmas is reflected in Victorian literature. We present a few choice examples…
The Mill on the Floss George Eliot (1860)
Eliot’s novel spans ten years in the lives of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. Young Tom has just got back to the family home after his first term at school to discover the village covered in snow.
‘Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and colour with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow … And yet this Christmas day, in spite of Tom’s fresh delight in home, was not, he thought, somehow or other, quite so happy as it had always been before. There had been singing under the windows after midnight, – supernatural singing, Maggie always felt, in spite of Tom’s contemptuous insistence that the singers were old Patch, the parish clerk, and the rest of the church choir; she trembled with awe when their carolling broke in upon her dreams, and the image of men in fustian clothes was always thrust away by the vision of angels resting on the parted cloud.’
Silas Marner George Eliot (1861)
Misanthrope, the weaver Silas Marner, is softened by something altogether more terrestrial: one snowy winter’s night he discovers a young girl who has wandered into his house. But in this scene – earlier in the story – a neighbour, Dolly Winthrop, and her son Aaron are trying to bring Silas some Christmas cheer.
‘He’s got a voice like a bird – you wouldn’t think,’ Dolly went on; ‘he can sing a Christmas carril as his father’s taught him; and I take it for a token as he’ll come to good, as he can learn the good tunes so quick. Come, Aaron, stan’ up and sing the carril to Master Marner, come.’ Aaron … at length allowed his head to be duly adjusted, and standing behind the table, which let him appear above it only as far as his broad frill, so that he looked like a cherubic head untroubled with a body, he began with a clear chirp, and in a melody that had the rhythm of an industrious hammer
‘God rest you, merry gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas-day.’ …
‘That’s Christmas music,’ she said, when Aaron had ended, and had secured his piece of cake again. ‘There’s no other music equil to the Christmas music.’
Under the Greenwood Tree Thomas Hardy (1872)
Also known as The Mellstock Quire, this novel was the first of Hardy’s books to be set in Wessex. The novel follows the fortunes of a group of rural church musicians, and in this scene the group have set off on their annual round of carol singing.
‘Number seventy-eight,’ old William softly gave out as they formed round in a semicircle, the boys opening the lanterns to get a clearer light, and directing their rays on the books…‘In Bethlehem He was born, O thou Man…’
‘Four breaths, and number thirty-two, “Behold the Morning Star,”’ said old William. They had reached the end of the second verse, and the fiddlers were doing the up bow-stroke previously to pouring forth the opening chord of the third verse, when, without a light appearing or any signal being given, a roaring voice exclaimed –‘Shut up, woll ’ee! Don’t make your blaring row here! A feller wi‘ a headache enough to split his skull likes a quiet night!’
Slam went the window.
A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens (1843)
One of the most famous Christmas stories ever written, Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ follows another misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge on the night before Christmas as he meets the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future – here the ghost of Christmas past has just whisked him back to his youth to the festive party thrown by his jocular former employer, Mr Fezziwig.
‘In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business… In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, ‘Well done!’ and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose.’
The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Washington Irving (1819)
American author Washington Irving casts an outsider’s eye on British Christmas traditions. The Sketchbook is a collection of essays and short stories, which were published serially. Here, he casts his outsider’s eye on a group of Victorian carollers – the Waits.
‘My chamber was in the old part of the mansion, the ponderous furniture of which might have been fabricated in the days of the giants … I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band which I concluded to be the Waits from some neighbouring village. They went round the house, playing under the windows. I drew aside the curtains to hear them more distinctly. The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement; partially lighting up the antiquated apartment. The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with the quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened – they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sunk upon the pillow and I fell asleep.’