George Kerevan investigates the roots of modern Christmas in Victorian England, and its encounters with radical working class politics.
It’s that time of the year again. Christmas. Yuletide. Hanukkah. The Winter Solstice. OK, it’s a consumerist nightmare. But is that a reason to give it a miss? By way of an answer, here’s a question. What did Comrade Marx think of Christmas, back in its Victorian, Dickensian heyday?
On 23 December 1859, Mrs Jenny Marx wrote to their friend Engels in Manchester: “My most heartfelt thanks for the Christmas hamper. The champagne will be a tremendous help in tiding us over the otherwise gloomy holiday, and will ensure a merry Christmas Eve. The sparkling bubbles of the champagne will make the dear children forget the lack of a little Christmas tree this year, and be happy and jolly for all that”.
Actually, this is a very jolly letter given the relative economic penury the Marx family lived under. Jenny’s correspondence suggests a household that was much more harmonious and happy than bourgeois critics of Marx try to make out. At any rate, Christmas 1859 in Grafton Terrace, in London’s Chalk Farm, was fuelled with champagne to celebrate the publication of Karl’s first book – A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. 1959 was memorable for other events: John Brown’s courageous anti-slavery raid on Harpers Ferry and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species.
From Jenny’s regular letters to Engels, it is clear that Christmas was a big affair in the Marx household. In 1866, Jenny sends ‘the General’ a note (dated 1 o’clock on Christmas Eve – the Victorian postal service was as good as today’s internet) that the by now traditional Christmas hamper from Manchester had arrived filled with Rhenish wine “to the fore!”. Jenny says this “will avert the harshest storms of Christmastide and enable us to celebrate a Merry Christmas”. She adds: “The wine was particularly welcome this year, as with the young Frenchman in the house we like to keep up appearances”.
The “young Frenchman” in question was a certain Cuban-born writer, Paul Lafargue, an exotic cocktail of Jewish, mulatto, Haitian and Jamaican origin. Marx’s daughter Laura was instantly smitten. Later, when the syndicalist Daniel De Leon asked Lafargue about his origins, the latter replied, “I am proudest of my Negro extraction”. Worth remembering when latter-day liberals accuse Marx of personal racism.
Paul and Laura were married two years after that happy Christmas. Sadly, they would end their lives in a bizarre, inexplicable mutual suicide pact in 1911. They left a note saying “Long live Communism! Long Live the international socialism!” A long way from the wine fuelled festivities of 1866.
After Karl and Jenny died, their daughter Eleanor made sure the family Christmas traditions were kept up – though preparations sometimes got her down, what with organising the British labour movement and all. The week before Christmas 1890 she wrote to her sister Laura: “I dread the coming ‘Festivities’… The only good thing is that the dear old General [Engels] is as jolly as a sandboy (whatever a sandboy is, or why he should be jolly I don’t know) and seems to get younger and younger.”
We should remember that the modern Christmas is an invention of Victorian capitalism. Originally, the twelve days of Christmas were a mid-winter break for farm workers in feudal times. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again only on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. The ‘Twelfths’ had strict rules, including a ban on spinning, normally done by women. Ritually, flowers were placed around the spinning wheels to prevent their use.
The industrial revolution disrupted these ancient rural traditions. Industrial capitalism based on the exploitation of hired labour power squeezed out traditional religious and popular holidays. In 1761, the Bank of England closed its doors for 47 annual holidays. By 1834 the number of holidays recognised by the Bank had shrunk to only four. In 1833, the new Factory Act mandated that British workers had a legal right to only two holidays besides Sunday: Christmas and Good Friday.
Which raises an interesting question. The period from the 1820s to the early 1840s is the moment when Victorian Britain invented the modern Christmas – complete with cards, decorated trees, the turkey dinner, and flying reindeer. Yet these were the decades of maximum industrial poverty and degradation. And as a result, these are the decades when Britain came closest to proletarian revolution. The modern invention of Christmas coincides exactly with the Peterloo Massacre, the 1820 General Strike and Rising in Scotland, the Chartists, the 1832 Reform Act, and mass anti-slavery agitation.
This weird social conjuncture might be explained by the new bourgeoisie – one frightened out of its wits by working class anger and potential revolution – trying to surround itself with a mythic sense of family values and security. Then there’s the added fact that the upstart bourgeoisie – hiding behind its draped curtains and antimacassars – now had cash to spend on Christmas. Result: Victorian capitalism, with its new-fangled penny post and suburban steam trains to facilitate a family get-together, was in a prime position to invent the first capitalist consumer festival.
The sentimentality of the Victorian Christmas served to inoculate the middle class from the reality of the poverty and exploitation the bourgeoisie had imposed on the mass of working people condemned to the new Victorian slums. Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in December 1843, two years before Engels’ Condition of the English Working Class in England. Both men had read and been appalled by official reports published by Parliament on the extent and depth of contemporary working class poverty. Engels was prodded to write a call to revolution. Dickens, on the other hand, invented an outlet for middle class mawkishness and hypocrisy. If only we all celebrate Christmas then the poor won’t revolt!
Were the notoriously “hard” Bolsheviks into Christmas? It is true that post 1917 the Russian revolutionaries were wary of traditional religious festivals. But the truth is they spent a lot of time and energy inventing new popular festivals, at least before the Civil War plunged the new state into chaos. The Bolshevik government even created a Bureau of Mass Festivals to organise them! In the summer of 1920, the new Soviet Union was awash with new holidays, including Paris Commune Day, International Women’s Day, and Overthrow of the Autocracy Day. Any old Bolshevik excuse for a day off.
What of Lenin himself, with his reputation for work rather than play? In December 1917, the Bolsheviks had been in power barely two months. Lenin was hard at work in the Smolny party headquarters and the winter sleet was falling. Nadezhda Krupskaya Lenin’s party comrade and wife tried to get him to take a few days off for Christmas, to conserve his energy for the struggle. Comrade Lenin refused, as you might expect.
Enter Alexandra Kollontai, People’s Commissioner for Social Welfare. Alexandra joined forces with Nadezhda to persuade Lenin to take a few days off for Christmas. Eventually, he relented after Alexandra fixed up for him and Nadezhda to enjoy the festive holiday in a remote location in Finland, where nobody could find him. Alexandra saw them off from the Finland Station – from where the socialist phase of the Russian Revolution had been launched earlier in the year – on Christmas Eve.
Yes, Christmas has become a consumerist nightmare. Yes, it was created by the unctuous Victorian bourgeoisie. But for now, let’s not get too po-faced about Yuletide. If you can’t beat them (yet), at least you can subvert them – as Karl Marx might have said in his Christmas toast (festive champagne courtesy of Engels).