Christmas Entertainments

The “commercialization of Christmas” is a regular complaint this time of year, reasonably enough. It’s interesting, then, that the two 19th century Christmas entertainments still to be regularly performed, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, are both in some ways meditations on commercialization, capitalism, and consumption- and are in favor of all three.

1That is, Scrooge isn’t bad because he is a capitalist, he is bad because he is laying up silver in a vault instead of throwing parties ala Fezziwig, instead of buying stuff and spending (and having kids or otherwise giving money to the younger generation). A Christmas Carol is full of descriptions of things for sale and the joy of purchase and consumption…

a_christmas_carol_07“The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers’ and grocers’ trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. “

dickens-charles-christmas-f60134-91And the book’s moral outrage is not directed towards the getting of money but towards the failure to spend it (for example when the servants pick through his paltry belongings after his putative death, or in this scene after he is reborn in Christ/consumption):

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!”
“Hallo!” returned the boy.
“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.
“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.
“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there?—Not the little prizea_christmas_carol_04 Turkey: the big one?”
“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.
“What a delightful boy!” said Scrooge. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!”
“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.
“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”
“Walk-er!” exclaimed the boy.

“No, no,” said Scrooge, “I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell ’em to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I’ll give you half-a-crown!”

dickens-charles-christmas-f60134-77The key word in the early chapter where Scrooge Bah! Humbugs to the charity workers (and paraphrases Ricardo and Malthus to them) is not kindness or generosity but “liberality,” a word that the charity workers try to press upon Scrooge and he Bah! Humbugs away:

“Scrooge and Marley’s, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr Scrooge, or Mr Marley?”

“Mr Marley has been dead these seven years,” Scrooge replied. “He died seven years ago, this very night.”

“We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality”, Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

In his long essay on Dickens, George Orwell is at pains to show that Dickens is not in fact a socialist, and just wants to make capitalism more kind and conducive to humane domesticity:

It is said that Macaulay refused to review HARD TIMES because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism’. Obviously Macaulay is here using the word ‘Socialism’ in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as ‘Bolshevism’. There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious.  Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

Naturally this calls for a few characters who are in positions of authority and who DO behave decently. Hence that recurrent Dickens figure, the good rich man. This character belongs especially to Dickens’s early optimistic period. He is usually a ‘merchant’ (we are not necessarily told what merchandise he deals in), and he is always a superhumanly kind-hearted old gentleman who ‘trots’ to and fro, raising his employees’ wages, patting children on the head, getting debtors out of jail and in general, acting the fairy godmother. Of course he is a pure dream figure, much further from real life than, say, Squeers or Micawber. Even Dickens must have reflected occasionally that anyone who was so anxious to give his money away would never have acquired it in the first place. Mr. Pickwick, for instance, had ‘been in the city’, but it is difficult to imagine him making a fortune there. Nevertheless this character runs like a connecting thread through most of the earlier books. Pickwick, the Cheerybles, old Chuzzlewit, Scrooge–it is the same figure over and over again, the good rich man, handing out guineas.

Orwell doesn’t discuss religion, but to me it seems that Dickens’s central concern is not rejecting capitalism but trying to reconcile capitalism and consumption with Christianity, and reconcile Christianity to an enjoyment of the fruits of the world amid family and children.

dickens-charles-christmas-F60134-83.jpg“But now a knocking at the door was heard, and such a rush immediately ensued that she with laughing face and plundered dress was borne towards it the centre of a flushed and boisterous group, just in time to greet the father, who came home attended by a man laden with Christmas toys and presents. Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught that was made on the defenceless porter! The scaling him with chairs for ladders to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him round his neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection! The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received!”

This child’s view of life is of course Dickens’s other great theme across many books. The E.T.A. Hoffman story on which Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is based similarly focuses on the commercial delights of Christmas, from a child’s point of view:

royal-ballet-tree-xlarge_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqmb1puxpjlcnrgg6rsffrzcuxippjiqisfg__4ltf0xyKind reader, or listener, whatever may be your name, whether Frank, Robert, Henry,–Anna or Maria, I beg you to call to mind the table covered with your last Christmas gifts, as in their newest gloss they first appeared to your delighted vision. You will then “be able to imagine the astonishment of the children, as they stood with sparkling eyes, unable to utter a word, for joy at the sight before them. At last Maria called out with a deep sigh, ” Ah, how beautiful ! ah, how beautiful !” and Frederic gave two or three leaps in the air higher than he had ever done before. The children must have been very obedient and good children during the past year, for never on any Christmas Eve before, had so many beautiful things been given to them. A tall Fir tree stood in the middle of the room, covered with gold and silver apples, while sugar almonds, comfits, lemon drops, and every kind of confectionery, hung like buds and blossoms upon all its branches. But the greatest beauty about this wonderful tree, was the many little lights that sparkled amid its dark boughs, which like stars illuminated its treasures, or like friendly eyes seemed to invite the children to partake of its blossoms and fruit

The table under the tree shone and flushed with a thousand different colors–ah, what beautiful things were there ! who can describe them Maria spied the prettiest dolls, a tea set, all kinds of nice little furniture, and what eclipsed all the rest, a silk dress tastefully ornamented with gay ribbons, which hung upon a frame before her eyes, so that she could view it on every side. This she did too, and exclaimed over and over again, ” Ah, the sweet–” ah, the dear, dear frock ! and may I put it on ? yes, yes–may I really, though, wear it?”


Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, which takes the perspective of a child’s dream of fighting toys and dancing candies, was written less for the growing middle class of a thriving commercial world, like Hoffman’s story or Dickens’ books (my great-great-grandfather told my grandfather that his first paid job as a boy was waiting at the Dutch docks, and then running up to let everyone in the neighborhood, eager readers that they were, know that the next installment of Dickens had come in), but as select entertainments for the tiny elite of an autocratic empire.

The Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg where the Nutcracker premiered is small- the audience is right on top of the stage- because it was for a small elite:


This audience didn’t have to worry about reconciling Christianity to grubby capitalism in quite the way that Dickens’ audience did, but they did have to worry about reconciling Christianity to wealth. They knew that you could as soon get a camel through the eye of a needle as a rich man into heaven, and, like Tolstoy, knew that their wealth was canonically an obstacle rather than a conduit for connecting with Christ. When we worry about “the commercialization of Christmas” today, of course, we are worrying about much the same thing, if in different terms- worrying that the ease of purchase and our relative extreme wealth, by the standards of history, has made us bad people and bad parents, unable to connect with each other even if we aren’t worrying about connecting with Christ, and we push these worries onto our kids, worried that we are spoiling them (and how could we not?) with the abundance that wealth, technology, and global trade provides. But we hold onto the stories that seem to allow a way through commercialization and consumption to joy, connection, familial love; the moral problems of the 19th century middle and upper classes are in large part still our problems, that we hope can be resolved with the right sort of consumption, the right sort of commercialization, the right sort of purchase.

3 thoughts on “Christmas Entertainments

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