Alternate History: The Story of Christmas

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, crackers filled with sweets and candy, ornament-laden trees having gifts at the bottom- all conjure up visions of what a perfect Christmas looks like. Popular culture has intensified our expectations as shows and movies vie with each other over the picture-perfect holiday look. But when the jolly season greets us, as we dash through the skies in a reindeer-harnessed sleigh, we wonder what would have happened if the people of 19th century England hadn’t brought these customs into vogue. There can’t have been a ‘Bah! Humbug.’ Not when the festival isn’t grand enough to annoy Scrooge!

Prince Albert, who was married to Queen Victoria, brought over the tradition of having firs, dazzling with various trinkets hanging from them. The tradition of tree-decorating slowly became the ‘it’ thing in the country, as pictures of the royal tree were circulated through a magazine. Henry Cole, who paid an artist to draw a family having Christmas dinner, made the practice of card-making into a tradition for the children. Tom Smith, a confectioner, got inspired to market and sell Christmas candy better using Christmas crackers. Even Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ accelerated the pace of keeping-up-with-the-times-kind Christmas.

Let’s rewind time back to the very beginning of the 19th century, when Christmas wasn’t popular. Prince Edward and Princess Victoria are looking for a suitable groom for their daughter, Princess Alexandrina (later known popularly as Queen Victoria). They stumble upon Prince Albert in Berlin, but aren’t impressed with his explosive accent and his ‘Ich bin ein Prinz’. (Perhaps he didn’t lift his pinky high enough when they were drinking tea. Or, he must’ve accidentally eaten a bite of his applesauce pudding with the salad spoon.) They decide they would much rather give their daughter’s hand to Adolf of Sweden or Augustus of Poland, rather than Albert of Germany. It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, after all. 

Thus, Christmas trees stayed intact in Deutschland. As did most of the evergreen forests. And in the future, plastic manufacturers didn’t have one extra chore on their to-do lists. Neither did tree suppliers. Because they didn’t exist. But Alexandrina’s new husband loved his traditional Polish carp, beetroot soup and ravioli. Or was it the Swedish smorgasbord? Whatever it was, Alexandrina hated being overshadowed and forbade the media from covering the extravagant celebration. ‘Let everybody make merry on their own accord,’ she announced.

Fast forward to the 1830’s. Cole commissions the artist, but the people back then deem cards to be an unnecessary addition to the list. 

‘We are giving presents, can’t we just sing the carol or be poetic with our words?’ Sure, go right ahead! 

Though I’m pretty sure that this tradition would have weaseled its way into our minds at some later point anyway. Imagine what the entire printing industry would otherwise make during that season? They would’ve marketed it in such a way that people wouldn’t resist buying cards for Christmas, and later for New Year. After all, why say it when you can pay a couple of pounds and avoid a conversation altogether? It’s definitely worth the money. Actually, why go at all? It’s not gifting time yet. That’s a week later- New Year! Just how the tradition was since once-upon-a-time.

As we progress through the century and reach the end of the 1840’s, we can see a development in the sweetment sector. It’s mid-December, everyone is out shopping, and here’s the perfect time to get rid of a load of candy. But how? Smith suggests the idea of a cracker to his marketing team, but they reject it altogether. ‘That’s just a small pinata,’ they say, ‘and they’ve been around for centuries!’ Back to the drawing board. Maybe they tried to use their leftover Halloween decorations. You know, to exhaust their leftover Halloween supply in the storage room. Stock it up for the next year please, Christmas isn’t that big anyway!

Even the Christmas turkey has an interesting backstory. Back in the day, turkeys weren’t popular meat. Christmas dinners usually saw dishes featuring geese, beef or other meat. Turkeys were very expensive. The royals, who dined in large groups, experimented with them, and found out that it was cheaper to have the large bird feed many. Plus, it looked grander. The bigger, the better. 

So, most families gradually shifted to the posh lifestyle. But if the rich had stayed mum about their meal, maybe some of the butchers could’ve been able to nick some extra cash and buy their sons a new pair of shoes. And the royals themselves would’ve got richer by taxation. The term ‘the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer’ would’ve arrived far earlier. No more thick heavy gravy that knocks you out. But the British found another way to eat turkey. They finally took Thanksgiving seriously.

As we near the end of the 19th century, we can see no drastic change in December. It’s the same as it was towards the beginning- Christmas isn’t popular. But people are still excited because it’s a week to a brand new year. There’s still shopping to do. The countdown has begun. 7… 6…

PS. As for India television, I can see soap operas being broadcasted for an extra day. Sorry, there will be no VIP 2 or Devi on Sun TV; you will have to wait until they televise it some other day. 

Vaishnavi Murali

Multipotentialite here! NOT a 'Jack Of All Trades'.

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