The Holiday Book for Christmas and the New Year, first published in 1852, is a prime example of a wider publishing movement in the mid-19th century in which periodical extracts were bound and illustrated to be given as gifts over the Christmas season. Earlier versions of these periodicals include Thomas Hervey’s The Book of Christmas. Their contents often covered the history of Christmas customs, intended to record and preserve traditions (such as games, food and etiquette) through illustrations, poems, and stories.
The books' would have been intended for a middle-class audience, who had disposable income, increased leisure time, a growing belief in the importance of the family unit, and a desire for amusement. Each section is framed to entertain, yet every article is layered with warnings, cautioning the reader against inappropriate behaviour and excessive consumption. For instance, under ‘The Christmas Pudding’, the author concludes:
‘We hope that many of the Master Jackies and Billies will read this portion of our article on Christmas, and bear in mind that even pudding carries its own punishment when swallowed to excess’.
This work emphasises the importance of the family: ‘one of the greatest pleasures Christmas brings is, the assembling of members of families’. This theme runs throughout the text, with suggestions made for how different generations can interact and play.
Familial roles are also clearly defined. The roles of mothers and fathers are used to signpost key customs to be observed during the Christmas period. Mothers are depicted in the majority of the engravings, undertaking a wide variety of activity. This includes making Christmas puddings with the children, preparing Grandpapa’s present and serving the festive meal. Fathers, on the other hand, are shown reflecting on the past and keeping order within the household by scolding sons for immoral and gluttonous behaviour – with many parallels drawn between absent fathers and unruly families.
The sheer volume and nature of these books further demonstrates that while traditions were being recorded during the mid-19th century, Christmas sentiment was being reframed to incorporate developing definitions of national identity. The author highlights ‘national pride’ in the agricultural strength of Britain through numerous sections of prose and verse about beef, poultry and dairy; as well as referring to the imperial imports relied upon at Christmas, with ‘Spices!’ and ‘Sugar!’ from around the world. These are combined in the Plum Pudding, a dish the author refers to as ‘an institution’ to the ‘English character’.