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Thomas Hervey’s The Book of Christmas is remembered today for the wonderful illustrations by Robert Seymour (1798-1836), one of the most successful caricaturists of his time. Hervey’s text gives an exhaustive historical account of old English Christmas customs: some – like the feasting on roast beef and turkey, plum pudding and mince pies – still flourishing; others – like waits (carol singing at night) and mumming – almost forgotten. Seymour’s illustrations, completed just a few months before his suicide as he was working on Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, capture the spirit and joy of the season. From the coach load of Norfolk turkeys, to the sleepy waits singers in the light of the street lantern, to the merry old gentleman enjoying Christmas by his fire, he provides a delightful selection of holiday scenes.
The Book of Christmas, first published in 1836 and reprinted the following year, was an early attempt to record and preserve the old customs. As the Victorian revival of the holiday gathered pace during the 1840s many more histories of Christmas festivities and practices were published. They were often bound and illustrated as attractive gift books, and so helped to establish a new tradition of the Christmas publishing season.
Simon Callow explores Charles Dickens’s depiction of the Christmas feast and investigates the origins of England’s festive culinary traditions.
Judith Flanders describes how many of our own Christmas traditions – from trees and crackers to cards and carols – have their origins in 19th-century industrial and commercial interests.