The Man Who Invented Christmas

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens rediscovered the great Christian festival that  had been on the wane in Great Britain since the latter part of the eighteenth century.  The fact is that  Dickens more than anybody else revived the English Christmas traditions which had nearly died out.

the man who invented christmas

Professor Les Standiford, author of  The Man Who Invented Christmas, says: “Dickens is responsible for Christmas as we know it. He obviously didn’t invent it as an idea, but what he did with A Christmas Carol began the process that led to what we have today.”

Christmas was barely celebrated at the start of the 1800s and December 25 was just a normal working day.“The holiday was still suffering the effects of the Puritan era and seen as a Pagan enterprise,” says Professor Standiford.

“The publication of A Christmas Carol added an emotional component to Christmas and changed it. We will never know what Christmas would be like without Charles Dickens, but it would never have been quite the same as we enjoy today without him.”

christmas carol

Although Dickens celebrated the festival of Christ’s birth in numerous works, it is A Christmas Carol, published on 19 December 1843, that has preserved the Christmas customs of olde England and fixed our image of the holiday season as one of wind, ice, and snow without, and piping hot turkey, and family cheer within. Coming from a family large but not-too-well-off, Charles Dickens presents again and again his idealized memory of a Christmas associated with the gathering of the family which “bound together all our home enjoyments, affections and hopes” in games such as Snap Dragon and Blind Man’s Buff, both of which his model lower-middle-class father, Bob Cratchit, runs home to play on Christmas Eve.

Pickwick papers

Idealized images of snow-carpeted streets evoked by Dickens are to blame for our preoccupation with white Christmases, according to experts. The author persistently wrote of a Britain smothered in snow, which is actually rare in the UK.

A decade of unusually cold weather during his childhood influenced his description of Britons “scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses” on Christmas morning.

Six of Dickens’s first nine Christmases were white, including one in the winter of 1813-14 during which the ice on the River Thames was thick enough to bear the weight of an elephant.

snowy christmas

The Christmas tree, a German tradition, was introduced into England by Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert in December, 1840, the couple having been married just the previous February. The tree, lit by candles still in European countries, complemented the holly and mistletoe that the Anglo-Saxons ever since their arrival in Britain in the fifth century had used to decorate their homes at the mid-winter festival. Before Prince Albert’s innovation, better-off English homes had used the “kissing bough” as the main decoration for the season. Two hoops were joined to make a globe, decorated with greenery, oranges, and apples, and, of course, mistletoe.

victorian christmas tree

The Christmas cards we send each other bear mute testimony to the pervasive influence of the Dickensian Christmas, as if our cultural notion of the holiday is permanently arrested in the early 1830s in rural England, when Dickens, then just a cub reporter for the True London Sun was racing around the countryside covering political events. Christmas was never far away for Dickens at any stage of his life; it is there in his first book, The Pickwick Papers (which contains the prototype of A Christmas Carol, “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” the curmudgeon being the delightfully named Gabriel Grubb) and somewhat more gloomily in his last, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

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One of his sons wrote that, for Dickens, Christmas was “a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on…. And then the dance! There was no stopping him!”

Isn’t that the true spirit of Christmas even today?

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English Cottage Gardening – Bees Love Nepeta And So Do I

I love Nepeta aka catmint!  It’s also a favorite of honey bees and other pollinators. It’s deer resistant too!

Below one of my ever-present fluffy Bumbles enjoys a tasty snack…

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It is a beautiful plant to use in a border. Gertrude Jekyll wrote “it is a plant that can hardly be overpraised.”

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I find catmint easier to grow than lavender. If you cut it back after first bloom, it will bloom again just as vigorously.

My favorite cultivar is Walker’s Low which was the 2007 Perennial of the Year. The name, Walker’s Low, does not refer to the size of the plant, but to a garden in England.

Plant some catmint this summer. Your buzzing friends will thank you!

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May Morning In Oxford

May Morning is an annual event in Oxford, England, on May Day (1 May). It starts early at 6am with the Magdalen College Choir singing a hymn, the Hymnus Eucharisticus, from the top of Magdalen Tower, a tradition of over 500 years. Large crowds normally gather under the tower along the High Street and on Magdalen Bridge. This is then followed by general revelry and festivities including Morris dancing, impromptu music, etc., for a couple of hours. There is a party atmosphere, despite the early hour. In fact, there are normally all-night balls the night before, so some people (especially students) are in formal attire (e.g., black tie/white tie or ball gown).

Poetry Month – William Shakespeare – “This England…”

Shakespeare's Tomb

Shakespeare’s Tomb

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Richard II Act 2

William Shakespeare

Requiescat In Pace Margaret Thatcher

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It must be something in the British water. Or maybe it’s the fog.

Whatever it is, the Mother Country has been producing kick-ass women leaders since Boadica laid waste to Roman Londinium in the year 60 or thereabouts.

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Like many great leaders, Baroness Thatcher was a polarizing force politically. She took strong positions, some of which were difficult to justify. But even her enemies respected her intelligence and strength. There’s no question that she kicked butt and took names. She despised Communism and was instrumental in precipitating the collapse of the USSR.

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There will be much written about the Baroness, so I’ll limit myself to sharing a few anecdotes I heard Monday on National Public Radio.

Mrs. Thatcher liked to think of herself as royalty, going so far as to refer to herself with the royal “We.”  Think of Queen Victoria stating, “We are not amused.” Neither, apparently, was the Royal Family.

One Commentator opined that she ought to be compared to the Queen, but the Queen in question is Elizabeth I, not Elizabeth II.

Finally, a caller spoke of an occasion when he, his wife, and their young children met Mrs. Thatcher in Park City, Utah, of all places. The caller’s wife said to her, “My children think that you’re the Queen of England.”

Mrs. Thatcher replied, with a twinkle in her eye, “Don’t disillusion them, dear.”

Rest in peace, Baroness. And thank you.

Beautiful Beehives Of The Day

Hives at Kew Gardens in London

Hives at Kew Gardens in London

Kew Gardens has an educational bee habitat as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the need for a more bee-friendly planet.

Girl History Month – Mary Anne Evans AKA George Eliot

Mary Anne Evans aka George Eliot, Victorian Writer

Mary Anne Evans aka George Eliot, Victorian Writer

Most readers know Mary Anne Evans (22 November 1819 – 22 December 1880) by her pen name George Eliot, one of the leading writers of the Victorian era.

Evans wrote seven novels, including Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871–72), and Daniel Deronda (1876), most of them set in provincial England and known for their realism and psychological insight.

She used a male pen name  to ensure her works would be taken seriously.  An additional factor in her use of a pen name may have been a desire to shield her private life from public scrutiny and to prevent scandals attending her relationship with the married George Henry Lewes, with whom she lived for over 20 years.

Her 1872 work, Middlemarch, has been described as the greatest novel in the English language.

Girl History Month – Susan Howatch, Storyteller

Cover of "The Rich Are Different"

Cover of The Rich Are Different

Susan Howatch (born 14 July 1940) is an English author who is first and foremost a storyteller.

Her first novel was The Dark Shore (1965). She published several other “gothic” novels before she published the first of her family sagas Penmarric (1971), which details the fortunes and disputes of the Penmar family in Cornwall during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An important theme of the story is how the mansion of Penmarric becomes controlled by various branches of the family. The family fortune was made in the Cornish tin mining industry, which is discussed throughout one of the six parts, each with a different character as narrator. As is made clear by the chapter headings, the fortunes of the family closely parallel the Plantagenet family, including Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, with the mansion representing the throne.

Howatch followed a similar theme in her vast saga, The Wheel of Fortune, where the story of the Godwin family of Oxmoon in Gower, South Wales, is in fact a re-creation in a modern form of the story of the Plantagenet family of Edward III of England, the modern characters being created from those of his eldest son Edward of Woodstock (The Black Prince) and his wife Joan of Kent, John of Gaunt and his mistress and then wife, Katherine Swynford, Richard II (son of Edward of Woodstock), Henry IV (son of John of Gaunt) and Henry IV’s eldest son King Henry V. Again the mansion represents the throne.

She also wrote three other family sagas, Cashelmara, which focuses on the family of Edward I (Edward DeSalis), his son, Edward II (Patrick De Salis) and others; and The Rich Are Different followed by its sequel, The Sins of the Fathers, both of which combine to tell the story, in America’ s financial industry, of Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and Octavian.

After her return to England in 1980, Howatch found herself “rich, successful, and living exactly where I wanted to live,” but feeling a spiritual emptiness which she ascribed to “trying to hold my divided self together” and questioning her life and what she should do with it. She had settled in Salisbury out of love for the beauty of the town, but found herself increasingly drawn to Salisbury Cathedral; eventually she began to study Anglican Christianity in earnest. She experienced a spiritual epiphany, and concluded that she should continue to write novels, but to “set forth my discoveries in the light of faith, no matter how feeble and inadequate my beginner’s faith was.” This personal turning point culminated in Howatch’s most successful and popular works, the Starbridge series.

This series of six books sets out to describe the history of the Church of England through the twentieth century. Each of the six books is self-contained, and each is narrated by a different character. However, the main protagonist of each book also appears in the other books, allowing the author to present the same incidents from different viewpoints.

The action of all six books centers around the fictional Anglican diocese of Starbridge, which is supposedly in the west of England, and also features the Fordite monks, a fictional Anglican monastic order. The cathedral and ecclesiastical hierarchy at Starbridge are based on the real-life Salisbury.

The first three books of the series (Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes) begin in the 1930s, and continue through World War II. The second three (Scandalous Risks, Mystical Paths, Absolute Truths) take place in the 1960s.

Glittering Images is narrated by the Reverend Dr. Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge academic who undergoes something of a spiritual and nervous breakdown after being sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to secretly investigate possible sexual transgressions in the household of the Bishop of Starbridge. Ashworth is helped to recover, and to realize the source of his problems, by Father Jonathan Darrow, the widowed abbot of Grantchester Abbey of the Fordite Monks.

Glamorous Powers follows the story of Jonathan Darrow himself as he leaves the Fordite Order at age sixty following a powerful vision. He then must deal with his adult children’s problems, address the question of a new intimate relationship, and search for a new ministry. His particular crisis surrounds the use and misuse of his charismatic powers of healing, and his unsettling mystical visions, or “showings”.

Ultimate Prizes takes place during World War II. It is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, a young and ambitious Archdeacon of Starbridge from a working class background in the north of England. After being widowed and remarried, he too undergoes something of a breakdown but is rescued by Jonathan Darrow.

Scandalous Risks follows Aysgarth to a Canonry of Westminster Abbey and back to Starbridge, where he becomes Dean of the Cathedral and Ashworth becomes Bishop. It is narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat who risks great scandal by beginning a relationship with the married Aysgarth, her father’s best friend.

Mystical Paths follows Nicholas Darrow, son of Jonathan, as he narrowly avoids going off the rails prior to his ordination while investigating the mysterious disappearance of Christian Aysgarth, eldest son of Dean Aysgarth.

Absolute Truths comes full circle and is narrated by a much more elderly but still troubled Charles Ashworth, thirty one years after we first encounter him in the first of the books.

The St. Benet’s trilogy takes place in the London of the 1980s and 1990s. Again, it illustrates the changes which took place in the Anglican Church in those years and brings back many of the characters in the Starbridge series. However, while the Church is still at the heart of the books, there is an increased emphasis on characters who are not members of the clergy. Like the six preceding books, each in the trilogy is written in the first person by a different narrator.

A Question of Integrity (given the title The Wonder Worker in the United States), picks up the story of Nicholas Darrow fifteen years after the last of the Starbridge novels. Nick is now rector of a church in the City of London, where he runs a center for the ministry of healing. His own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the center, especially after he meets Alice Fletcher, an insecure new worker there, and is forced to reassess his beliefs and commitments as a result.

The High Flyer narrates the story of a female City lawyer, Carter Graham, who “has it all”. Her outwardly successful life, complete with highly compensated career and suitable marriage, undergoes profound changes after harrowing events smacking of the occult begin to occur, which reveal that things are not what they seem.

Finally, The Heartbreaker follows the life of Gavin Blake, a charismatic male prostitute specializing in powerful, influential male clients, who finds himself at the center of a criminal empire and must fight to save his life. Meanwhile, both Graham and Darrow must deal with their own weaknesses in trying to help Gavin.

Howatch has used some of the profits from her novels to found an academic post with the title ‘Starbridge Lecturer in Natural Science and Theology’ in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, devoted to linking the fields of science and religion. The first holder of this post is the Reverend Dr. Fraser Watts, a psychologist and theologian.

There are rumors online that Ms. Howatch may not write any more, and that would be sad because I have now read all of her books. I recommend them highly, for well-written, thrilling stories, and, for anyone with spiritual yearnings, as manna for the soul.

Girl History Month – Helen Duncan, Britain’s Last Jailed Witch

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Helen Duncan (1897-1956), was the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735.

Duncan, who had demonstrated psychic ability throughout her life, got into hot water when she performed a séance in Portsmouth, England in November 1941 and accurately revealed that a battleship, the HMS Barham, had been sunk.

Wartime censorship meant the catastrophe was known only to relatives of the casualties, so the authorities were particularly alarmed at Duncan’s “inside” knowledge. The authorities’ biggest fear was not of Duncan’s connection to the “other side” but that she might reveal military secrets.

The séance lead to the Scots-born spiritualist being charged under section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735 for fraudulent activity. She was also charged under the Larceny Act for taking money “by falsely pretending that she was in a position to bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons”.

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An interesting misconception about the case is noted on a BBC website:

“… the Witchcraft Act was originally formulated to eradicate the belief in witches and its introduction meant that from 1735 onwards an individual could no longer be tried as a witch in England or Scotland. However, they could be fined or imprisoned for purporting to have the powers of a witch.”

The Old Bailey jury trial caused a stir in wartime London and attracted much media attention. During the trial Duncan was barred from demonstrating her power as part of her defense against the Larceny charges. She was eventually found guilty under the Witchcraft Act (but not guilty of charges under the Larceny Act) and sentenced to nine months in Holloway Prison.

After the trial, Prime Minister Winston Churchill complained to the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison about the “obsolete tomfoolery” of the charge and waste of court resources.

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She died at her Edinburgh home a short time later. A campaign to have her pardoned continues today.

Duncan was the last person in Britain to be jailed under the act, which was repealed in 1951 and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act. However, she was not the last person convicted under the Witchcraft Act. Jane Rebecca Yorke received a lenient sentence due to her age (she was in her 70s) and fined in late 1944.

The Reason Why Bees Are So Busy…

Reprinted from the New York Times:

Nectar That Gives Bees a Buzz Lures Them Back for More

By 
Published: March 7, 2013

Nothing kicks the brain into gear like a jolt of caffeine. For bees, that is.

Courtesy of Geraldine Wright

And they don’t need to stand in line for a triple soy latte. A new study shows that the naturally caffeine-laced nectar of some plants enhances the learning process for bees, so that they are more likely to return to those flowers.

“The plant is using this as a drug to change a pollinator’s behavior for its own benefit,” said Geraldine Wright, a honeybee brain specialist at Newcastle University in England, who, with her colleagues, reported those findings in Science on Thursday.

The research, other scientists said, not only casts a new light on the ancient evolutionary interaction between plants and pollinators, but is an intriguing confirmation of deep similarities in brain chemistry across the animal kingdom.

Plants are known to go to great lengths to attract pollinators. They produce all sorts of chemicals that affect animal behavior: sugar in nectar, memorable fragrances, even substances in fruit that can act like laxatives in the service of quick seed dispersal.

Lars Chittka, who studies bee behavior at Queen Mary, University of London, and wrote a commentary on the research in the same issue of Science, said that in the marketplace of plants seeking pollinators, the plants “want their customers to remain faithful,” thus the sugary nectar and distinctive scents.

“The trick here,” said Dr. Chittka, who was not involved in the research, “is actually to influence the memorability of the signal using a psychoactive drug. And that’s a new trick in the book for plants.”

Robert A. Raguso, who studies the interactions of plants and pollinators at Cornell and was not part of the study, said in an e-mail, “It makes the reader think twice about where natural products that have economic importance to humans actually came from before we ‘discovered’ and co-opted their biology.”

Dr. Wright did not set out to investigate the evolutionary stratagems of plants. Rather, her goal was to use the honeybee as a model to study drugs that are commonly abused.

About eight or nine years ago, she said, “I ran across this paper on caffeine in floral nectar.” And then, she said, she thought, “ ‘This could be quite interesting because there might be some ecological interaction between the plants and the pollinator.’ That’s how it started.”

Several varieties of coffee and citrus plants have toxic concentrations of caffeine in leaves and other tissues, but low concentrations, similar to that in weak coffee, in the nectar itself. The toxic concentrations help plants fend off predators.

But Dr. Raguso pointed out a well-known axiom that “The dose makes the poison,” a principle that Dr. Wright and her colleagues followed in lab experiments. She conducted learning experiments with bees to see if they associated a reward with an odor, the reward being either sugar water or a combination of sugar water and caffeine in the same concentrations found in the nectar of coffee and citrus plants.

The effect of caffeine was not obvious at first, but as Dr. Wright refined her experiments, it became more clear that the chemical had a profound effect on memory. “If you put a low dose of caffeine in the reward when you teach them this task, and the amount is similar to what we drink when we have weak coffee, they just don’t forget that the odor is associated with the reward,” she said.

After 24 hours, three times as many bees remembered the connection between odor and reward if the reward contained caffeine. After 72 hours, twice as many remembered. They then tested the effect of caffeine on neurons in the bee brain and found that its action could lead to more sensitivity in neurons called Kenyon cells, which are involved in learning and memory. Dr. Wright said that this was one plausible route for enhancing memory, but was not definitive.

Insect and human brains are vastly different, and although caffeine has many effects in people, like increasing alertness, whether it improves memory is unclear. But the excitation of the Kenyon cells was similar to the action of caffeine on cells in the hippocampus in a recent experiment on rats, Dr. Wright said.

Such similarities in neurochemistry that allow caffeine to affect mammalian and insect brains in similar ways may seem surprising, but insects like fruit flies and the nervous systems of even more primitive organisms like nematodes have been used to study learning at the level of individual cells and the chemistry that changes their activities.

Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University, who studies the brain and behavior of a microscopic roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans, said that the bee findings added more support to the idea that some very ancient behaviors like learning must have very deep evolutionary roots. Finding the common neurochemistry in such diverse creatures, she said, is like “learning the vocabulary of the brain.”