What Christmas is, as we Grow Older
14 x 9.3 cm vignetted
Dickens's Christmas Stories, Vol. 16 of Charles Dickens Library Edition, facing page 589.
The 1851 Christmas essay "What Christmas is, as we Grow Older" is a transitional work, reiterating the visions in the fire of The Christmas Books of the 1840s and anticipating the moral "seasonal offerings" of the Extra Christmas Numbers of Dickens's weekly periodicals, from 1850 through 1867. [Commentary continued below.]
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Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you! You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing! [page 593]
In successive illustrated anthologies, the essays do not receive pride of place, although "A Christmas Tree" (1850) and "What Christmas is, as we Grow Older" (1851) are often reprinted. The seasonal offerings that are specifically narratives in Household Words begin with A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire in 1852, and continue into the 1860s with the framed tales of All the Year Round, the last of the series being the Charles Dickens-Wilkie Collins collaboration No Thoroughfare (1867). The philosophical qualities of "What Christmas is, as we Grow Older," published at Christmas 1851, connect the short effusion with the highly descriptive and contemplative "A Christmas Tree" from 1850, the first of a series of nine essays by journalists such as Blanchard Jerrold, Henry Wills, James Hannay, Charles Knight, F. K. Hunt, J. H. Siddons, Samuel Sidney, and R. H. Horne. Many of these writers contributed to the second set of philosophical essays in 1851, but the second series featured two new writers who became significant over the decade, Harriet Martineau (who contributed "What Christmas is in Country Places," the fourth essay) and George Augustus Sala (who contributed "What Christmas is in the Company of John Doe," the fifth essay). Neither of Dickens's Christmas essays, however, has leant itself to illustration, so that Furniss is one of the few illustrators to realise passages in them. In the 1868 Library Edition and the 1911 Centenary Edition, the two Dickens Christmas essays appear before the first of his Christmas stories, "The Poor Relation's Story" from A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire (1852). Oddly enough, Furniss and his editor, J. A. Hammerton, have sandwiched the essays between the last of the Mugby Junction pieces of 1866 and No Thoroughfare, suggesting that they regarded them as a summing up of Dickens's sentiments about Christmas and its meaning in mid-Victorian England. Entertaining and well written though it may be, the Dickens-Collins collaborative novella is decidedly not a Christmas story, so that the companion essays would have been out of place at the close of the volume. Perhaps owing to the publisher's assessment that neither "A Christmas Tree" nor "What Christmas is, as we Grow Older" is technically a fiction, the 1876 American Household Edition of Christmas Stories and 1877 volume published in Great Britain omit them entirely.
As Deborah Thomas remarks, and
as the narrator declares in Dickens' "What Christmas is, as we Grow Older" (from the holiday number of Household Words for 1851), Christmas is a time for reminiscing of the past, dreaming of the future, and envisioning what has never been, as well as for opening one's affections to other human beings . . . . 
Furniss's keynote, then, of the waking dreamer before the Christmas hearth is what Thomas terms an "emotional and imaginative release" (35-36) which Dickens termed "Fancy." Since the essay is, as Thomas rightly proposes, "an impressionistic sketch" (71), Furniss's nimble pen suggests myriads of old friends, family members, and children rising in spirit from the fireplace, like the fairies in The Cricket on The Hearth, a paean to the cherished Victorian conceptions of family and home. Thomas also suggests that the waking dreamer has adopted an "idly speculative" (71) Bozzian pose; however, Furniss conceives of the the drawing-room dreamer as similar in type and form to the aged observer of life in Come and remember with me! from his visual accompaniment for "The Child's Story" at the beginning of the volume.
Whereas Dickens emphasizes the dreamer's constructing airy castles in imaginative landscapes, Furniss has his aged figure (looking nothing like Dickens in the closing years of his life) recalling characters from his youth, his only substantial companion being the dozing bloodhound at his knee. Figures in eighteenth-century dress — presumably parents or grandparents — stare out from the frame above the mantelpiece, pointing towards scenes of courtship and the schoolroom, emblematic of young adulthood and childhood respectively. Whereas the white-haired dreamer in mid-Victorian dress is static, the figures in his vision swirl and dance, contrasting the passivity of age with the exuberance of youth. It is, in total, a fine set piece on the beneficent effect of memory, and the power of art (the paintings and the bust, upper right) and familiar objects to help the older generation to construct meaning out of their lives. Furniss does not dwell on thew particular figures that connect the dreamer's visions of byegone years with actual people in Dickens's life such as his crippled nephew Henry Burnett ("a poor mis-shapen boy," p. 592), who became the basis for Tiny Tim, but who died in 1848, the same year in which Dickens published the last of the Christmas Books.
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Last modified 10 October 2013