During the recent Christmas season I saw references everywhere to “Victorian” Christmas celebrations–house tours, store windows, magazine advertisements, etc. I can understand people pining for a simpler time, provided we overlook such details as child labor, Jim Crow laws, and women not having the right to vote. What I wonder is whether people in Victorian times waxed nostalgic about prior eras. Did they have “Federalist” Christmases idealizing the late 1700s? For that matter, did the Federalists have “colonial” Christmases idealizing the late 1600s? Or did prior generations have enough sense to appreciate their own time? –Stella-Rondo Whitaker, Washington, D.C.

Sense has nothing to do with it. It’s just that, to paraphrase musical philosopher Dan Hicks, you can’t miss it if it won’t go away. Nostalgia, like Rice Chex, antacid tablets, and Dan Rather, is the product of modern urban-industrial society, which is continually assaulted by change (aka progress, for the optimists among us) and in which most people have lost their sense of connection to the land. In a traditional agricultural society there’s nothing to get nostalgic about, since you’re still living on the land and yesterday was pretty much the same as today.

Longing for the past dates from the early 19th century, not long after the start of the industrial revolution in England. (The word nostalgia wasn’t widely applied to said longing until after World War I, having previously signified a pathological case of homesickness.) Early promoters of nostalgia included the poet William Wordsworth and the novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose novel Ivanhoe (1819) launched a fad for chivalry. Romantic literature appealed to city folk, by then a bit disenchanted with urban life (as the philosophes of a previous generation had not been) and inclined to a sentimental view of the lost joys of nature, childhood, and the past.

Not coincidentally, our modern idea of Christmas also dates from the early 19th century. Prior to that time celebrations of Christmas varied widely among regions. (In Puritan New England, Christmas wasn’t even a legal holiday until 1856.) Several things changed that, among them Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). The success of this book and the many other Christmas books and articles Dickens wrote later was greatly multiplied by the rise of large-scale commercial publishing and helped fix the Victorian era as the classic Christmas setting throughout the English-speaking world. Other contributors to the Victorian Christmas tradition include Prince Albert, who popularized the Christmas tree, previously a German custom.

Merchandised sentiment eventually replaced preindustrial holiday traditions. Victorian celebrations had some inherent charm, of course. But it was only by dint of constant repetition in the media that frosted windowpanes, carolers, top hats and long dresses, and (in America) fat guys in red suits became “iconic” of Christmas, as we pop-culturati say. Harmless enough, I suppose. But next time you get the warm fuzzies watching some Victorian Xmas special on TV, remember you feel that way in part because you’ve been trained to.

Before modern refrigeration, how did the ice companies commercially produce ice? I assume it wasn’t transported by train from the North Pole. –D. Bell, Chicago

Assume nothing, Jack. For a short period after the invention of trains but before the invention of refrigeration commercial ice harvesting was a mighty industry. (Before the train, of course, you had to preserve your food as best you could by salting it, storing it in the cellar, or other dismal expedient.) The ice was sliced not from the North Pole but from frozen northern lakes in the winter, stored in insulated icehouses, then shipped to market in the summer months for distribution by the iceman. (He cometh, you’ll recall.) The whole business melted away with the advent of the Kelvinator.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.