On 2 January, 1840, Dickens wrote to his printers, Bradbury and Evans, to thank them for their annual Christmas gift of a turkey.
Four years later, Dickens had written something that possessed still more “astonishing capabilities.” A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas was first published just before Christmas in 1843, and since then it has never been out of print.
Originally written as a tract for the times, this cautionary tale about the ongoing tussle between greed and goodness has been thought of as timely whenever it has been read.
Enjoyed by its first readers as a modern expression of the spirit of Christmas—as modern as Christmas cards, which were sent for the first time in the same year as the Carol’s publication—it has since become popular for quite different reasons: the sense of tradition it is thought to embody, a reminder of the simple pleasures that seem to have been lost sight of in the seasonal scrum of shoppers, an annual invitation to the pleasures of nostalgia.
Reproduced so often, and in so many different forms, it has become as much a part of Christmas as mince pies or turkey, with the key difference that, as Martin Heidegger argued was true of all classic works, it has never been “used up.”
There have been dozens of films, starring everyone from Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson to Mr. Magoo and Mickey Mouse, operas and ballets, an all-black musical (Comin’ Uptown, which opened on Broadway in 1979), Benjamin Britten’s 1947 Men of Goodwill: Variations on ‘A Christmas Carol,’ even a BBC mime version in 1973 starring Marcel Marceau.
So regular are the annual returns of the Carol to our stages and screens, in fact, that it has become something like a secular ritual, an alternative Christmas story to its more obviously religious rival, in which the three wise men are replaced by three instructive spirits, and the pilgrimage to a child in a manger is replaced by a visit to the house of Tiny Tim.
Even people who have never read the Carol know the story of Scrooge, the miserable old skinflint who repents after being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
So widely and deeply has this story entered the popular imagination that phrases such as Bah! Humbug! have floated free of their original context and acquired the force of common proverbs, while Scrooge himself has entered the language as a piece of cultural shorthand “used allusively to designate a miserly, tight-fisted person or killjoy” (OED, “Scrooge”).
It’s hard to believe that anything as jaw-droppingly futuristic could be 57 years old, but the lava lamp (or astro lamp as it was originally known) has been around that long.
Invented by a British accountant named Edward Craven -Walker in 1963, the lava lamp quickly became an icon of 1960s psychedelia, with news of the product spread by worth-of-mouth.
The lamps work by using a light bulb to heat a bottle containing coloured oil and water (and some other minor chemicals – but those are the main two). The oil and water have similar densities but are insoluble to one another, meaning they don’t mix.
When the bottle is heated the oil absorbs the heat first, expanding in size as it does so. The expansion means that it becomes less dense and begins floating upwards.
As it floats up it cools, contracts and falls back to the bottom of the bottle, starting the chain of events all over again.
This continual slow motion process is based around very slight differences in density between the oil and water – the balance between them is like a very sensitive pair of scales, with small amounts of heat tipping the balance back and forth.
Bizarrely, the assembly line robots who help the humans have come from Detroit’s collapsed motor industry.
For some years it was assumed that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort had introduced the Christmas Tree into Great Britain.
However, that honour rightfully belongs to Queen Charlotte, the German born wife of George III in December of 1800.
That year Queen Charlotte planned to hold a large Christmas party for the children of all the principal families in Windsor.
And casting about in her mind for a special treat to give the youngsters, she suddenly decided that instead of the customary yew bough, she would pot up an entire yew tree, cover it with baubles and fruit, load it with presents and stand it in the middle of the drawing-room floor at Queen’s Lodge.
Such a tree, she considered, would make an enchanting spectacle for the little ones to gaze upon.
When the children arrived at the house on the evening of Christmas Day and beheld that magical tree, all aglitter with tinsel and glass, they believed themselves transported straight to fairyland and their happiness knew no bounds.
Dr John Watkins, one of Queen Charlotte’s biographers, who attended the party, provides us with a vivid description of this captivating tree ‘from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles’.
He adds that ‘after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted’.
Christmas trees now became all the rage in English upper-class circles, where they formed the focal point at countless children’s gatherings.
As in Germany, any handy evergreen tree might be uprooted for the purpose; yews, box trees, pines or firs. Trees placed on table tops usually also had either a Noah’s Ark or a model farm and numerous gaily-painted wooden animals set out among the presents beneath the branches to add extra allurement to the scene.
By the time Queen Charlotte died in 1818, the Christmas-tree tradition was firmly established in society, and it continued to flourish throughout the 1820s and 1830s.
The fullest description of these early English Yuletide trees is to be found in the diary of Charles Greville, the witty, cultured Clerk of the Privy Council, who in 1829 spent his Christmas holidays at Panshanger, Hertfordshire, home to Peter, 5th Earl Cowper, and his wife Lady Emily.
But it was not until periodicals such as the Illustrated London News, Cassell’s Magazine and The Graphic began to depict and describe the royal Christmas trees every year from 1845 until the late 1850s, that the custom of setting up such trees in their own homes caught on with the masses in England.
By 1860, however, there was scarcely a well-off family in the land that did not sport a Christmas tree in parlour or hall.
And all the December parties held for pauper children at this date featured gift-laden Christmas trees as their main attraction.
The spruce fir was now generally accepted as the festive tree par excellence, but the branches of these firs were no longer cut into artificial tiers or layers as in Germany, but were allowed to remain intact, with candles and ornaments arranged randomly over them, as at the present day.
The Hyde Park Picture House, the world’s only surviving gas-lit cinema, opened in 1914.
The owners of the Grade II-listed building have now been granted planning permission for redevelopment, to improve accessibility, restore the gas lights and ornate plasterwork and incorporate a second screen in the basement.