Possibly one of the most satisfying things I am doing at present is feeding my Christmas cake. I made it a couple of weeks ago, and so between now and Christmas Eve, I am feeding it every week, by which I mean I am teaspoon-ing brandy over the surface, top and bottom. I may be a little heavy-handed in my feeding, so I suspect that by Christmas we will be pouring the cake into glasses. This is the first year that I have made so much Christmas food from scratch and in advance. I made my own mincemeat, my own mince pies and cake, and more is to come, because for me, Christmas is about food. In this vein, I bring you The Christmas Hamper by Robert Braithwaite Martineau.
The Christmas Hamper Robert Braithwaite Martineau
When I say that Christmas is about food, I don’t mean that I intend to eat myself into a coma for the entire holiday (although I’m not ruling that out), rather that everything that my family eats should convey my love and care for them. Wow, that sounded a lot less weird in my head.
When I think of a proper Victorian Christmas, I do think about food. Think of Scrooge turning up with his giant goose to Kermit the Frog’s house in The Muppet Christmas Carol (That Dickens, he knew how to write). There is an appreciation, even a delight, in good food in Victorian society, which reminds me of how little we seem to delight in it now. Look at the expression on the face of the father as he pulls that mammoth bird from the hamper…
I wonder how heavy it is… I’m cooking a turkey for the first time this year and I have no concept of how big this damn thing is going to be as I have never actually seen a cooked turkey in real life. I know, it’s odd, but we didn’t have it at home and I’ve never gone anywhere where someone has produced one. I’ve cooked a goose, I’ve cooked a duck and countless chickens, but never a turkey. The man of the house holds his turkey up in the centre of the picture and its wings spread out in a beautiful shape. It’s almost cruciform, but I wonder if it’s too far to suggest that the shape of the turkey references the presence of Christ in Christmas, in the meal and the gathering of the family? Maybe it’s just a lovely shape, highlighted by those snowy white feathers.
I’m trying to think if I’ve ever cooked a hare, and I think not, but I noticed that the son is heaving one out of the basket…
Is it just me or does he look like he is either greeting it or dancing with it? Either way, this family isn’t starving over the festivities. In case you were worried that it is all meat, they also have a goodly tray of apples. Well, that’s one of their five-a-day…
Apples are a bit Biblical, aren’t they? Let's not get carried away - maybe the artist included them because they look nice. Well, a damn sight prettier than a tray of sprouts. Hang about, look at the little girl with her doll next to the lady with the apples…
Three choruses of ‘Away in a Manger’ later and I suspect Mr Martineau may be sneaking a bit of Christ into Christmas. She definitely looks like the lucky girl in class who got to play Mary in the school play. I never got to be Mary, I was once the Angel Gabriel but that just involved me standing around with tinsel on my head.
|I'm on the far left, don't laugh.|
So what Martineau has done is place a tableau of the Virgin and Child in amongst an archetypal Victorian family scene. If you took the family in the centre away, you would be left with the light coming in from the window falling upon the 'mother and child'. In fact, the turkey could stand for the star, shining brightly in the dark Victorian surroundings. The colours used for the family and the room are quite muted, reds and greens, but the little Mary-girl wears purple, setting her apart (even though her tights are red) and hinting at her elevated status. Martineau has found a way to show the nativity without taking away from the more commonplace delight of Christmas. He seems to be saying, in his Victorian Christmas, there is room for a giant turkey and the baby Jesus, but in their delight to open our giant hamper of food, the family have sidelined the reason for the feast. It must have been a difficult line to walk for an up-and-coming Victorian - you want to show and enjoy your wealth, but you want to appear ‘appropriately religious’. Who needs that kind of pressure when you have a giant turkey to pluck?
The only person who I don’t understand is the little girl in red on the far left…
What is she up to? She doesn’t look delighted and she isn’t unpacking the food. She has empty jam jars as far as I can see and she is looking back at the central family group with a touch of either disapproval or unease. As she balances the Mary-child on the other side, it could be that she symbolises the less fortunate: while the family have a full hamper, she has empty jam jars. While the family rejoice in their wealth, others starve. Being a Victorian was a guilt-laden experience, obviously.
Sorry to bring everyone down, I’m sure they are very nice people in the picture and they shared their giant turkey with their poor relations, with cries of ‘God Bless us, every one!’ and the such like. I promise I’ll be funnier tomorrow and tell more muff jokes. I’ll try and mention about how very rude ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ is.
No, it really it is. It’s utter filth.
See you tomorrow.