Spirits of Christmas Past: Yuletide in Print

Album of original watercolours of views and activities during travel in Canada, Europe and California

Original watercolour, Snowshoeing Party, 1880-1881

As the year grows older, and so much darker in the Northern Hemisphere, large numbers of people around the globe by a common consent set their work aside for days or weeks and shelter together in the company of their family and friends. In this part of the world, many also make sure they have a good book handy to help get them through the early days of winter. The books that are actually about Christmas have their roots in customs and traditions that long predate the actual birth of Jesus. The Roman celebration of Saturnalia, held at the same time, was a festival of reversals in the hope that the sun’s mind might be changed and bring back the light and warmth that had become scarce commodities in December. For a day or two, slaves became masters, children and servants were served at table first, singing and shouting were preferred over the normal domestic tranquility. This sense of reversal and surprise still pervades the Christmas celebrations, starting with the Christian story of the Nativity itself, summed up so beautifully in a late medieval poem that begins,

‘A god and yet a man?
A maid and yet a mother?
Wit wonders what wit can
Conceive, this or the other?

The Four Gospels of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Detail from the Four Gospels of the Lord Jesus Christ, 1931

Beyond the biblical account of Jesus’ birth, the Christmas stories that follow, both sacred and secular, are still all about reversals and surprises, and the joy that accompanies them. Consider A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas: each one relies on the premise that ways can be changed, the unexpected can happen, and that even for the most hardened of heart, there is a chance for awe and wonder. These are the reasons why the stories we tell and carols we sing at this time of year survive and continue to give us hope that the sun will indeed relent and return, especially this year.

Puddings and Dainty Desserts

Cover detail from Puddings and Dainty Desserts, 1886

But the holidays have a practical side to them as well, reflected in other printed works like cookbooks and catalogues. As long as food and drink are part of the annual celebrations, recipes will be essential, the best ones passed from one generation to the next. Printed menus give us a sense of how the Christmas meal has, or has not, changed over the decades and centuries, in good times and in times of adversity. Besides over-eating, of course, part of the joy of the holidays is gift-giving. Through the preservation of their catalogues, insight is gained into the activities and strategies of retailers who both shaped and responded to the needs of their clients, many of whom lived at great distances from their stores. They testify to the fact that remote shopping is, in fact, nothing new in this land of ours.

Christmas Catalogue, 1958.

Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1958

In this episode of the Fisher Library's podcast, Between the Pillars, the exhibition's curator, Pearce Carefoote, discusses Christmas and showcases some treasures from the collections. 

Click on any image throughout the exhibition to view or download in higher resolution, explore additional information and see additional digitized images.

This exhibition was curated by Pearce Carefoote at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in November 2020. The online exhibition was prepared by Danielle Van Wagner and Andrew Stewart.

Introduction