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Victorian Christmas Literature: A Spiritual Approach to A (Sometimes) Secular Holiday

Associate Dean Leslee Thorne-Murphy lectured during Education Week 2019 on Victorian Christmas literature and how authors focused on Christ despite the rise of commercialization.

PROVO, Utah (September 18, 2019)—Leslee Thorne-Murphy, Associate Dean in the College of Humanities, is a dedicated scholar of Victorian Christmas literature—books, stories, and poems that were penned during a time of extreme societal change. In the late 19th century, the recent Industrial Revolution prompted, for the first time, the buying and selling of Christmas trees, Christmas cards, and the popularization of other secular components of Christmas tradition that are normal of the modern-day holiday.

Thorne-Murphy researched a variety of the period’s authors and their works in order to study the evolution of Christmas from a purely religious to a secular holiday. She shared her findings in a lecture during Education Week 2019.

Short-story writer Washington Irving wrote a book of sketches including a series depicting Christmas in Britain. Irving’s sketches include familiar traditions such as the Yule Log, mistletoe, Christmas candles, Christmas church services, etc. Thorne-Murphy notes that his was an oddly nostalgic look at Christmas “during a period where people weren’t nostalgic because of the nature of the social and religious changes that were taking place.”

The Song of the Shirt, written by the poet Thomas Hood, treats the topic of charity at Christmastime. The poem depicts a poor seamstress working in her home during the holidays at a time when people wanted inexpensive clothing, but the sewing machine didn’t exist to streamline manufacturing. Thorne-Murphy observed that Hood appealed to society in “one of the first real major public appeals to charity at Christmas time” and encouraged others to serve through organized philanthropy, an idea that hadn’t yet been associated with Christmas.

Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, England, wrote the story Lizzie Leigh. The story tells of a father on his deathbed who forgives his daughter Lizzie for being a great disappointment to the family. Although she remained somewhat vague about the story’s details, Thorne-Murphy explained that Gaskell took a holiday typically associated with birth, and “by making it a story of death, Gaskell is then able to make it a great story of rebirth and redemption.”

Finally, Thorne-Murphy commented on her study of a well-known story: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote the classic during a time of economic crisis, lack of public education, and overall social melancholy with the purpose of bringing light to those issues. Thorne-Murphy commented on the unique structure of the story compared to other Christmas literature at the time and its continued applicability by saying, “It’s a story that I think speaks to Christmas and to our observance of Christmas because it manages to meld the folk traditions, the ancient traditions, and the Christian traditions in a way that makes sense and has continued to make sense for our societies.”

Thorne-Murphy’s passion for Victorian Christmas Literature inspired her to teach a class on the subject during Fall 2018 and curate an exhibit for the Harold B. Lee Library that was available for the month of December 2018. She wrote an article on her experiences that can be found at https://humanities.byu.edu/moments-of-the-sublime/.

—Tori Hamilton (Editing & Publishing, ‘20)

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