The other evening I was watching the Christmas episode from Season 2 of the BBC show Victoria. It’s a heartwarming feature about Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, their children and extended family. Albert spends most of the episode trying to create an absolutely magical Christmas experience for his wife and children while also wanting to get everyone at odds to reconcile.
(Slight spoilers ahead)
As the episode unfolds, we learn that Albert is so determined to have a perfect holiday because one Christmas in his childhood was the last sparkling and good memory he had of his family all together. Eventually, his older brother reveals that all was not good and magical on that evening the way Albert remembered it.
It seems like I cannot escape memory these days. I question it every day in a big research project I’m working on, particularly since post-Civil War memory is not adding up with what I’ve been finding in the primary sources. Yet again. Seems to be a trend.
Memory is a tricky thing. When it’s a personal memory, it’s subjective to our feelings and our experiences. We ALL do it. Remember things better or worse than they really were. Deliberate changing of memory or intentionally choosing to ignore reality is where I believe it gets problematic. It’s exactly what Albert gets called out for doing in the show. It’s possible he didn’t notice his mother crying during that “perfect Christmas”, but it’s also possible he chose not to remember because it didn’t fit the narrative that he wanted to believe.
On the Civil War reading stack this month, I’ve been slowly working my way through Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory by Robert E. May. Oh, boy! All those lovely Antebellum Christmas stories we probably read or heard somewhere? That’s one side of memory. Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen for a few people, but portraying or interpreting those rosy ideals as THE experience gets dangerously slippery and oftentimes untrue.
I’ve been thinking about how I once presented a story about Civil War Christmas. It centered on the account of “Stonewall” Jackson and his wife spending Christmas Day at the McGuire family’s home in Winchester Virginia (1861). There’s this story that the family’s table was so full of food that it was a “groaning table” and then stern Stonewall just wanted plain food (cornbread, if I remember correctly) and Mrs. McGuire was probably a bit chagrined. A rather delightful story and if the focus is on Jackson, the point is taken (Jackson can be a quirky guest) and we move on. But, if trying to use that story to talk about Christmas itself, there are other parts to it. Parts that I did not fully explore or even truly recognize years ago when I was sharing that story. In the past, I usually focused on the McGuire women…but…I now I’m asking the question: who was actually cooking? Probably enslaved women. Maybe a hired servant. The warm fuzzy and slightly funny story from the dining room is only part of that Christmas account and if that story is going to be used as a Christmas example, I need to do better about telling THE FULL STORY.
No, I have not had a chance to dig deeper on that. Do I want to? Yes, of course. I’m glad to be always learning and exploring ways to “do history better.” Maybe by next year I can circle back to it with more specific details and cited sources.
It’s not to put a damper on our Christmas history accounts and make everyone feel sad and miserable. But it is about taking a closer look at the full picture and being honest.
In the scripted story of Victoria‘s Christmas, Albert only wants to remember the pretty perfection of his childhood. While that was a special memory, it was also not the full story. We see Albert struggle with the reality as his brother reveals it, but that reality also becomes another powerful motivator for Albert to reconcile his small arguments and ensure that HIS magical Christmas scene is truly happy and not a facade.
And perhaps that becomes the perfect analogy for looking at historical Christmases. It can be hard—probably even painful—to dig into the layers and ask questions about the perfectly happy scenes we’ve come to love and imagine. But it should help us learn to be more aware, more sensitive, and hopefully more kind as we approach the holidays and make memories of our own. May those memories we make truly be genuine, not sugar coated into something far removed from the actual event.
Just some ramblings this Christmas season…