The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

With Christmas only weeks away, Dr Diane Duffy looks at how Elizabeth Gaskell prepared for and celebrated Christmas through the years.

Despite the fact that Unitarians did not recognise the divinity of Christ, Christmas as a time of peace, love and family unity was still special for the Gaskell household.

On the 23rd of December 1841 she writes to Anne Robson (William’s sister)

Xmas Day it has been a sort of long promise that we all should spend at the Bradford’s-by all, I mean Wm, myself, two children and Eliz[abe]th [1] and all stop all night.

Elizabeth Gaskell seems to have loved gathering friends and family together at Xmas. In 1850 she is away from home, staying at Broughton House near Worcester [2] and is miserable at the thought of being away from Manchester and her family over the Christmas period. She writes to Lady Janet Kay Shuttleworth on December 12th 1850

I am in great hopes that my husband may be able to come up in Xmas week, as I am forbidden to return to Manchester-and it would be very desolate to be thrown on the wide world, even a wide world of friends, -without anything of home about one, that very week so sacred to homes & families and made so by the birth of a child….he will bring our second little girl with him…I fancy they will have a very merry pleasant Christmas week

Again, in a letter to Edward Hale dated December 14th 1860, she shows her enjoyment of entertaining friends at Christmas time, although her role as a hostess did not end with the festive season:

‘Xmas is coming up round again, and we do so wish you were likely to turn up again all ‘promiscuous’ as our English servants say, and share our turkey, and have a merry round game of cards’.

Turkey too seems a favourite with the Gaskell family as Christmas fare, although in 1849, when visiting London with William she notices a street where the traders are hoping to tempt passers-by into purchasing food for their Xmas feast; a description reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Gaskell compares the scene with her experiences in Lancashire:

…geese with their necks hanging down at full length, instead of being tidily tucked up like Lancashire geese, -and the shops are full of them against Xmas

In a letter to Eliza Fox dated April 1850, she again mentions turkey, this time in a rather politically charged Christmas joke: one of many she cites with a comment that they are ‘not bad enough to be good’.

Why is the Emperor of Russia like a beggar at Xmas? Because he’s confounded Hungary and wants a slice of Turkey.

Although this letter was sent in the spring, it reminds me of many Christmases with family members sitting round the table sharing similar jokes from Christmas crackers. But for Gaskell, Christmas was not just a time for selfish pleasures, it was a time for sharing with those less fortunate. In November 1851 she writes to her daughter Marianne:

I have written to Mrs. Austen to ask Annie here soon after Xmas, during your holidays: and I want the Dean girls to come too, poor girls –Xmas is such a sad time for them.

In fact, the Christmas season usually found her busy entertaining, although not on Christmas Day itself. On that very day in 1852 she is quietly awaiting the holiday festivities as she writes to Mary Green, her friend in Knutsford:

…we have many visitors coming this Xmas, and an inefficient servant. (I must have another waiter, good serving cleanliness & thoughtful head wanted).

Servants are a constant problem for Elizabeth, especially at such a busy time of year.

There were certainly festivities in the Gaskell household but did the family exchange gifts at Christmas? It seems that they did, and Elizabeth, like many today, was a last minute shopper, coming home exhausted with not always a full complement of gifts. On December 24th 1852 she writes to Marianne:

A merry Christmas to you and plenty of them… we are not going to keep Xmas until New Year’s Day, partly because you won’t be here, partly because the presents are not ready…there is a great concoction of mince-meat and plum pudding going on. Huddlestone [3] has never tasted either.

Again in 1861, Elizabeth seems to have left her Xmas shopping until the final day-Christmas Eve. She writes to Marianne:

On Tuesday [Christmas Eve] Meta and I wearied ourselves out shopping for Xmas presents, Xmas day walked to and from Chapel and to Mrs. Nicholls, so last night [Christmas Day] I was utterly worn out.

During the Cotton Famine, however, the Gaskell household had rather less than usual for Xmas, feeling it unfair to flaunt their comfort when others were starving -it was a very sad time. On December 26th 1861, Elizabeth writes to Marianne:

no one wishes each other a ‘merry Xmas’ this year – as if by one consent everyone says ‘the compliments of the season & a happy new year’ [even Charles] Hallé put off their ball until Jan 3rd.

But the Gaskell girls did get some presents, even that year:

Julia a scarlet Connemara Cloak. Nothing to poor Meta but a waltz of Chopin’s. Florence a remnant of silk for a gown.

Elizabeth and her eldest daughters also ensured that the poor were looked after wherever possible. Elizabeth writes to David Grundy asking if he would:

 kindly let us have a few fents & scraps of cloth we could manage a cloak a piece for Xmas day .

Christmas is a time for families, and many want to look their best for this special holiday. Elizabeth Gaskell was no exception. In December 1851 she tells her friend, Eliza Fox about a new outfit which she is clearly very proud of, probably because it was cheap! Gaskell loved a bargain:

I’ve the comfort of sitting down to write to you in a new gown, and blue ribbons all spick and span for Xmas-and cheap in the bargain, Elegant economy as we say in Cranford

But even while buying new clothes for herself and her family, Elizabeth was always mindful of others and often gave Xmas gifts to friends, gifts which were thoughtfully selected. In 1849 she asks John Forster to give a copy of ‘Tennyson’s Poems’ to the working-class poet Samuel Bamford. Elizabeth had:

 thought at first of giving him the Poems this Xmas [ but] I thought if you could ask Tennyson if he would give Bamford a copy from himself […this] would be glorious for the old man…

In order to achieve this ‘personal touch’ Samuel Bamford had to receive his Christmas present very early. Nearly ten years later, on December 23rd 1858, she sends her friend Charles Bosanquet a book for Christmas, this time a book of German hymns translated by her friend Catherine Winkworth :

…you will receive a Lyra Germanica from me the day after you get this letter, -…you must please accept it as a Christmas gift.

We also know that she exchanged Xmas gifts with Charlotte Bronte . Gaskell gave Bronte a copy of The Moorland Cottage and received in return a second edition of Wuthering Heights. As well as gifts she often sent Xmas greetings to her friends overseas. She writes to Charles Eliot Norton on December 7th, 1857:

Shall you get this before Christmas day -25th of December, – your poor dear Americans have Thanksgivings, but I suspect you have not Christmases -& perhaps you won’t know what I mean when I wish you and yours a merry & happy Christmas. However I do.

One question that is asked about Elizabeth’s Xmas celebrations is: ‘Did she have a Christmas tree?’, the answer is probably not, although we only have one letter that even mentions their Christmas decorations, or lack of them. In 1852 Gaskell writes to her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Holland:

Not having a tree. Our Xmas days are always very quiet, principally a jollification for the servants.

 Xmas Day for the Gaskell family was usually spent walking to Chapel and then home, but the Xmas period was usually very busy as the house filled with visitors, and there was a party for the servants at New Year. Yet despite their own lack of a Christmas tree, Elizabeth looks on the symbol in a positive way, associating it with happiness and family unity, the spirit of Christmas. In a letter to Julie Schwabe in 1853 she comments on the accommodation at the King’s Printers in Farringdon St., London- where Mr Spottiswoode, his brother and their apprentices live:

They have a Xmas tree at Christmas-in short they are like a large happy family.

Finally, let us end on a note close to Elizabeth’s heart, Italy. Towards the end of her life, in December 1864 she hurries off a letter to George Smith in order to try and persuade him to publish a ‘paper on Xmas’ by John Addington Symonds whom she describes as taking ‘no end of honours at Oxford’ . Symonds’ work was entitled , ‘Thoughts on Xmas. In Florence, 1863 ‘ and clearly Elizabeth had read it with great enjoyment.


[1] Elizabeth was Elizabeth Barlow who is listed on the 1841 census as one of Elizabeth’s servants.

[2] John Whitmore succeeded his father in Berwick’s bank the owner of Boughton House. He married Charlotte Holland of Dumbleton (Elizabeth’s cousin) who was related to Josiah Wedgewood, the famous potter and to the naturalist Charles Darwin, as, of course, was Elizabeth Gaskell.

[3] Huddlestone refers to Margaret Huddlestone, one of Elizabeth’s servants from Elterwater in Westmorland who married the out door’s man, Will Preston, in 1854.