On a Fat Man

Tum-Tum was one of the wealthiest, happiest, and dumbest people in all of Britain in the late 1800s. Of course, Tum-Tum wasn’t his name, but it’s what all his friends called him because, as you can imagine, this man had a rather corpulent bent to his frame. And his given, Christian name didn’t seem to fit him because, well, he was so jolly and fat. In fact, he was so fat that he couldn’t button the front of his suit vests.

And it should be no surprise that Tum-Tum’s money was from the aristocracy. He had large houses in and around London in which he threw amazing parties across several decades. He and his fellow revelers became known as the Smart Set because all their party exploits were splashed across the tabloids daily. All what this group of upper-crust snobs did was gobbled up by a public eager for news of what the rich were up to. If the wealthy people did it, then the common man wanted to do it, too. The Smart Set often set the pace in fashion, habits, and even things like what alcoholic drinks were to become popular. For example, because Tum-Tum couldn’t button his vests, the popular thing around the nation for a time was for gentlemen to also not button their vests.

And none of this accounts for the inordinate amount of adultery that went on at Tum-Tum’s parties. And the fact that he was married and had several kids didn’t slow him down. For such a fat man, Tum-Tum got around. He preferred his women newly married, it was rumored, because they were usually more “careful” about any possible “accidents” that might result from a rendezvous with him. There are photographs (this being the late 1800s after all) documenting Tum-Tum sitting at parties with his mistress du jour by his side. Looking at these women, they indeed look young but are always dressed properly and conservatively as a married woman should. Once, he had to testify in court at a divorce proceeding but, because of his wealth, his lies about his involvement with the woman in question were believed. The husband’s suit for divorce was dismissed.

Tum-Tum’s idea of a joke was to pour champagne on the head of someone else. He found this immensely humorous, and it caused him to hold his tum-tum and belly laugh uncontrollably. Again, he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the pack. Even his parents despaired of him. Mummy realized her son was a wastrel. His father said, of Tum-Tum’s intellect, that it was like “being robbed on a trip but finding that your weapon is buried somewhere at the bottom of a trunk.”


Eventually, Tum-Tum’s extravagant lifestyle finally caught up with him. A Jeroboam of champagne, twelve of the finest cigars and five meals a day will do that. He died in 1910. His last words were, fittingly, about a successful bet he had placed on a horserace. He was mourned, certainly, but some people didn’t really seem to miss him despite the fact that he was so popular for most of his life. A fitting epitaph was supposedly said by one of his friends that, “It was happy to have known him, but it is happier still that he is gone.”

At his funeral, it was remarked that while he was of the nobility, he was, “too human.” Of course, we’re speaking of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, Emperor of India, and son of Queen Victoria.

On a Christmas Tradition

One of the favorite theses I read about in studying for my history degree centered around the idea that the modern world was, by and large, created from the period 1820-1850. Those thirty years saw the creation of steam travel (trains), instant communication (telegraph), and the application of machines to industry (engines in factories). Arguably, most “inventions” since then have only been improvements on those original concepts.

The same can be true about many of our modern traditions and practices in society. A stock reply to almost any question regarding the origins of traditions today is, “Oh, the Victorians came up with that,” and this is mostly true. We have already looked at the idea of the Christmas tree (from Queen Victoria herself, actually), and we can add such things to the Victorians’ credit as stockings being hung and carols being sung.

Henry Cole is one such Victorian who had an impact on what we do as a holiday tradition today. Cole’s career was largely as an upper level British government functionary; he worked in records, worked on post office reform (some people give him credit for the first postage stamp, for example), and, because of his interest in arts, worked with various exhibitions and art displays over the years. He was a major planner and proponent of The Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. Cole even managed to write a well-received book on design and even invented/designed a teapot that was mass produced by an English pottery firm.

All in all, Henry Cole was a prototypical Victorian. His interest in combining art and industry and public admin demonstrates the Victorian adage that the modern person should not pigeon-hole, that interests–even as disparate as art and science–should complement and not compete with each other. His ability to administer projects and marshal disparate factions into one focus made him a favorite of the Queen’s Consort, Prince Albert. “If you want steam,” Albert reportedly said once, making a joke on the man’s name while recognizing his ability, “then you need to get Cole.”

We remember Cole these days mostly for his collaboration with an artist named John Callcott Horsley (With a name like that–you must be a Victorian artist, right?). In 1843, Cole commissioned Horsley to draw/paint a festive holiday scene and include a greeting. The image Horsley produced caused some controversy (say that word like a Brit would with the accent on the second syllable) because it depicted a young child drinking wine (see the image above). No matter! It’s the thought that counts, isn’t it? Cole had the image reproduced on card stock and sent it to various friends and family members that December. And while others claim that some people sent holiday greetings earlier than this, it was Cole’s sending these by post that year that began a yearly holiday tradition.

It was the first Christmas card.

On a Christmas Tree

Al and Vicky loved Christmas. The kids, the presents, the traditions. Back in the 1840s, when the couple’s family was starting, they embraced the German tradition of putting up a tree as part of the celebration of the holiday time. That seems innocuous enough, but the pair lived in Britain, and German traditions weren’t looked on kindly at that time. People around them started to talk. Some even began to question their loyalty to the country.

Why did the Germans have this tradition? History is murky on this point. You’ll hear many stories on as to why. One obvious reason is that the evergreen tree represented eternal life–a green tree in winter when all other trees had no green. Another theory points to German’s pre-Christian past and the erection of a tree to honor the pagan gods of early Germanic tribes. There are several other hypotheses. In the end, we have the tradition from Germany–and that includes the song, “Oh, Christmas Tree,” which, as you know is “O, Tannenbaum” in German.

Putting up a tree in Britain actually began under the reign of King George III. George and his wife were both German. They first put up a tree in the late 1790s for their family. As you can imagine, when a monarch adopts a tradition from a rival nation, the public would understandably react negatively. George was already under suspicion for being pro-German. One of the nicknames detractors called him was, after all, German George.

So, over 50 years later, this British couple decided to do the same thing King George had done before. They set up a tree on a table, and they put gifts on and under it. Candles lit the tree. The children loved the tree, and that was enough for Al and Vicky to feel good about their choice to put up the tree despite what people around them were saying.

What they didn’t know was that so many people, rather than seeing their embrace of the German practice as being anti-British and anti-patriotic, saw it instead as being charming and something that celebrated family and love. It was the Romantic Period in Britain, after all, and such middle-class sentiments had developed in the period between that time and the years of the Georgian Era.

In fact, what Al and Vicky did sparked a nation-wide embrace of putting up Christmas trees. Within a few years, almost every family was putting up a tree at Christmas. Eventually, the economy allowed evergreens from Scandinavian nations to be imported to Britain for mass consumption by an eager public.

It didn’t matter that Al himself was German. It didn’t matter that the couple were held to a much higher standard than most British couples were. It didn’t matter that the tradition had not been practiced widely in Britian.

All we remember about this situation is that Al and Vicky–Prince Albert and Queen Victoria–caused us all to have a tree this Christmas.