How Charles Dickens Saved Christmas

The following article appears in the current December 2010/January 2011 issue of History Magazine.

Laura Grande looks at the storied author’s influence on how we celebrate Christmas.

llustration by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. Title page of A Christmas Carol, 1843.

As historian A.N. Wilson wrote, “The early-19th century in England was the England of Dickens”.  No other author wrote so honestly about the hardships of those suffering extreme poverty during the industrial age. Dickens’s popularity was owed, in large part, to his ability to speak directly to those who endured daily struggles for survival in a society that emphasized work ethic and money above all else.

One of Dickens’ defining characteristics in his novels was the notion of human redemption. While villains always lurked on the edges of his greatest novels, Dickens never failed to instill a sense of hope in even the most dastardly of his creations. Among his most famous is that of Ebenezer Scrooge.

More than 160 years after its publication, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become a part of people’s Yuletide traditions around the world; the soul at the centre of their holiday season. By simply focusing on one man’s self-discovery on the path to becoming a better person, Dickens superimposed his secular vision of Christmas on the public.

Christmas Under Cromwell

During the Victorian era, old medieval traditions, which were once used to celebrate the birth of Christ, were in a state of rapid decline. However, the disappearance of Christmas traditions was a long time coming, as England had long since stopped celebrating the holiday season on a yearly basis.

In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell, England’s Lord Protector and a devout Puritan, wanted Christmas to return back to its original observance of the birth of Christ as a day of religious prayer and piety and not an elaborate celebration with food, wine and gifts. Cromwell and his parliament had soldiers sent out to take food by force if they saw any families celebrating around lavish feasts in their homes. Traditional decorations were banned outright.

Prior to the English Civil War between Cromwell’s faction and those of the Royalists who supported Charles I, the holidays were referred to as Christ-tide. Families prepared large feasts to be enjoyed over the course of a few days, decorating their homes and exchanging gifts. The argument of Cromwell and his largely Puritan parliament was that such extravagance and waste was simply an unwelcome example of Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on materialism.

Prince Albert’s Germanic Traditions

The outcome of Cromwell’s intense scrutiny of England’s holiday traditions resulted in an almost complete lack of observance of Christmas over the course of the following centuries.

Prince Albert married Queen Victoria in 1840 and brought along his Germanic holiday traditions. He introduced Great Britain to Christmas carols, holiday cards and, most significantly, he gave them England’s first Christmas tree. Prince Albert had Christmas trees distributed to schools and army barracks around the country, while newspapers featured illustrations of the Royal Family seated before their fully ornamented Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.

However, Christmas still was not observed by the majority of the population, as workhouses and mills owners refused to recognize it as a holiday, forcing their employees to work their usual shifts, which often ran longer than 10 hours a day. With the majority of England at work, it’s no small wonder that Christmas still went largely unrecognized.

Charles Dickens’s Influences for A Christmas Carol

Between 1837-44, England was going through the worst economic depression to hit their country. An estimated one million people were starving because of lack of employment. The ethics of mill owners and those who ran workhouses created both wealth and poverty.

Dickens himself grew up surrounded by hardships and financial woes. Born in 1812 to John and Elizabeth Dickens, young Charles was taken out of school at the age of nine when his father was imprisoned for debt in 1824. The Marshalsea debtors’ prison, situated on the south bank of the River Thames, became a second home for the Dickens family. In order to help pay off his father’s debt, Charles laboured at Warren’s Shoe Blacking factory at the age of 12, pawning his beloved books to help pay off the debt. While his family languished in the Marshalsea, young Charles lived across the street, on his own, so that he could work every day, visiting his family on Sunday afternoons. Charles’ strained relationship with his father is mirrored in the characters of William Dorrit in Little Dorrit and Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield.

As historian A.N. Wilson wrote, Dickens desired to “put the world of injustice, ignorance and disease behind him” in his adult years. His sensitivity to the plight of the poor was the spark that ignited his passion for writing. Dickens portrayed the two sides of London, where “the harshness of life is tempered by kindliness”. This positive and negative view of the world would become his signature style of storytelling. His 1837 publication, Oliver Twist, had caused outrage among his readers who were shocked by the depravity and struggle endured by the young children in the book. Dickens would garner just as much reader attention for his creation of Ebenezer Scrooge and his penny-pinching ways.

In October of 1843, Dickens attended a three-day fundraiser in Manchester where he was involved in long discussions about combating ignorance and strife with educational reforms for children.  At the time, he and his wife, Kate, were expecting the fifth of their eventual 10 children and the couple was strapped for cash. However, nothing prepared Dickens for what he learned on his visit to Manchester. It was here that Dickens realized the depths of poverty some of his fellow countrymen endured. Welfare applicants were forced to work on treadmills, sometimes for as long as 10 hours a day. Dickens firmly believed that education was a remedy for the poverty and crime that he witnessed. Remembering his own childhood full of work and struggle, Dickens vowed to “strike a sledgehammer blow” for the poor and those displaced by the Industrial Revolution.

During a visit to Scotland that same year, Dickens visited Greyfriar Kirkyard, Edinburgh’s oldest cemetery. While walking among the headstones, Dickens came across a marker that read: “Ebenezer Scroggie, Meal Man”. It wasn’t uncommon for gravestones to cite the person’s job in life, and “meal man” was simply another term for corn merchant. However, Dickens misread the marker as “mean man” and asked a companion what one could have done in life to deserve such a comment even after death.

The combination of the Manchester fundraiser and the cemetery headstone planted the seeds of inspiration Dickens was looking for.

The Messages of Ebenezer Scrooge and A Christmas Carol

Dickens began writing A Christmas Carol in October of 1843 and the novella was completed within six weeks.

Due to Dickens’ religious indifference, the story was not so much about Christianity but an attempt at simply understanding human nature. When the ghost of Jacob Marley laments to Scrooge that “mankind was my business”, it does not involve religious connotations. Jacob Marley simply repents his lack of decency and charity when he was alive.

The first signs of tenderness the audience sees in Scrooge comes when he first notices the ghost of his longtime friend, Marley, weighted down by chains. Scrooge realizes that Marley has given him the gift of (arguably undeserved) friendship when he admits, “you always were a good friend to me. “ Although the story has only just gotten started, this Scrooge is already dramatically different from the one who treated his clerk, Bob Cratchit, so poorly earlier in the evening.

With the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Scrooge goes from conjuring nostalgic memories from his youth to witnessing long ago tragedies, like the death of his beloved sister, Fan. All of these visions culminate into his new outlook on life.

The proof of the ongoing transformation of Scrooge is not related to going to church, but the fact that he both learns to bond with his estranged nephew, Fred, and shows great generosity to the Cratchit family. Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well” because he’d transformed into a kind-hearted man and discovered, though his generosity, what had eluded Jacob Marley all of his life. Mankind was still Scrooge’s business, only now it came in the form of charity to mankind.

A Christmas Carol has more to do with industrialization and the loss of cultural traditions than anything else. Dickens illustrates how cities were less inclined to give paid holidays, as witnessed through Scrooge’s poor treatment of Cratchit. Widespread poverty and suffering, illustrated through the ghostly apparitions of Ignorance and Want, was the point Dickens wanted his readers to understand.

For Dickens, and later countless readers, A Christmas Carol was a spiritual experience. As Dickens himself later wrote about the writing process, “I wept and laughed and laughed and wept again.”

Critical Reception and Its Enduring Success

The novella was bound in red cloth and published through Chapman and Hall and was officially released on 19 December 1843. It included four hand-coloured etchings and four black and white engravings. The novella sold for an affordable five shillings, at Dickens’ request. By Christmas Eve, all 6,000 copies had sold out and it continued to sell out with each new edition well into the following year.

Author William Makepeace Thackeray wrote in Fraser’s Magazine in February of 1844. “The last two people I heard speak of it were women; neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, ‘God bless him!’ …What a feeling this is for a writer to inspire, and what a reward to reap!”

As Scottish novelist, Margaret Oliphant, noted that same year, A Christmas Carol was “a new gospel”, noting that it appeared as though people had started behaving better to one another. By February 1844, less than two months after its debut, A Christmas Carol was adapted for the stage three times. That same year, Gentleman’s Magazine gave their first large donation to children’s charities.

The observance of Christmas had experienced a mid-Victorian revival, with a heavy emphasis on family-oriented festivities. Dickens was hailed as a hero and he did public readings of A Christmas Carol every holiday season from 1853-70. In total, Dickens had read his book aloud to massive crowds 127 times.

In June of 1870, Dickens passed away at the age of 58 of complications from a stroke. Both family and fans alike attended his funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Newspapers reported the news of his passing with the inclusion of a quote, supposedly spoken by a little girl upon hearing of Dickens’ death. “Mr. Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”

In 1988, London’s Sunday Telegraph honoured Dickens with the title “The Man Who Invented Christmas”.

In Conclusion

More than 160 years later, A Christmas Carol has endured as a significant part of the holiday tradition around the world. Whether he expected it to become the phenomenon that it did is unknown, yet his message remains clear and just as relevant as ever. It’s hard to imagine Christmas without Ebenezer Scrooge.

As Dickens himself wrote in the prelude to his novella, his only desire was simply: “may it haunt their houses pleasantly”.

SOURCES

David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page (http://charlesdickenspage.com/).

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843.

A.N. Wilson, The Victorians. London: W&W Norton and Company, 2003.

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