This week in 1843 saw the publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” No other book or story by Dickens or anyone else (except the Bible) has been more enjoyed, criticized, referred to, or more frequently adapted to other media. One of my favorites was catching Patrick Stewart doing his one-man version of the play at the Old Vic Theatre in London. None of Dickens’ other works is more widely recognized or, celebrated within the English-speaking world. Some scholars have even claimed that in publishing A Christmas Carol Dickens single-handedly invented the modern form of the Christmas holiday in England and the United States.
Indeed, the great British thinker G.K. Chesterton noted long ago, with A Christmas Carol Dickens succeeded in transforming Christmas from a sacred festival into a family feast. In so doing, he brought the holiday inside the home and thus made it accessible to ordinary people, who were now able to participate directly in the celebration rather than merely witnessing its performance in church.
Many of our American conceptions of what a “traditional” Christmas is, comes from this time in Victorian history. Indeed, Queen Victoria of England had just married a few years earlier, and her German husband, Prince Albert brought some of his native customs to England (including the Christmas tree), beginning some of the traditions of Victorian Christmas.
In the mid-seventeenth century, the Cromwellian Revolt abolished Christmas as well as the monarchy. However well the monarchy was subsequently “restored,” the traditions of the winter holiday never recovered. But religious prescription was not the only cause of the decline of Christmas. Even by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution, especially in the north, was changing the communities that still tenuously kept the customs of their ancestors.
By the time the Carol was written in 1843, the lavish celebrations of the past were a distant, quaint memory. Some still remembered them, and even before the Carol a few popular books attempted to record the celebrations of the past, such as The Book of Christmas by T.H. Hervey (1837) and The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving (1820). But social forces beyond simple nostalgia were at work, rekindling the need for winter celebrations.
Dickens was one of the first to show his readers a new way of celebrating the old holiday in their modern lives. His Christmas celebrations of the Carol adapted the twelve-day manorial (Yule) feast to a one-day party any family could hold in their own urban home. Instead of gathering together an entire village, Dickens showed his readers the celebration of Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, with his immediate family and close friends, and also the Cratchit’s “nuclear family”: perfectly happy alone, without the presence of friends or wider family. He showed the urban, industrial English that they could still celebrate Christmas, even though the old manorial twelve-day celebrations were out of their reach. Dickens’ version of the holiday evoked the childhood memories of people who had moved to the cities as adults.
The Cratchit family, although quaint and sentimental to modern readers, was a familiar portrait of the lower-middle class families who originally read the Carol, familiar in fact to Dickens himself, who modeled the Cratchit’s lifestyle on his own childhood experience of when he himself lived in Camden Town. (Dickens’ own father was in and out of Debtors’ Prison.) Dickens demonstrates that even in poverty, the winter holiday can inspire good will and generosity toward one’s neighbors. He shows that the spirit of Christmas was not lost in the race to industrialize, but can live on in our modern world.
The publishing of his book was immensely popular, though in a time of great religious controversy, and its lack of babes, wise men, stars, mangers, and other icons of the Christian nativity inspired a multitude of sermons and pamphlets at that time. Although A Christmas Carol is generally associated with the Christian winter holiday season, for it does contain references to the Christian Jesus; its themes are not exclusive to Christianity and it inspired a tradition for decades in Christmas books and celebrations that appealed to many non-Christians.
Dickens’ preface to the book reads:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D., December, 1843.
But the punch line to the book, is the very last sentence, which rarely fails to bring a tear to this historian:
It was always said of Scrooge, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed,
God Bless Us, Every One!
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
excerpts from Prof. Gerhard Rempel, Lectures in Western Civilization