On December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” was published in London, its first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. No other book or story by Dickens, or anyone else (except the Bible,) has been more enjoyed, referred to, criticized, or more frequently adapted to other forms of media: theatre, opera, radio, film, TV, or comics. One of my favorite versions was watching Patrick Stewart performing his one-man version of the play at the Old Vic Theatre in London back in the early ’90s.
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. The movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas” argues that very point.
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. He 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. I wrote about the life of Charles Dickens a few years ago on the anniversary of his 200th birthday here.
A Traditional Christmas
Many of our American conceptions of what a “traditional” Christmas is comes from this time in Victorian history. Queen Victoria of England had married less than three years before the publication of this book. 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. Dickens’ book popularized that style of celebrating Christmas in England and around the world at that time.
The telling of melodramatic ghost stories, especially around Christmas time, was a popular practice during the Victorian period. Dickens’ fascination with ghost stories, mesmerism, and spiritualism led him to include ghostly apparitions in his other works as well. As a teenager, a particular favorite of Dickens was the penny weekly magazine The Terrific Register, which covered topics of murder and ghosts. Reading it, he said he would “make myself unspeakably miserable, and frighten my very wits out of my head.” The original title of this novella was “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas.”
Decline of Christmas
In the mid-seventeenth century, the Cromwellian Revolt in England had abolished the monarchy as well as the celebration of Christmas. Though the monarchy was subsequently “restored,” the traditions of the winter holiday never quite recovered. But the earlier religious prohibition 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 of England, was changing the communities that still tenuously kept the customs of their ancestors.
By the time A Christmas 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 book has been called by some a “sledgehammer” against the ills of industrialism and consumerism. Dickens’ own father had been sent to London’s Marshalsea debtors’ prison, and Charles Dickens himself bitterly remembered having to leave school and work in a boot-blacking factory at the age of 12 near Covent Garden. He’d seen children working long hours in the tin mines and attending poor schools. He modeled the Bob Cratchit’s lifestyle on his own experiences living in Camden Town, London. Dickens demonstrates that even in poverty, the winter holiday can inspire goodwill 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 — it’s initial printing of 6,000 copies sold out in three days, by Christmas Eve — and within six months it sold out its seventh edition. By 1860 its thirteenth edition had been published. A Christmas Carol is generally associated with the Christian winter holiday season, for it does contain references to Christ “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” And so, at the end of the story, we see both lame and blind touched by the Spirit of Christmas. Nevertheless, 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 as well.
It quickly was adapted to the stage in less than two months, and Dickens himself would read it during his speaking tours. It was the choice for his first public reading in 1853 and his farewell performance in 1870. He died in 1870 about a month after his last public reading of A Christmas Carol, at the age of 58.
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 the eye of 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
* Includes an excerpt from Prof. Gerhard Rempel, Lectures in Western Civilization