In 1870, the novelist Charles Dickens passed away, and a little girl in London was recorded as exclaiming: ‘Mr Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?’
Dickens had come to be intrinsically associated with Christmas tradition – with the coming together of families, with good cheer, with gratitude and charity and the very spirit of the holiday – thanks to the publication of his novella A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, known most commonly as A Christmas Carol.
In 2007, a biographical movie about Dickens and A Christmas Carol was released, entitled The Man Who Invented Christmas. But of course, Dickens did not invent Christmas entirely. The holiday had grown out of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, the German festival of Yule, and a feast day to celebrate the birth of Christ on the winter solstice adopted by early Christians. But by the early 1800s, Christmas meant very little to most people. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans had tried their best to ban the holiday, because any kind of frivolity was deemed ungodly and sinful, and now that the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, who had time for a holiday in any case?
Then, in the 1840s, a transformation took place in Britain. Queen Victoria had come to the throne in 1837, and her husband, Prince Albert, insisted that they had a tree in the palace for Christmas, decorated with candles and sweets and fruits and little gifts, as was the tradition where he grew up in Germany. Word of this got around – and sparked a new trend in homes all over the country. The first illustrated Christmas cards were created and sent, and this too quickly inspired a new tradition. People began to dust off the carols written long ago and write new ones, to sing together in homes or out on the street.
Amidst this exploration of new and old traditions, Charles Dickens sat down to write A Christmas Carol. But not because he had a burning need to encapsulate and share the Christmas spirit – because he needed money. Dickens’ previous works weren’t selling well, and his publisher was threatening to reduce his monthly income – at a time when his wife, Catherine, was expecting their fifth child. So Dickens knew he must write something to be sold, and quickly, and this new interest in Christmas seemed a marketable idea.
Once Dickens began writing, however, the novella became so much more to him than just a means to feed his family. The story and the characters drew him in. He wrote the book in just six weeks, roaming the streets of London at night as he pondered and plotted, crafting a story intended to teach benevolence and charity for the poor. His friend and biographer John Forster recorded that he ‘wept, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner, in composition’ (Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens, 1999).
Dickens’ tale of the transformation of miserable old miser Ebenezer Scrooge was published on 19 December 1843. Though he could ill afford to, Dickens funded the publication himself (his publisher was dissatisfied with sales of his last book, Martin Chuzzlewit), and he priced the book at the relatively inexpensive five shillings, because he wanted it to be widely accessible.
The book was an instant sensation; the first print run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve, and the publisher issued second and third editions before New Year’s Day. By the end of the following year, thirteen editions had been published. Not, it must be said, to Dickens’ financial benefit – the cost of publication set against the low sale price plus the issue of piracy meant the author never made much profit from A Christmas Carol.
But his story of redemption did succeed, beyond his wildest imaginings, because it reinvented Christmas. Setting aside the many traditions and associations that sprang up from A Christmas Carol – a romantic longing for snow, for example – the book put the heart in Christmas. Dickens reinvented it as ‘a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time’; he made Christmas a time for family, and generosity, and gratitude, and reconciliation; he coined the term ‘a merry Christmas’.
‘[A] national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness’; that is how fellow writer William Makepeace Thackeray described A Christmas Carol (Fraser’s Magazine, Vol. 29). He wrote:
There is not a reader in England but that little creature [Tiny Tim] will be bond of union between the author and him; and he will say of Charles Dickens… ‘God bless him!’ What a feeling is this for a writer to be able to inspire, and what a reward to reap!
Dickens recognised that reward, and that his writing was his gift to the world. Upon his death, he was interred in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, with only his name and his dates of birth and death inscribed on the grave. This was in accordance with his wishes: in his will, he wrote: ‘I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works’.
Remember him we do – and thank him, for all of his works, but especially the novella that ends, ‘God bless us, every one!’