Did Dickens invent Christmas?

First Edition of A Christmas Carol published in 1843 (public domain)
I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will in the Past, Present and the Future.

Christmas is, of course, the celebration a certain event in Bethlehem as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. But the immediate and enduring success of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) has played an important role in shaping the secular elements of the modern festival.

At the time Dickens was writing, Christmas was celebrated like any other religious feast-day. Though it officially lasted twelve days (on the first day of Christmas, my true love …) most of the activities associated with it took place in church on the night of Christmas Eve and the morning of Christmas Day.

Many employers allowed their workers a second day off for Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day in the UK). Scrooge was not unusual, however, in insisting that Bob Cratchit return to his ‘dismal cell’ early on the 26th.

Was Christmas a popular festival before Dickens?

By the C17th, Christmas had become a holiday of celebration and enjoyment — especially after the problems caused by the civil war. Cromwell wanted it returned to a religious celebration where people thought about the birth of Jesus rather than ate and drank too much.

In London, soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and take, by force if necessary, food being cooked for a Christmas celebration. The smell of a goose being cooked could bring trouble. Traditional Christmas decorations like holly were banned. source

By the time Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, Cromewell was long dead (and reburied). But while it was safe to get out the Christmas Tree — especially after Queen Victoria installed one at Windsor Castle in 1841 — not everyone approved of Christmas merrymaking. Mr E Scrooge expresses the minority view:

Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money? For finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer?

Fred’s spirited response is a romantic and inclusive alternative to Cromwellian puritanism.

I have always thought of Christmas time as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable time. I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good. I say, God bless it!

And the Victorian reading public joined Bob Cratchit in applauding Fred’s sentiments

A Christmas Carol tapped into a long-repressed hunger for what historian Ronald Hutton calls ‘a family-centered festival of generosity’ which Dickens himself defined in the aftermath of the success of a A Christmas Carol:

Christmas Day … bound together all our home enjoyments, affections and hopes… Charles Dickens What Christmas Is As We Grow Older, 1851

Which Christmas ‘traditions’ did Dickens popularise?

Christmas Dinner — the event which symbolises Scrooge’s redemption — became the centrepiece of a new mode of celebration.

Family Celebration (including games like Blind Man Buff, Charades etc)

Food (mince pies, Christmas ‘figgy’ pudding etc)

Charity — giving money to good causes at Christmas

Christmas greetings — (Merry Christmas!)

  • Generosity of spirit — (the opposite of Bah Humbug!)
  • White Christmas’ — Snow on Christmas Eve has always been comparatively rare in London. But as Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd points out, during the first eight years of his life “there was a white Christmas every year.”
  • Christmas cards — by curious coincidence the Christmas greetings’ card also appeared for the first time in 1843.
  • Christmas Carols — though there are only fleeting references to Christmas Carols in the original novella, the singing of Christmas songs has become inextricably linked with Dickens.

But wasn’t Christmas a Pagan festival?

The Victorian Christmas also returned to its pagan roots as a mid-winter festival. Holly, ivy, snow and red robins did not accompany the birth of Jesus in balmy Bethlehem.

It would, however, be mistaken to see A Christmas Carol as a rejection of the core religious character of the festival. The central theme — Scrooge’s fall and redemption — is directly from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

How did Dickens change the language of Christmas?

The opening of A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most quoted text outside of Shakespeare and the Bible. From the opening sentence to Tiny Tim message it has provided a short-hand so familiar that advertisers can draw upon it without explanation. Here is a short selection from Stave One, for example

Marley was dead, to begin with … Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.
Oh! but he was …tight -fisted
The cold within him froze his old features.
He carried his own low temperature always about with him
No warmth could warm, no win-try weather chill him.
“What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough” Scrooge to Bob
“What’s Christmas time… but a time for paying bills without money?” Scrooge on Christmas
Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.
If [the poor] would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
“And therefore, Uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that [Christmas] has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”
“I wear the chain I forged in life.” replied the Ghost.

So should we blame Dickens for a full month of 24/7 Mariah Carey?

Bah Humbug! Toast the great man on the 25th. In the words of Tiny Tim who — spoiler alert — did not die: “God bless us, Every one!”

A Christmas Carol (condensed audiobook) — £1.99