Did Dickens invent Christmas?

Kieran McGovern
Dec 6, 2017 · 6 min read
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 of 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, Cromwell 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

Merry 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.” A Christmas Carol (1843)

The exact origin of the phrase Merry Christmas is unclear but the word ‘mery’ is associated with Christmas from the 1500s. The carol God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen was first published in 1833.

In 1843 two key seemingly unconnected events helped establish Merry Christmas as one of the most commonly used expressions in the English language: the printing of the first commercially produced Christmas card and the publication of A Christmas Carol.

Henry Cole was a civil servant working on improving the postal service. In 1843 he wanted to send a Christmas message to a large number of friends and business contacts. To do this more efficiently, he designed what he called a Christmas card.

The first commercially produced Christmas card — 1843

Printing costs were high, so he produced more than he needed and sold the remaining copies. These were priced at a shilling each — the equivalent of £50 today.

Cole’s Christmas card proved a commercial flop but excited public interest. This was reinforced by the publication of A Christmas Carol on December 17, 1843. It sold out in a week and has been hugely popular ever since.

Ebenezer Scrooge could not stop ‘every idiot’ from using the phrase that infuriated him. ‘Merry Christmas’ not ‘Bah! Humbug is still the universal greeting of the season.

Christmas Chez Dickens

And therefore, Uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good and will do me good: and I say, God bless it! (Fred explaining his attitude to Christmas to his Uncle Scrooge)

All his life Dickens loved Christmas. As a young man he hosted parties like those found at Dingley Dell or at Mr Fezziwig’s Ball. He loved to organise riotous games and show off his very impressive magic tricks — including a sensational one involving a flaming Christmas pudding. On the Twelfth Night he wrote sketches for family members to perform, often taking the lead roles himself.

Many have speculated that Christmas represented everything Dickens aspired to as a troubled, insecure child: family, fun, festivity, tradition, security and order. And according Claire Tomalin’s biography (Charles Dickens: A Life) he never gave up on the festival.

The restorative power of Christmas is a reccurent throughoutin Dickens work. It is there in the Boz Sketch, A Christmas Dinner and in his final unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It also plays a key role in perhaps his greatest novel, Great Expectations.

But it was his first novel The Pickwick Papers (1836) and his most popular story, A Christmas Carol, that Dickens in effect created the template for the modern Christmas.

Here are the key features of Christmas that Dickens helped 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 or ‘figgy’ pudding etc)

Charity — giving money to good causes at Christmas

  • Generosity of spirit — (the opposite of Bah Humbug!, ‘Are there no prisons?)

Dickens gave expression to the Victorian Christmas, with its return to pagan traditions of a mid-winter festival. Much of its imagery is secular: holly, ivy, snow and red robins did not accompany the birth of Jesus in balmy Bethlehem.

A Christmas Carol, does, however, remain faithful to 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 wintry weather chill him.

“What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough”

“What’s Christmas time… but a time for paying bills without money?”

If [the poor] would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

“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!”


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