A Christmas Carol and Charles Dickens
By An Anonymous Contributor
Most people aren’t aware that Christmas as we know it was almost extinct. For a period from 1645 to 1660, the Puritans successfully passed laws that literally banned Christmas in England. Mince pies, mistletoe, holly, and other Christmas staples were outlawed along with Christmas caroling and public celebrations. This sentiment extended across the Atlantic as well. Many of our country’s first settlements frowned upon excessive celebration at any time of year, and especially at Christmas. Celebrations returned in England after the ban was lifted, but the excitement surrounding the Holiday had declined.
By the 1800’s only the wealthiest celebrated Christmas. The world was beginning the industrial revolution, workers worked long hours for low pay, most employers wouldn’t sacrifice a day of work, so most people just didn’t have time. Additionally, the overall cost of hosting a celebration full of feasting and gift giving was too expensive. More and more frequently the only jobs to be found were in the cities. Many people left their traditional country lifestyles and flocked to the cities, leaving many of their traditions behind.
In October of 1843, Charles Dickens was visiting his sister in Manchester. Dickens was touched by the spirit and enthusiasm of his sickly nephew, who is presumed to be the inspiration for “Tiny Tim.” Dickens was struck with an idea for the story and almost immediately went to work. He wrote at a feverish pace, and finished the entire story in six weeks. Three weeks later, on December 19th, the book was published and was an instant success. All 6,000 copies of the original printing were sold in four days. Within six weeks the story had been adapted for the stage and shows were already in progress. The show ran consecutively for over 40 nights before transferring to New York’s Park Theater. By May of 1844, the seventh edition of the book had already sold out.
The story was both a literary and a social success. It’s credited with playing a major role in reviving (and reinventing) the Christmas holiday. Without “A Christmas Carol,” we wouldn’t have the phrases “Merry Christmas,” “Bah! Humbug!” or even “Scrooge.” Dickens took outdated Christmas traditions and infused them into his tale, making them feel as if they had always been a part of our Christmas traditions. For example, caroling was not common at the time, but Dickens added this activity to the story as if it were common to meet a traveling choir during the holiday season. It wasn’t. While less obvious, but perhaps more significant, Dickens’ portrayal of a Christmas celebration was vastly different from the norm of his time. Typical celebrations during the era were normally community celebrations in churches, taverns, and town halls. Dickens’ representation was much different. He shows the “Cratchits” gathered together, celebrating as a family. This is perhaps the single biggest change that Dickens had on Christmas traditions, turning the holiday into a small, intimate, and private family affair. This change allowed for every family to celebrate according to their means. If they were wealthy they could hold a feast. If they were poor they could gather together, sing songs, and share stories.
It’s incomprehensible that the holiday we know and love almost became a footnote in the history books. Were it not for the influence of Charles Dickens, our celebrations would be vastly different, if they existed at all. So this year when you wish someone a Merry Christmas, or even call someone a “Scrooge,” consider where those words came from. For me, and I expect many of you, Christmas is my favorite time of year, and I can’t imagine my life without it.
(Ed. Note: This story was a natural for our Christmas issue, but unfortunately we received it way too late.)
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