PCS Blog

Dickens Invented Christmas (As We Know It!)

Posted by Alice Hodge | 12 November 2013

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. Title page.

 

Published 170 years ago on December 19, 1843, it may seem like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has little in common with modern holiday celebrations, but many scholars believe that Dickens single-handedly popularized modern-day Christmas. In short, Dickens invented Christmas as we know it.

Celebrating this seemingly non-negotiable holiday on the 25th of December with close family at home regardless of your religious affiliation? Yep. You can thank Dickens for that.

But we need to back up a bit before we delve into Dickens. Nearly 250 years before A Christmas Carol, observing Christmas Mass and everything associated had been outlawed by Cromwell’s Puritanical Parliament – even figgy pudding! Even after King Charles II restored Christmas in 1660, church observance and general Christmas merriment was scant for the next century or so. (The Puritanical stronghold in America kept Christmas outlawed in Massachutes until 1856!) Christmas was too much associated with its Catholic past to feel comfortable in a now Protestant society.

Illustration by George Alfred Williams, 1905
 
Fast forward another 150 years or so—the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the railroad allowed for increased mobility; more folks moved to dense cities where the family became the central social unit rather than a village community or church. As work shifted from the fields to the factories, ceasing work (and pay) for the full twelve days of Christmas was becoming less and less viable. 
 
Then, three years prior to Dickens’ publishing the first A Christmas Carol novella, Queen Victoria was newly crowned and the Victorian Era was officially underway. Her husband, Prince Albert, brought the German tradition of bringing Christmas trees inside and gift-giving to England. Christmas cards and caroling were first seen around then, too. Nostalgia for pre-Cromwell Christmas traditions had swept across the nation. 
 
But all of these recent traditions—the Christmas trees, cards and caroling—were just details in line with an old pastime. What Dickens did was change the very concept of Christmas: he constructed a family-centered festival of generosity.
 
Victorian Christmas
 
In A Christmas Carol, we see Christmas observed not in the church, but in the home. Bob Cratchit shares Christmas Day with only his closest family - his wife and three children. The sacred scene is no longer that of pews and the pulpit, but a warm hearth and the family gathered around the soft glow from the Christmas tree to observe the sacred bonds of family. Selfless generosity and gift-giving are also central as Scrooge finds his redemption through forgoing his miserly ways by anonymously sending a prize turkey to the Cratchit family and spending Christmas Day with his only relative, Fred.
 
Modern day nostalgia for the Dickensian Christmas was born out of the Victorian nostalgia for the Christmas festivities of an earlier era. But Dickens reminds us that Christmas is just as much about honoring the past as creating new traditions.
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