After This Guy, Christmas Was Never the Same
Who’s to thank for Christmas feasting, gift giving, holiday entertainment, caroling, and charitable giving at the end of each year? Do we give credit to pagans, Christians, or perhaps Baby Boomers? The answer, in fact, may surprise you. The Father of Modern Christmas is none other than Charles Dickens.
A few weeks before Christmas, 1843, Charles Dickens published his famous novella A Christmas Carol. Worried that the sun was setting on his illustrious career, Dickens sought out a platform to share his ideas about the meaning of Christmas that would also prove a commercial success. His most recent work had been a flop. Finances were getting tighter. And then A Christmas Carol had a riotous first run and instantly changed the meaning of the holiday from that year forward. It was an immediate success that saved the author from his waning literary reputation.
To appreciate the impact that Dickens and his holiday cheer had on celebrations, we need to look back a few centuries. What we remember fondly as the ancient twelve days of Christmas was actually rural delinquency and drunken licentiousness throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. That urge to party can be traced to the pagan and early northern European traditions. After a brief damper, the English Restoration renewed the partying. In 1660, British royals recaptured the throne from the Puritans and shirked all the boring, strict, religious—literally, puritanical—rules.
As the 19th century began, Christmas as a celebration had become less and less common. New conservative (Reformed) Christians frowned upon the excesses of Christmas, especially since it wasn’t even mentioned in the Bible. However, even their frowny-faces couldn’t slow the partying that much—only the Industrial Revolution could do that. Urbanization led drunk yokels to factory work in big cities. There they had few friends to party with and fewer days off.
With mass movement to urban centers, widespread poverty prevailed. In October 1843, Dickens saw the abject destitution and the plight of child laborers and was galvanized to write A Christmas Carol in a few short weeks. Dickens firmly believed that Christmas should be about children and family and gifts and feasting. Most of the little factory urchins he observed had no awareness of these ideas. These were the themes he would lean on heavily throughout the novella.
Christmas time celebrations changed quickly after the story was printed. Dickens did much to ensure its success, including paying for the first run of printing when he and the publishers couldn’t agree. Once printed, Dickens staged live readings where he could entertain the public with characters he created from actual people in his family and others observed on London’s seedy streets. These enthusiastic readings paved the way for theatrical productions to be mounted beginning the following year.
The transformation of Scrooge also influenced the emphasis of this time of year. When Scrooge sees himself as the (potential) reason of Tiny Tim’s death, he is overcome to do anything in his power to help. This means giving Bob Crachitt the holiday off to enjoy with his family (helping cement the former religious holy day into a holiday recognized by the state, which had never before been a de facto day off), gifting him a turkey (holidays mean feasting, ya know), and presenting the children with gifts to make their days brighter. Victorian Christmases waxed nostalgic, so Dickens capitalized on that tendency with the flashbacks to Scrooge’s youth. Dickens believed that children should not be sad at Christmastime; they should have plenty to eat, toys to enjoy, and festive activities to entertain them. The popular story was cited as the reason charities throughout Britain saw a surge in donations that season. A factory owner in Massachusetts was inspired to close his factory on Christmas Day and send every employee a turkey—the new holiday meat of choice for those hip Victorians across the pond.
Our modern Christmas traditions have many varied and deep roots. Many of the customs can be traced to the Victorian era and specifically to the efforts of Charles Dickens. His passion for a certain kind of Christmas celebration set in motion traditions that we still practice. Will you exchange gifts this Christmas Day? Donate to a charity? Sing a song? Read aloud A Christmas Carol? You can thank Dickens.
See A Christmas Carol Live On Stage!
Local art organizations present various interpretations of the classic story every year. ACT—A Contemporary Theatre in downtown Seattle has been presenting a traditional production since 1976. If you want to see a true-to-form version with spooky effects and fully fleshed out characters, this is the production for you. Through December 28.
Additionally, Unexpected Productions has presented A(n Improvised) Christmas Carol for almost 20 years. With audience suggestions from the zany to the absurd, you never know what’s going to happen. Running through December 27 at the Market Theater in Pike Place Market.
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