The father of Christmas: What the festive season owes to Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens
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Our idealised Christmas can be traced back to Charles Dickens, who, in need of cash, wrote a string of stories conveying his vision for the festive season

IN 1844, Charles Dickens published a Christmas story that became a smash hit, selling 20,000 copies and inspiring five stage adaptations within three months. No, not A Christmas Carol, but The Chimes, the tale of a ticket porter taught a lesson by the spirits of the bell tower and their goblin assistants, who show him a dreadful vision of how his daughter’s future will turn out if he doesn’t learn not to be so cynical about human nature.

While The Chimes and Dickens’ other three Christmas books may not be as well known today as A Christmas Carol, they are more than just an interesting footnote in literary history. They show us a writer exerting himself to seize a whole season, in one of the first examples of artistic branding.

Charles Dickens didn’t become ‘Mr Christmas’ by accident: he practically trademarked the holiday. And today’s confused modern Christmas, which mixes idealised sentimentality with cold hard avarice (see the John Lewis or Argos adverts for perfect examples), is not a corruption of the ‘perfect’ Dickensian Christmas but its direct descendant.

It’s ironic that A Christmas Carol, which famously condemns Ebenezer Scrooge’s miserliness, was written for cash. In 1843, Dickens was worried about money. Sales of his latest serial novel Martin Chuzzlewit were lower than his previous successes, leading his publishers to demand some of the advance payment back. With four children and another on the way, his family relied on him; but while they hardly faced the workhouse, Dickens’ childhood experience of poverty made him panic and decide that he had to write a hit.

His first success, The Pickwick Papers, had a scene of a Christmas celebration which briefly mentioned a mean character being transformed by the festive spirit. It came back to him in October, as he addressed a working men’s educational club in Manchester on the evils of ignorance – “the parent of misery and crime” and the need for all classes of society to come together to overcome it. For while he was motivated by money, Dickens didn’t intend simply to churn out an easy pot-boiler. Rather, he wanted to send a message, in the same campaigning liberal spirit which fired his other books and journalism.

A Christmas Carol was to be “a little tract for the times” in which the most significant figures for him were not the Ghosts, but the phantoms of Ignorance and Want which also appear to Scrooge in the form of two wretched children, accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Present who warns him to beware them both – especially the former, “for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless that writing be erased”. At a time when revolution was spreading across Europe, Dickens worried that abandoning the poor would lead to a breakdown of the social order in Britain. This year’s riots would have seemed to him to prove the point.

The Christmas setting wasn’t just window-dressing. It challenged a political idea of the time, the Young England movement – a sort of Tory pressure group whose response to radical demands by industrial workers was to idealise a feudal past, where lords of the manor played skittles with their peasant tenants and shared seasonal celebrations: you could say their slogan was ‘we’re all in it together’. Along with the religious reformers of the Oxford Movement, who wanted to bring back more medieval ceremonies to the Church of England, they were reviving old national traditions like the Christmas festival, which had been declining in Britain as the population moved from the countryside into cities. Old carols were being republished and there was an upsurge in carol-singing groups; a Paisley-born poet called Thomas Hervey had written The Book Of Christmas, which lamented the loss of “Merrie England’s” customs; meanwhile, Prince Albert had introduced the German Christmas tree to Britain, and the first Christmas cards had been produced.

Christmas was coming back: but what kind of Christmas? For Dickens, the quaint old and new customs were meaningless unless they carried a moral message. Christmas should be a time to remember the poor and to prick the consciences of the wealthy.

A Christmas Carol was published in December; its first run of 6000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve; by May 1844 six more editions had sold out; in all, 24 editions were produced by the original publishers.

And yet Dickens made little from the book’s success – around £230. Gilt-edged pages, a red cloth cover and expensive illustrations cut into his percentage of the profits and the book was pirated almost immediately, by Parley’s Illuminated Library. Dickens sued them and won, but the publishers niftily declared themselves bankrupt, leaving him to pay a fortune in legal costs. He subsequently abandoned any attempt at protecting his story and other authors rapidly produced sequels and alternate versions – including Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, whose A Christmas Dream retold it for children. Since then there have been many more, including dozens of films – from Alastair Sim as Scrooge to Patrick Stewart, or versions with the Muppets or Bugs Bunny, plus all manner of blatant homages (see panel).

While Dickens didn’t make much money, the instant popular acclaim for A Christmas Carol transformed his career – and the subsequent four Christmas stories he produced were eagerly snapped up, particularly The Cricket On The Hearth in 1845. Each of these echoed his moral themes, but each, also, confirmed his reputation as the Christmas man. When he didn’t write them himself, he commissioned other authors – including Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell – to write dozens of festive tales for the Christmas issues of his magazines, which carried no name but his. As an exercise in branding, it could hardly be bettered.When Dickens later turned to public readings, he began with his festive favourite A Christmas Carol and it became an annual ritual – the forerunner, arguably, to today’s Christmas TV specials.

There was a cost, however, to presenting himself as Mr Christmas. When he fell in love with a young actress, his wife was cruelly cast aside and defamed as mad, because as a moral pillar of society he could not be seen to have a mistress. Catherine Dickens, exiled from her own children, resorted to hosting Christmas parties for local youths instead, while Charles split his time between family and lover in an uneasy compromise. Having two dinners to accommodate a fractured family is often a modern Christmas reality; Dickens pioneered this too.

It was famously reported that after he died, one little girl supposedly asked, “will Father Christmas die too?” But Dickens had ensured that he wouldn’t, by establishing a story which has become almost like a myth, an ideal White Christmas that still exerts a pull, especially after a hard year when a retreat to the past seems tempting.

DID YOU KNOW?

DICKENS’ festive classic, A Christmas Carol, has inspired endless homages, including It’s a Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and holiday episodes of everything from The Six Million Dollar Man to Blackadder. There’s been a Klingon version, one in which Tiny Tim becomes a zombie, last year’s Doctor Who special and this year’s Dickens spoof The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, pictured. But Dickens’ biggest influence perhaps goes wider – his ideal of Christmas as a time for charity lives on in festive charity campaigns such as Oxfam Unwrapped.