Dickens & Christmas
Charles Dickens has probably had more influence on the way we celebrate Christmas today than any single individual in human history except the one for whose birthday it is named.
He may even have saved it, but at the very least he lead the way in restoring Christmas to its former important position in the calendar. At the beginning of the Victorian period the celebration of Christmas was in decline. The medieval Christmas traditions which combined the celebration of the birth of Christ with the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, a pagan celebration for the Roman god of agriculture, and the Germanic winter festival of Yule, had come under intense scrutiny by the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell. The Industrial Revolution, in full swing in Dickens’ time, also allowed workers little time for the celebration of Christmas, or of any thing else for that matter.
Patricia K. Davis, who wrote a charming short book she described as “A Novel of How Charles Dickens Saved Christmas”, (readily available at Amazon.com), which I recommend to you as a happy Dickensian style piece, described the England of Dickens’ time as follows:
“Centuries had passed since the reign of Henry II’s ‘merry old’ England. Little about Britain was now very merry; dreary was the world. The year 1843 loomed as desolate and colorless a time as the United Kingdom had ever seen. Children felt old and the old felt dead; others were too tired to feel anything at all.
The people of Britain were unsettled, trapped in the shift from the familiar comforts of shire and farm to the hardships of sullen, infested cities. Along the way they had lost their signposts to the past, their sense of connection to tradition and lore. They owned nothing in the present and dared not hope – not these slum dwellers of newly industrialized England – for a future.
Life offered little relief from this bleakness. The privileged few might enjoy festivities, but workers and their families knew nothing of holidays. Long, long before, England had celebrated Christmas with its twelve days and nights of unbridled joy. No more. Christmas was a workday like any other, its merry making all but forgotten.”
The romantic revival of Christmas traditions that occurred in Victorian times had contributors other than Dickens: Prince Albert brought the German custom of decorating the Christmas tree to England; the singing of Christmas carols, which had all but disappeared at the turn of the century, began to thrive again, and the first Christmas card appeared in the 1840’s. But it was the Christmas stories of Charles Dickens, particularly his 1843 masterpiece A Christmas Carol, which rekindled the joy of Christmas in Britain and America.
Of Christmas at Dingley Dell, Dickens wrote in our beloved Pickwick Papers the following:
“We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped, have grown cold; the eyes we sought, have hid their luster in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstances connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday.
Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler thousands of miles away, (and today our countrymen and friends fighting terrorism far, far away); back to his own fireside and his quiet home!”
Many of us know that Dickens started “A Christmas Carol” at a time when he badly needed money. As the idea for the story took shape and the writing began in earnest, he became engrossed in the book. He wrote that as the tale unfolded he “wept and laughed, and wept again” and that he “walked about the black streets of London fifteen or twenty miles many a night when all other sobre folks had gone to bed.”
“The book was an instant success upon publication in December 1843. His Christmas tale of human redemption has endured beyond even Dickens’ own vivid imagination. It was a favorite during Dickens’ public readings of his works late in his lifetime and is known today primarily due to the dozens of film versions and dramatizations which continue to be produced every year.”
I and many others read it aloud in the bosoms of our families every year and also listen to it on audio tape or cd when driving during the Christmas season.
“Dickens’ description of the holiday as a ‘good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys’ is the very essence of Christmas today, not the greedy commercialized level, but in people’s hearts and homes.”
Dickens’ name had become so synonymous with Christmas that on hearing of his death in 1870 a little costermonger’s girl in London asked, “Mr. Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”
I would bet good money and casks of fine port that every one of us in this room hopes Father Christmas lives forever. If he does, a lot of the credit for it is due to the man whose work we love, Charles Dickens.
As he wrote: “It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”
Now, gentlemen, “a double glass o’ the inwariable,” and I give you The Immortal Memory!
May “God bless us every one.”
I have quoted several paragraphs from the Dickens Christmas page on the Internet and from A Midnight Carol, by Patricia K. Davis, as indicated by the quotation marks at either end of those passages.
Mr. Pott, aka Howard Butcher, IV
December 9, 2001
© Philadelphia Pickwick Club 2001