Recently, Mid-Continent Public Library hosted several programs centered on Charles Dickens’ and his classic story, A Christmas Carol. Both Dickens’ great-great-grandson Gerald Dickens and actor David zum Brunnen delivered fantastic performances of this Christmas staple at MCPL branches earlier this month, and you can still catch The Dickens Carolers, who deliver their beautiful holiday songs while decked out in traditional Victorian attire, over the next couple weeks.
But why Victorian? Why is it that for so many of us, the image of Christmas is one bound in the conventions of 19th Century England?
Legend has it that on the day that Charles Dickens died in 1870, a young London girl was overheard saying, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?” While we might never know if this statement was actually made, the sentiment behind it was probably all too real for many Victorians at the time. Dickens had become the embodiment of the holiday as many knew it. But did he really invent Christmas?
Obviously, the answer is no. Many common Christmas traditions can be traced back as far as Roman times. And the traditions we associate with it came from many different places and time periods. For example, the Christmas tree is a German tradition that became incorporated into English celebrations when the German-born Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s hubby, first set one up in the palace. And many other customs, like Christmas dinners and caroling, existed long before the publication of Dickens’ story.
However, when A Christmas Carol first came out in 1843, many of these conventions had fallen out of favor in England. This was also the time of the Industrial Revolution when there was a steady migration from rural areas to the urban centers. Many wondered if the country traditions associated with the holiday would make the transition to the city. The fact that Dickens chose to set his Christmas tale right in the middle of London helped ensure that they would.
So while Dickens didn’t actually invent the holiday, the popularity of his story helped enshrine the modern view of it. Especially in England and America where Dickens had his greatest success. Today, when we think of Christmas, it is the images in A Christmas Carol that immediately come to mind for most. Carolers (decked out in their Victorian attire), a Christmas Goose, family and friends gathered around a fire. Even the rise in the use of “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Christmas” is attributed to A Christmas Carol.
Another Christmas image that Dickens help solidify was that of snow. Unusual considering that England is not known for its abundant snowfall. But Dickens experienced an abnormal number of white Christmases as a child, and so he incorporated it into his ideal Christmas story. Today, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas without at least a coating of snow on the ground―just not too much to affect traffic!
But there is one aspect of Christmas that can most definitely be attributed to Dickens―the concept of charity to your fellow man. If you look at the primary message of A Christmas Carol, it is helping those in need. How many of you have volunteered this time of year because of the “spirit of the season”? Before Dickens, this was not something that most people associated with the holiday. Now, the ideas of charity and Christmas go hand in hand. This might be the most important contribution to the modern idea of Christmas that Dickens made.
In the end, though we can’t say that Dickens invented Christmas, he did combine the many traditions associated with it to create our contemporary view of the holiday. And the focus that many put on this time of year of lending a hand to others can definitely be traced back to A Christmas Carol.
If you’d like to see a dramatized take on how Dickens created his most memorable work, take a look at the excellent movie The Man Who Invented Christmas. And don’t forget to check out The Dickens Carolers this month as well.
Merry (Happy) Christmas!