Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you’re having a great holiday season wherever you live.
My Christmas will be quiet this year, as it has been the case in a few years now, which is totally fine with me. This is often the first opportunity to rest after the hectic, crazy months of the beginning of the university semester, which where I work – university book shop in Verona – are the busiest months in the entire year.
My sister’s Christmas gift for me was a ticket to the musical A Christmas Carol, which we saw last Sunday. I’ve loved the Christmas Carol since well before I knew anything about its creator, Charles Dickens. My fascination with the three ghosts and the way they affect Scrooge’s life started at a early time in my life. I think it is even possible that it influenced my love for fantasy stories since I watched A Christmas Carol on TV the first time when I was very little. So little, in fact, that I don’t even remember when it was.
Only many many years later did I discovered Charles Dickens first wrote the story. Still, for a long time, I hesitated to read Dickens, an author who often tells of poverty, exploitation, children abuse. I mean, that makes for a sad story. And I hate sad stories even when I love them.
Despite the book being very slim and my life-long love for the story, I had even never thought to read A Christmas Carol, until recently. Last Christmas, I finally caved in and read the book together with a group of other readers – and I totally, absolutely loved it since the first line. Dickens’s ability with words and emotions swept me away, and even if I haven’t read any of his other novels so far, I now plan to.
Last year the film The Man Who Invented Christmas also came out. I stumbled upon the trailer on the internet by mere chance, but I soon fell for it. Loved the setting, loved the humour which was obvious would be there, and loved the fact that, rather than be another version of the Christmas Carol, it would be the way A Christmas Carol was born.
Still, I only managed to watch it last summer finally. I was smashed!
I’ll be honest, what totally got me about the film was the strong identification it caused me. Dickens’s life as it is depicted here (but then I learned the film, based on a book, is quite faithful to the historical facts and to Dickens as a real person) is the life of a writer and so many things that I saw there are the same I experience in my own life. Writing at home, in your secret place but with your family at hand, with all the distraction and interruption it brings about is something I’m very familiar with. The distance between what an author wants to tell and what the market wants to see. The different tricks we use to get the market accept our story as it is. The way Dickens found inspiration, with life creeping into his stories, whether he realised it or not, and above all the way he discovers and relates to his characters. Everything is so familiar to me that it gave me a strange but strong sense of displacement as if I were inside that film. It caused me to absorb the rest (Dickens’s personal struggle to relate to the people around him, his strangeness, all his peculiarities) in a way that would otherwise have been less involving.
I totally loved the film, and I’m going to watch it again tonight.It may sound umbelivable today, but at the beginning of the 1800s #Christmas was a festivity at risk of extintion #CharlesDickens Click To Tweet
But then, here Dickens is depicted as the sole reviver of the tradition of Christmas. Was that indeed the case?
This tickled my curiosity, so I went snooping around the net. It turned out that, despite his influence being no doubt very strong, he was not the only causer of a big shift in the way the Western World relates to Christmas.
Does anybody even celebrate it anymore, apart from our clerk?
It is almost impossible to think about it today, but two hundred years ago Christmas was a festivity at risk of extinction. At least in the United Kingdom, where it then was rebirth the way we know it now. Apparently, it was never particularly prominent as a celebration throughout the centuries. During the Restoration, Oliver Cromwell banned it from the calendar altogether.
The monarchy restored it in 1660, and from then on it flourished, though less and less as a religious event and more and more as a mundane celebration which had little connection to the religious practice. This is why Christian churches of all denominations became very critical about it so that, from the 1700s, Christmas started to slowly decline from the number of favourite celebrations.
As late as the 1820s, Christmas was considered an event of scant interest, to the point that many believed it would soon disappear from the calendar of festivities. Many businesses didn’t even consider it a holiday and begrudged the fact that employees could still take the day off (see where Scrooge comes from?).
It was the Victorian Era that changed everything, and as I read about it, I kept wondering why it was. Why should it be in Victorian Britain that such a huge change should occur and it became so powerful that it then spread all over the world, to the point that today Christmas is celebrated even in non-Christian countries?
Well, as always, history isn’t good at giving clear answers since there seldom is one clean-cut answer to historical questions. Christmas isn’t any different. There were many different causes to the restored popularity of Christmas.
The Rebirth of Christmas in Victorian Britain
Starting from the early 1800s, the Oxford Movement worked for the restoration of more religiously Christian practices that would be the manifestation of Christian values. This movement of renovation, which was mostly influential in the academic circles and upper classes, did filter through the society at large and soon took hold of the fading Christmas too.
But it may not have made a significant difference if other changes hadn’t happened inside the Victorian society. This was the time of the strengthening of the bourgeoisie. An entire middle-class of professionals became more prominent both economically, socially and even politically, with the power to cause real change and the will to do it their own way. With the ease of their economic circumstance, the Victorian middle-class had more time and more money on their hands, and of course, they grabbed every opportunity to enjoy them.
With the still available opportunity to get two days off on Christmas and Boxing Day, Victorians started to look for ways to enjoy those days in a special way, and business people around the country tried to provide them with the opportunity to do just that.
With the action of the Oxford Movement in place, Victorians started to become aware of the feeling of rebirth and renovation Christmas offered, which nicely weaved into the bourgeoisie’s sense of newness they were bringing to the table.
It was under Queen Victoria that stamps became extremely affordable and that coupled to the well-known attitude of 1800s people to write letters, it gave birth to the very novel Christmas Card to be exchanged in those days. It was Sir Henry Cole who first invented the Christmas Card, and its idea soon spread as one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Christmas season.
But there was more.
Charles Dickens and Prince Albert
I’m normally suspicious of Victorian charity. In great part, charity in Victorian time seems to me to have been a fashion, something the well-off were supposed to do to be socially respectable rather than a real move of the heart. So for a long time, I put down Dickens’s obvious interest for the poorer to the same Victorian feeling. It’s only after I learned more about him and his life that I started to change my mind.
Dickens knew poverty first-hand when he was a kid. He was exploited in the Victorian workhouse (which I don’t expect to have been healthy places), which didn’t allow him to get a complete education. Knowing this, I’m not surprised he had such a keen interest in the condition of the poorer class – especially children – in his time, and I now don’t doubt that he was sincere. I’m also not surprised that he took such interest and got involved in the resurging of Christmas as a season of generosity, sharing, caring and giving. He was generally an activist, but in this field – the Christmas feeling – he was probably most successful because of the huge popularity of the Christmas Carol from the start.
Dickens wrote many Christmas stories, once a year for quite a long period. A Christmas Carol was his first, his most successful and – I suspect – the one into which he poured his feelings and cares in the strongest, rawest of ways.
His biographer John Foster tells of how deep Dickens fell into this story. “He wept over it, and laughed, and wept again, and excited him to an extraordinary degree.” After all, as the film truthfully depicts, Dickens was himself in a very tight spot at that point in his life, besieged by doubts about his writing skills and worries about his growing family. I expect that he was once again in a place where he felt he might fall into ruin any moment, only this time he would drag his family with him, just like his father did when he was a kid. Is it any surprise that he let into the page his fears of making mistakes, his doubts of having made mistakes in the past, his fright that those mistakes might mar his and his family’s future forever? But also the hope that things may change if we actively work for it, and that we have more chances if we are part of a human consortium who’s willing to share and support, just like the resurging feeling of Christmas urged to do. It was a time for hopes and rebirth, and that’s what Dickens poured into this short story’s pages.
Despite the Victorian time being a time of wellbeing for so many Britishers, they must have felt the same doubts and looked for the same feeling of hope if they gave A Christmas Carol such an instant and lasting success.#CharlesDickens and Prince Albert, the men who invented Christmas? #Christmas #history Click To Tweet
Dickens was in fact instrumental in creating that feeling we now associate with Christmas. He certainly was the right man at the right time, but is it correct to say that he was the one who invented it?
Well, apparently, he should share this role with at least another man: Prince Consort Albert.
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, was a German. Although Christmas doesn’t appear to have had such a hard time in other parts of Europe as in Great Britain, the ways it was celebrated were strongly national, if not downright regional.
Take the tradition of making the Christmas tree. It had excited in Germany for a long time, but it never came out of it until Prince Albert imported it to Britain. As a German, he celebrated Christmas as he always had done, but he was also caught up in the social changes happening in Britain and the festive feeling that was growing around this particular festivity. So he started to exchanged gifts with his family and friends at Christmas rather than at the end of the year as it was tradition.
The British upper classes were swift to pick up the Royal Family’s attitude, especially in a time when money to buy gifts and Christmas decorations wasn’t too scant.
The Christmas Tree, the Christmas decoration, the exchange of gifts and wishing postcards and the application of these mundane activities to a more religious and social inclination toward the other became what Christmas was all about. In Britain, sure, but Victoria’s empire reached basically every corner of the world.
The rest truly is history.
Merry Christmas to you all
History Today – Dickens and the Construction of Christmas
The Guardian – Dickens’ Christmas Carol didn’t invent the holiday, but it did help revive it
The Victorian Web – Fathering Christmas: Charles Dickens and the (Re)Birth of Christmas
The BBC – History of Christmas