Learn how Charles Dickens influenced the celebration of Christmas
Christmas was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Ok, borrowing Dickens’ opening lines from A Christmas Carol may be a bit over-the-top, but there is some truth there. At the time Dickens wrote his time-honored little Christmas book, the celebration of Christmas was in decline. The medieval Christmas traditions, which were based on the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (a pagan celebration for the Roman god of agriculture), and the Germanic winter festival of Yule (Forbes, 2007, p. 10), had come under intense scrutiny by the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell who sought to purify the Church of England by stripping out pagan celebrations and superstitions (Forbes, 2007, p. 56).
By Dickens’ time the Industrial Revolution allowed workers little time for the celebration of Christmas. An undercurrent of the old Christmas traditions was being kept alive, mainly in rural areas and by authors such as Thomas Hervey (The Book of Christmas-1836) and Washington Irving (The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon-1819), the latter being an influence, and later a friend of, Charles Dickens (Hearn, 2004, p. xvi-xviii).
The revival of Christmas during the first one-half of the 19th century was further sparked by young Queen Victoria, whose husband, Albert, was from Germany where the Puritan influence had not eroded Christmas tradition. It was Albert who introduced the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle (Forbes, 2007, p. 63-64). The first Christmas card appeared in the 1840s (Forbes, 2007, p. 118).
It has been said that Charles Dickens invented Christmas. This, of course, is not true. It is more correct to say that with his 1843 masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, he reinvented Christmas. The miser Scrooge’s descent into seeing Christmas as a humbug, and his subsequent transformation brought about by the spirits, can be seen as a microcosm of the decline and rebirth of the Christmas tradition.
Today (2022), after nearly two centuries, A Christmas Carol continues to be relevant, sending a message that cuts through the materialistic trappings of the season and gets to the heart and soul of Christmastime.
Dickens describes the holidays 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 open their shut-up hearts freely, and 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” (Christmas Books-A Christmas Carol, p. 10). This was what Dickens described for the rest of his life as the “Carol Philosophy” (Letters, 1977, v. 4, p. 328).
One could say that Charles Dickens has probably had more influence on the way we celebrate Christmas today than any single individual in human history…except One.