THE NECESSARY INVENTION OF CHRISTMAS
Where to turn in the midst of the clamor from a free-falling Wall Street, a collapsing auto industry, record foreclosures, and mounting unemployment? Perhaps do as those of another battered era did: pick up a copy of A Christmas Carol, the short but not slight classic penned by Charles Dickens in 1843, a time of gloom and doom known in England as “The Hungry Forties.” It was near the bottom of an unprecedented economic trough brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and Dickens’s fellow countrymen were also in desperate need of a spiritual pick-me-up. Thus, enter the author to revitalize a holiday virtually unknown at the time.
Difficult as it is to imagine, before A Christmas Carol’s publication, there was no Christmas in Not-So-Merrie Olde England, nor in these United States, not anything like the holiday we know today. While December 25th had enjoyed a place on the church calendar from the Fourth Century, and was the subject of desultory celebration in some rural enclaves, its status as a civil holiday was nil, a holdover from the ascension of Oliver Cromwell—in 1644 the Puritan dominated Parliament declared observation of the pagan-influenced holiday illegal (as it was for a time in Seventeenth Century Massachusetts Colony). In 1843, factories and workplaces in England and the U.S. operated at full blast (those that were blasting at all, that is) and merchants opened their doors for what business they might hope for, with no sign of a Christmas tree lot, a Christmas card, or a Christmas turkey anywhere.
In fact, the lean times and the relative obscurity of the holiday led Chapman & Hall, who had so successfully published the Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop (the last was selling 100,000 per installment, equivalent to a quarter of the entire literate population of England), to decline to publish A Christmas Carol when Dickens proposed it. The author was in dire straits at the time, his critical reputation at a nadir as a result of the ill-conceived American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, his no-money-for-frills readership bottomed out at less than a fifth of what he’d enjoyed, and his own bank account overdrawn. Chapman & Hall pooh-poohed the idea of “A Ghost Story of Christmas” and suggested as an alternative the issue of a “cheap edition” of his earlier work. But Dickens, inspired by a speech he had delivered on the devastating social evils of Ignorance and Want before the Manchester Athenaeum in early October of 1843, was resolute.
Instead of giving up the writing of fiction altogether (as he had threatened in a letter to his agent John Forster), Dickens used what little cash he had left to underwrite the publication himself. In less than six weeks, he managed not only to write the story, but to have it illustrated, designed, printed, and bound, then delivered to stores by December 19th. The rest, as we like to say, is history. The tale of the miserly Scrooge, transformed by the Cratchits and visits from the ghosts of his former partner Jacob Marley and those of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, became an instant best-seller. All 6,000 copies were snapped up immediately, and the sales since are literally beyond counting. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, one writer was calling it the most popular book in the language after the Bible.
In truth, it is difficult to imagine anyone in the culture who has not been exposed some form of “Bah Humbug” going up against “God Bless Us Every One.” There have been some 250 film, video, and dramatic adaptations offered to date, in addition to all the schoolnight renditions either acted in or endured by most of the population of the Western World.
But for those who struggled to survive England’s “Hungry Forties,” A Christmas Carol was far more than a compelling and heart-warming tale. It embodied Dickens’s radical-for-his-times belief that right-thinking individuals could make a difference in combating the essential ills of a civilization. It is a theme worth remembering in our own hard times. That fellow you see outside a store this season, clanging a bell beside an iron kettle—that’s actually the author of A Christmas Carol, reminding us of the right thing to do. For Dickens—no friend of either organized religion or politics—“Yes, we can,” was not an ideal, nor a slogan, but a simple statement of fact.
Les Standiford is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami and the author of ten novels and four works of history, including The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits (Crown, 2008).