Once a year the town of Galveston, Texas sweeps all vestiges of their Gulf Coast identity away and magically transforms themselves into a perfect replica of a small Victorian town in Christmas-time England called Dickens on the Strand. It is a sight to behold. Strolling carolers, roving musicians, Victorian street vendors selling Victorian wares all conspire to transport visitors back in time and everyone makes way for the star attraction himself, Charles Dickens. Gerard Charles Dickens, that is, the author’s great-great-grandson who is usually on hand to keep the family tradition alive with a live reading of A Christmas Carol to enthralled crowds (autographed copies available after the show in the lobby for $29.99, no personalizations allowed please).
For many book lovers, Dickens embodies the Christmas season, but it’s much more en vogue to discuss his heftier work, dismissing A Christmas Carol as something quaint and childlike, best for novice readers. And of course the seething social commentary on class, poverty and social justice that fairly bubbles out of tomes such as Bleak House, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations just sounds more sophisticated.
But the importance of A Christmas Carol ought not be forgotten. Written in just a few short weeks and published on December 19, 1843, Dickens’ novella was what we would call today an instant best seller. By Christmas Eve the entire first edition of 6,000 books had sold out. Twenty four editions quickly followed. This was one hot book. And it begs the question, why?
When Dickens’ penned his novella, Christmas celebrations in 1843 England were not quite the Victorian Christmas scene. In fact, it might be said that it was Dickens himself who created that scene we now automatically associate with the holiday season. Mid-19th century holiday celebrations were a spartan affair. The industrialization of urban areas and surging numbers of working poor that Dickens so often wrote about meant that people had little use (or money) for holiday observances such as the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas. Like Bob Cratchit, most people worked on Christmas Day and thought little of it. If celebrations were had, it was a private family affair and not shared within the community.
Even holiday traditions like the Christmas tree weren't common. The young Queen Victoria’s new husband had only imported the German tradition a few years earlier to the British royal household. The rest of England was far too busy just trying to put food on the table to bother with a fire hazard like that.
When Dickens sat down to write A Christmas Carol he had ascended his usual social soapbox. He had just come from Manchester and despaired of the conditions of the poor and forced child labor; he saw the ever-widening gulf between the few wealthy merchants and the downtrodden workers who were dying for want of even sanitary living conditions; he saw injustice. And thus arose the character of Ebeneezer Scrooge.
Yet this is where it gets interesting: copies of A Christmas Carol sold for five shillings each (this would be over 25 Euros today). So the popularity of Dickens’ book cannot be explained by the demographic he was championing. They simply could not have afforded the price, let alone the leisure time to read it. What made this book so beloved? In his book The Man Who Invented Christmas, author Les Standiford posits that by placing Scrooge’s redemption in his own hands, Dickens gave people hope: “If a single night’s crash course in man’s power to redress his mistakes and redeem his future without appealing to an invisible and silent deity could rehabilitate even so apparently lost a cause as Ebenezer Scrooge, think what it might do for the rest of us!” He may not be far off the mark as secular humanism was gaining a quiet foothold throughout these decades (Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species was a scant decade away from publication). God was not being rejected, but man’s control over his destiny was gaining ground.
Whatever the reason, the results were undeniable. Not only was there an immediate increase in charitable giving, but the association of charity over the holidays became permanently linked. Christmas started to become more of a community event as all families celebrated both within their own homes and also sharing the love of the season with others. It became the norm for workers to enjoy Christmas Day at home with their families (even if they weren't exactly paid for it), and even the tradition of Christmas turkey dinners came from Dickens’ pen.
Of course Dickens would have traded all of this for some decent child labor laws, minimum wage, and a few strong unions. Nevertheless, A Christmas Carol was not a minor contribution to his life work. Perhaps it deserves a re-read every now and again.
God bless us, every one!
Thanks for this awesome history, Michele! Visit Michele at her blog, A Reader's Respite.