‘A Christmas Carol’ – How Charles Dickens helped shape Christmas

An English Literature student shares the fascinating story of how Charles Dickens revived and reignited dying Christmas traditions in the 1800s.

I come to you with a fascinating bit of history and a whole lot of love and gratitude to the man often hailed as the man who invented modern Christmas, Charles Dickens.

‘…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 people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys’. 

Can you guess from this quote what time is being described? Well, it is Christmastime of course! Merry Christmas Eve and Happy Holidays everyone! 

On a cold, wintery Christmastime in London 1843, Charles Dickens, published a little novel called A Christmas Carol and, and in doing so revived and cemented many Christmas traditions for evermore. 

What you might find surprising, given how greatly we all value Christmas and all the celebrating that comes with it now, is that, at the beginning of the Victorian period, the celebration of Christmas was in great decline. 

The medieval Christmas traditions, which celebrated the birth of Christ, along with the Germanic winter festival of Yule, had come under intense scrutiny by Puritans who believed it be a wasteful festival that often led to drunkenness, promiscuity, and other forms of excess and tried successfully to ban such pagan traditions. In addition to this, with the Industrial Revolution sweeping through major cities, it was unlikely that workers would be given any time off in order to celebrate this, now, most beloved time of the year. 

Either from lack of funds, resources or time, the celebration of Christmas and all it represented was waning but, with his little story of charity and kindness, Dickens sought hard to change people’s minds of Christmas for the better.

During a season that could be very difficult for those who could not afford such luxuries being sold at Christmastime came a story that placed more emphasis on charity, kindness, and joviality over material objects, rekindling the joy of Christmas and getting to the very heart of the celebration. 

Be it the intrinsic value placed on carol-singing or gift-giving, Dickens warmed the hearts of all who read his Christmas novel and ensured that these quickly became annual traditions. 

The novel’s great emphasis on long, listed descriptions of food, with ‘cake, and…negus’, roasts, ‘mince-pies, and plenty of beer’ fought, not to promote excess, but as a way of being able to share the bounty with those around us. 

Dickens describes Christmastime with ‘holly, mistletoe’, ‘puddings’ and ‘punch’, all objects now closely associated with this time of year. He even included a Father Christmas-esque appearance to the Ghost of Christmas present, with his sparkling eyes, cheery voice, and joyful air evoking a holiday spirit we are all so familiar with to this day. 

A Christmas Carol is such a beloved story that it has taken on the status of myth, with its pages being read and adapted ever since its publication. (Who here has seen Aldi’s Ebanana Scrooge Christmas ad?) 

A cautionary tale about the dangers of selfishness and close-heartedness, Scrooge begins as a man who has forgotten the true value of Christmas, but, at the story’s close, he finally understands the intrinsic value and importance of charity, a holiday capable of celebrating a culture of generosity and kindness. 

And so, the next time you see carol-singers, wrap presents for children, hang holly and mistletoe, or sit down to a turkey Christmas dinner with the family, know that it was the humble writing of Dickens that revived and cemented these traditions that make this the most wonderful time of the year!

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