The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford

Dec 28, 2013

The days of this week are all starting to blend together in one happy blur. Christmas Day was wonderful, but so were the days leading up to it and the days following it.

On the day after Christmas, we drove to my parents' home in Colorado. On the drive, in between handing out crackers and turning on music for my kids, I managed to finish this little gem. It was much more substantial than some of the fluffy Christmas stuff I indulge in, and I enjoyed it very much.

This is the behind-the-scenes look at what went into Charles Dickens’ writing of A Christmas Carol and the effect it has had on the world’s celebration of Christmas in the 170 years since its publication.

I probably don’t have enough stamina to read a full-blown biography of Charles Dickens (maybe someday . . . ), but I am still interested in his life and creative process. This book was the perfect substitute. At only 226 pages, I wasn’t worried about my life being half over before I finished it. Also, I loved the focal point of A Christmas Carol. I still learned a lot about Charles Dickens’ childhood, his home life, the financial difficulties that beset him, the early publishing process, world events, and the evolution of Christmas, but it was all done within the context of A Christmas Carol. Having that beloved little Christmas book as the unifying thread made everything seem like it had more meaning and purpose.

Here are a few of the interesting facts I learned along the way:

  • Charles Dickens' early pen name was Boz.
  • Chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop sold more than 100,000 copies per week, which, considering the number of literate citizens, was really an astronomical number.
  • Prior to A Christmas Carol, Christmas itself was not universally celebrated. The holiday was originally an excuse to get drunk and engage in immoral and illegal behavior. Although one of the kings decreed it a Christian holiday in an attempt to convert more people, the Puritans banned it because they thought it was sacrilegious. Eventually, a milder, more religious version was reinstated, but many people still had lukewarm feelings toward it.
  • Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol at a dismal, desperate point in his life . . . his popularity had plummeted, his debts had increased, and his family life was stressful.
  • Nevertheless, the story was not some shoddy little thing he dashed off quickly in order to make a few pounds. The story consumed him (he admitted, "I was very much affected by the little Book myself"), and he really hoped that it would make a lasting impression on his audience.
  • At the time, Dickens' publishers were unhappy with him and wouldn't invest in A Christmas Carol. So Dickens had to pay for everything himself: the illustrations, publishing, binding, etc. In other words, A Christmas Carol was akin to a self-published novel.
  • A Christmas Carol was instantly well-received by the public. The first 6,000 copies sold within four days.
  • Because of relaxed, or even non-existent, copyright laws (especially between countries) piracy ensued soon after publication. Cheap editions were sold for pennies, other authors lifted the material and used it as their own, and theatrical reenactments could be put on without any sort of author's knowledge or permission.
  • A Christmas Carol impacted and enlarged such traditions as having a turkey for Christmas dinner (apparently, the goose industry really floundered after people read the scene where Scrooge buys a turkey twice the size of Tiny Tim), Christmas decorations, activities and games, and Father Christmas.
  • Dickens wrote several more short Christmas stories, and during his lifetime The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth were probably even more popular than A Christmas Carol.
Probably one of the most poignant moments in A Christmas Carol, aside from Tiny Tim, is the moment when the Ghost of Christmas Present flings back his robes to reveal the two small children who represent Ignorance and Want. I found it so interesting to learn about the events in Dickens' childhood that inspired that portion of the story. Although Dickens' didn't have as degenerate a childhood as many in 19th-century England, he was forced to give up his education and work in order to help his father get out of debtor's prison. 

Eventually, he was able to go back to school, at least for a short time, but I think having the two contrasting experiences helped him realize the value of education: without it, your life is stagnant and unchangeable; with it, you can progress and gain success. Prior to writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens' commented on the idea that "a little learning is a dangerous thing." He said: "Why, a little hanging was considered a very dangerous thing, according to the same authorities, with this difference, that, because a little hanging was dangerous, we had a great deal of it; and, because a little learning was dangerous, we were to have none at all."

And later on, while doing research for Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens' visited an impoverished school and said: "Side by side with Crime, Disease, and Misery in England, Ignorance is always brooding, and is always certain to be found."

These examples highlight one of the things I learned the most from reading this book and that was that, in spite of his personal faults and weaknesses, Dickens hoped to achieve good things with his writing. I think it is fairly common today to look at a story and say something critical like, "It was interesting enough, but it was obvious he had an agenda." Well, Dickens had an agenda too, but I can't help but respect and admire him for it. He knew his writing would reach the masses in one form or another and that it had the potential to change the hearts and minds of men and women.

Sometimes his stories got a little preachy, and in those moments, his words were his downfall. But in A Christmas Carol, he crafted something that was perfectly balanced, beautifully constructed, and emotionally powerful. Many have said that it is his best work, and if that is not true, then certainly it is his best-known work. It has become an icon of Christmas.

At one point in the book, Les Standiford made the observation: "Celebrating Christmas without some reference to A Christmas Carol seems impossible, a remarkable fact given that the book was published more than 150 years ago. Indeed, the resonance of the story has remained so strong through the generations that commentators have referred to Dickens as the man who invented Christmas."

This book not only gave me a deeper appreciation for Dickens' works (I can definitely see a Dickens novel in my reading agenda for 2014), but also strengthened my love of Christmas. This is a book that could be enjoyed any month of the year but that I especially enjoyed in the days leading up to Christmas.

1 comment:

  1. I love this review. Seriously.
    Thank you for sharing the facts.
    I remember my favorite moment being Ignorance and Want too.


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