FREE SAMPLE - A Christmas Carol: The Full Context
Charles Dickens and the Power of Christmas
One fact that you, dear reader, need to know about Charles Dickens is that he loved Christmas. Putting this festival at the heart of his writing wasn’t just a marketing choice, it was a way of life. Just take a look at some of his earlier journalism:
‘Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment, which abound at this season of the year? A Christmas family-party! We know nothing in nature more delightful! There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas. Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers; father and son, or brother and sister, who have met and passed with averted gaze, or a look of cold recognition, for months before, proffer and return the cordial embrace, and bury their past animosities in their present happiness. Kindly hearts that have yearned towards each other, but have been withheld by false notions of pride and self-dignity, are again reunited, and all is kindness and benevolence! Would that Christmas lasted the whole year through (as it ought), and that the prejudices and passions which deform our better nature, were never called into action among those to whom they should ever be strangers!’
He does indeed paint a convincing picture of the power of Christmas. For many people now, Dickens and his ghost stories are the very epitome of Christmas, though other writers like Lauren Laverne disagree:
‘People say Dickens invented Christmas: he didn’t – though he aided its revival. Britain’s newly urban population didn’t have much energy or opportunity to celebrate it, thanks to the extremely un-festive combination of long hours of unregulated industrial toil and displacement from the rural communities they’d grown up in. Dickens was the most successful of numerous cultured Victorians keen to revive the season, both out of nostalgia for the (more fondly than accurately) remembered country Christmases of yore and a sense of social conscience.’
Regardless of whether Charles Dickens did invent Christmas or just popularised it, the festive season as we know it fully emerged during the author’s lifetime.
Obviously, Christmas had been celebrated for hundreds of years before the Victorian age, but not in a form we’d recognise today.
‘Before Victoria‘s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers. No Christmas cards were sent and most people did not have holidays from work. The wealth and technologies generated by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era changed the face of Christmas forever.’
The development of Christmas as an economic and cultural phenomenon is absolutely fascinating, tied in with the emergence of a distinct American culture. While Dickens was writing in London, over in the USA Washington Irving was writing a fictional travelogue about spending an old-fashioned English Christmas in the countryside. It moved him as melodramatically as Christmas moved Dickens.
‘It is a beautiful arrangement, also, derived from days of yore, that this festival, which commemorates the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together of family connections, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred hearts which the cares and pleasures and sorrows of the world are continually operating to cast loose; of calling back the children of a family who have launched forth in life, and wandered widely asunder, once more to assemble about the paternal hearth, that rallying-place of the affections, there to grow young and loving again among the endearing mementoes of childhood.
There is something in the very season of the year that gives a charm to the festivity of Christmas. At other times we derive a great portion of our pleasures from the mere beauties of nature. Our feelings sally forth and dissipate themselves over the sunny landscape, and we "live abroad and everywhere." The song of the bird, the murmur of the stream, the breathing fragrance of spring, the soft voluptuousness of summer, the golden pomp of autumn; earth with its mantle of refreshing green, and heaven with its deep delicious blue and its cloudy magnificence, all fill us with mute but exquisite delight, and we revel in the luxury of mere sensation. But in the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms; and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.’
The book was hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
‘British readers understood that it did not describe their own Christmas, but typically thought it was an accurate description of Christmases past, while American reviewers took the book as straightforward reportage’
Dickens does acknowledge that the Christmas he presents in his journalism is foreign. He wrote extensively for magazines, including the one which he edited, ‘Household Words’. He starts a general interest piece thusly:
‘I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree.’
The Christmas that Dickens conjures in A Christmas Carol is energetically modern. Almost everything he evokes and uses as a device to provoke Scrooge’s redemption had come into being within Scrooge’s lifetime. Take this one particularly tender moment from Scrooge, for example:
‘“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”’
The carol that the little boy was singing would likely have been recorded and published within five years of A Christmas Carol’s publication.
‘While carols were not new to the Victorians, it was a tradition that they actively revived and popularised. The Victorians considered carols to be a delightful form of musical entertainment, and a pleasure well worth cultivating. Old words were put to new tunes and the first significant collection of carols was published in 1833 for all to enjoy.’
To return to his Christmas tree, he lists off the products that can be bought to decorate it in a kind of catalogue of items a reader could purchase from a high street.
‘There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; there were real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs; there were French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks, and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping; there were jolly, broad-faced little men, much more agreeable in appearance than many real men—and no wonder, for their heads took off, and showed them to be full of sugar-plums; there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes, all kinds of boxes; there were trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child, before me, delightedly whispered to another pretty child, her bosom friend, "There was everything, and more.”'
He also presents the modern Christmas in his books as one that reflects the way that people’s lives worked since industrialisation had changed the world.
‘Now [the festival] could be a Christmas where working people travelled home from counting-houses and offices, where charity was the remit of the rising middle classes, not the gentry taking care of their own tenants. Dickens took the changes to industrial society- office and factory work, urban poverty and want, food that was bought in shops, not grown in kitchen-gardens, cooked in laundry -coppers and commercial cookshops, not by servants in great halls - he took this new consumerist society, and through Scrooge’s ‘conversion’, turned it into a sacred duty. Following his lead - cooking the turkey, playing games, drinking toasts, or buying a toy for your child - became the quasi-religious observances of the new middle-class domesticity.’
It’s a wonderfully circular occurrence that while many credit A Christmas Carol with creating or reviving Christmas, it also represents a new kind of commodity, the book as a Christmas present. In the same way that we inevitably see the Guinness Book of Records miraculously appear every December, a cute little story book became a staple of every middle class child’s Christmas stocking. Dickens deliberately produced this book and its format to appeal to this market, though his competitors tended to produce something more twee and saccharine.
One thing that A Christmas Carol did bring to Dickens, as well as festive cheer, was rave reviews.
‘’Blessings on your kind heart!’ wrote Jeffrey to the author of the Carol. ‘You should be happy yourself, for you may be sure you have done more good by this little publication, fostered by kindly feelings, and prompted more acts of beneficence, than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals since 1842.’ ‘Who can listen,’ exclaimed Thackeray, ‘to objections to a book such as this? It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.’
An exam answer frequently read by the author during her time in the classroom was ‘Dickens uses the theme of Christmas to…’, and while we can say that, yes, images of Christmas are thematic to A Christmas Carol, they are representative of something else.
Christmas is used to invoke modernity and consumption, in the same way it is now. A Christmas in the twenty-first century will likely involve lots of bought gifts and time off from work, in the same way that Dickens’ Christmases would. Christmas is also intrinsically linked to charity and goodwill to the poor, one of Dickens’ key agendas throughout all of his work. The Christmas he invokes is also nostalgic for a pre-industrial tradition, which admittedly didn’t exist, and is a reaction against how rapidly society had changed, even within his lifetime. There is no blanket image of Christmas, just a set of pictures that Dickens uses to signpost towards other issues.
Christmas, as Dickens portrays it, is an intensely emotional and sentimental time. It’s so easy, as readers now, to either guess at emotion or take it out of a text altogether and just look at the linguistic nuts and bolts. This is not what Dickens intended at all.
‘Dickens considered it imperative for readers to experience the sensation of sentimentality in literature, rather than explain it away: this experience was moral and civilizing and designed to allow people to live harmoniously in an increasingly discordant society. While modern critics are often suspicious of this idea, it remains that civil and ethical codes in western society are still reinforced as a means for upholding good feeling between people, putting them at ease by disabling unpleasant feelings. Dickens is intent on reminding us of such codes as well as being concerned to teach us ways of reading them: he encourages us as readers to interpret the world through its emotional content, training us to do so by providing readers with literary scenes fuelled by sentimental feeling. If we then choose to critically and historically analyse these scenes, rather than experience the feeling within them, we miss their sensual expression and turn sentimentality into something else.’
Christmas, for Dickens and his contemporary readers, was a sensation you are supposed to feel in your gut, as well as experience critically in your mind.