Why Dickens Wrote a Christmas Carol : Fancy and Fact

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Why Dickens Wrote a Christmas Carol : Fancy and Fact


Timko, Michael, The World and I


(Author's bio still to come)

For most of us the Christmas season and Charles Dickens, arguably the most famous novelist of all time, are synonymous: A Christmas Carol, the story he wrote as a potboiler to compensate for the money he was losing on Martin Chuzzlewit, the novel he was then publishing in monthly installments, has come to be a full-fledged industry. According to Paul Davis, it has turned from "text into culture-text" (The Life and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge). "Almost from the day it appeared," Davis writes, "the Carol was literary public property."

No one would have appreciated the irony in this development more than the great novelist himself. His Christmas stories and sketches are full of holiday spirit, sentiment, and sentimentality. But the more we learn about the "inimitable," as he was often called, the more we come to know that he was a complex figure, a mixture of Pickwick, the convivial "hero" of his first popular novel, and Scrooge himself, always on the lookout to make a quick buck.

The irony is pervasive. Before Dickens and his stories, Christmas was controversial, despite its initial popularity as a festival combining many of the features of the Roman Saturnalia with Christian ritual. Both in England and America, the Puritans did their best to erase any signs of joy and merriment from the holiday. As late as 1874, Henry Ward Beecher, the famous American preacher, stated clearly that Christmas was "a foreign day" that he would not recognize.

It was Dickens and Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, who changed things. Albert introduced the Christmas tree, with its bright decorations and lights; Dickens, through his stories, set the tone for the season as we now know it. Beginning with his sketches in the l830s and continuing with his annual Christmas stories in the l840s, Dickens deliberately set out to make the holiday mean to others what he insisted it meant to him. "My father," his son Charley said, "was always at his best at Christmas." The measure of his success is reflected in one anecdote. "I feel," said one Vermont factory owner, "that after listening to Mr. Dickens' reading of A Christmas Carol tonight, I should break the custom we have hitherto observed of opening the works on Christmas Day."

What makes the juxtaposition of the sentiments of the "real" Dickens and the fictional Dickensian Christmas of simple sentiment and jovial goodwill so striking is the disparity between the two. In contrast to the warm, cuddly, jovial scenes in "The Christmas Tree," A Christmas Carol, and The Chimes, some episodes in Dickens' life are shocking to those who have been brought up with the conventional view of England's most popular author, the creator of Mr. Pickwick, Little Nell, and Pip. On the one hand we find the wonderfully evocative scenes of goodwill and peace on earth in the Christmas fiction; on the other hand, there is the acquisitive author and heartless husband. These two contrasting aspects provide a revelatory entrance into the troubled world of Charles Dickens.

The childlike joy found in a Dickens Christmas is instantly apparent in "The Christmas Tree." After describing the branches filled with toys, lights, and decorations of all sorts, Dickens employs the cliches and platitudes he knows will delight his reading public:

"Among the later toys and fancies hanging there ... the softened music in the night, ever unalterable! Encircled by the social thoughts of Christmas-time, still let the benignant figure of my childhood stand unchanged! In every cheerful image and suggestion that the season brings, may the bright star that rested above the poor roof be the star of all the Christian world! ... Now the tree is decorated with bright merriment, and song, and dance, and cheerfulness. And they are all welcome. Innocent and welcome be they ever held, beneath the branches of the Christmas Tree, which cast no gloomy shadow!"

(Dawn--please put the following at the end of the first page, if possible per copyeditor)

*See also "The Carol's Song of Redemption" by Richard Wilkins, The World & I, April 1997, and "The Man Who Invented Christmas" by Jack Ketch, The World & I, December 1993.

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