When the story of A Christmas Carol came to Charles Dickens, “he wept over it, laughed, and then wept again,” writes Les Standiford, author of the winsome new book The Man Who Invented Christmas. With “a strange mastery it seized him,” a friend said of the yarn. Dickens wrote the book in six weeks in 1843 and believed in it so deeply that he undertook all the financial risk himself of publishing it.
And so Tiny Tim, Scrooge, and “Bah! Humbug!” became an irreducible part of our Christmas. Dickens didn’t “invent” the holiday, as Standiford’s overreaching title says, but he revitalized it as the family-centric occasion for fellowship and generosity that we know today.
Christmas originally replaced the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and people engaged in the same kind of revelry as in pagan days (after dutifully attending church, of course). Upstanding Christian leaders recoiled from the riotousness. In England, the Rev. Henry Bourne of Newcastle called Christmas “a pretense for Drunkenness, and Rioting, and Wantonness.” In America, the Puritan Cotton Mather thundered, “Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking and in all Licentious Liberty.”
Under Oliver Cromwell in the mid-1600s, as Standiford recounts, the Puritan Parliament decreed that the day be devoted to fasting and repentance. In America, the colony of Massachusetts outlawed the holiday. Long before retailers eschewed the phrase “Merry Christmas” and the American Civil Liberties Union launched its lawsuits, Christians waged their own “War on Christmas.”
The bans were lifted, but Christmas ran on fumes. It might be noted in public, but not in people’s homes, and it was nothing like our contemporary extravaganza. “There were no Christmas cards in 1843 England, no Christmas trees at royal residences or White Houses, no Christmas turkeys, no department-store Santa or his million clones, no outpouring of ‘Yuletide greetings,’ no weeklong cessation of business affairs through the New Year,” Standiford writes.
Dickens gave the holiday a kick-start in his iconic tale, suffused with his characteristic ameliorative social concerns. Scrooge’s besetting sin is isolation, a refusal to see his connectedness to others and their inherent worth and dignity. Asked for a donation to the poor, he witheringly inquires whether there are no prisons or workhouses for them. If they die, he opines, it would “decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge’s spectral visitors break down his separation. Shown an affecting vision of his employee Bob Cratchit’s ill son, Tiny Tim, Scrooge expresses his concern for the boy – only to have his former hardhearted words quoted back to him by the Spirit, with the appropriately stinging admonition: “It may be that, in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”
After his harrowing night, of course, Scrooge’s heart is renewed. He sends a massive turkey to the Cratchit home (to the grief of turkeys everywhere — the turkey soon replaced the goose as the premier holiday bird). Released from his lonely self-centeredness, Scrooge is newly generous and “merry as a school boy.” He embraces hearth and home, which Dickens makes the locus of the Christmas celebration.
“[Dickens] complemented the glorification of the nativity of Christ,” Standiford writes, “with a specific set of practices derived from Christ’s example: charity and compassion in the form of educational opportunity, humane working conditions, and a decent life for all. Just as vital as the celebration of the birth of a holy savior into a human family was the glorification and defense of the family unit itself.”
In the enduring power of his parable and its alluring depiction of the celebratory trappings of Christmas, Dickens did much to add to the sum total of human delight. How many children who revel in the Christmas season can share the sentiment Dickens recalled from his (otherwise dismal) childhood? “Oh, now all common things become uncommon and enchanted to me. All lamps are wonderful; all rings are talismans.” May it be so for you and yours — Merry Christmas!