“A new gospel”: A Christmas Carol in history and how Dickens’ classic became the canonical Christmas story

I must open by recognising the debt I owe for this piece to Christmassy history podcasts; the History Extra Podcast has led me from Medieval English Christmases to Christmases of the Victorian era, The Rest is History Podcast has guided me on a walking tour of Scrooge’s London and In Our Time: Culture has helped me understand the writing and meaning of A Christmas Carol itself. After listening to these, running into OHR’s winter commissions in my inbox seemed something of a convenient Christmas miracle!

This glimpse behind the scenes of this piece reveals more than a happy coincidence, however; the fact that our historical Christmas narratives so often return to, and in many ways culminate in, Dickens’ classic says something about the hold which Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim continue to exercise over Christmas, especially in the UK. Despite its ubiquity, we often forget that this is a Christmas story before Christmas trees exploded in popularity, before Christmas cards and, most shockingly, before our flying, North-Pole-residing, Ho-Ho-Ho-ing, modern Santa. This merry figure was the product of a protracted merger between a strictly mythical, English ‘Father Christmas’, who embodied the raucous license of the festive season, and Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek saint with a reputation for delivering presents and who became ‘Santa Claus’ in North America. Still, A Christmas Carol continues to embody the season for many in the UK, with its Muppet form a festive highlight for many!

But, treating this story as an expression of history, we can, firstly, ask what had an English Christmas been like in the centuries prior to A Christmas Carol? Well, in the interests of brevity, my brushstrokes will be broad, but a fascinating narrative can be traced from Medieval Christmases to the early Victorian Era.

Though the image of ‘merry old England’ may be an anachronistic interpretation of the pre-modern world, the spirit behind this idea was certainly embodied by Medieval and Tudor Christmases. Pre-Reformation, Christmas was a celebratory breaking of the 24-day fast of Advent and the twelve days that followed primarily featured eating, drinking, raucous merry-making, social upheaval and baronial hospitality, as charitable noble landlords hosted their tenants.

Unsurprisingly, in Britain’s bloody 17th century, though they never actually banned Christmas, Puritans did crack down on much of this outward celebration.

By the Georgian 18th-century, the country’s gentry had inherited some of the puritanical nervousness regarding the raucous social upheaval of past Christmases and, aided by widening wealth and class divides, emphasised private, stately Christmases. These were not the family, child-focused Christmases to come, but nor were they the class-crossing Christmases of the past. They were characterised by the rural partying of the gentry and nobility and the explosion of consumer culture amongst these classes.

By Dickens’ industrialising, early-Victorian era, the most important changes were the immutable rise of urbanisation and the sharpening of class inequalities; most of the features of Georgian Christmases remained, though the United Kingdom, as the country had become, was changing fast.

Having established the point at which we find the country’s Christmases, at what point in his life do we find Dickens when he began writing A Christmas Carol in 1843? Aged 31, Dickens had already written a number of his best-know works, like The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, had just returned from his first tour of the United States in 1842 and was living in London with his young family. Dickens had married his wife, Catherine, in 1836 and together, by 1843, they had four children with a fifth to be born in January 1844. Dickens’ most recent work, Martin Chuzzlewit, however, had struggled so greatly that his publishers threatened to reduce his income, and, in many ways, the young writer emulated the Scrooge to whom we are introduced, “squeezing, wrenching, grasping” for funds when he began writing in October 1843.

Fortunately, Dickens’ genius ensured A Christmas Carol was the fresh literary success he needed, though he made less money, due to the luxurious printing and illustrations on which he insisted, than one might expect. The reception was remarkably positive. The Illustrated London News said the story revealed the “gentle spirit of humanity” putting all “in good humour with ourselves, with each other [and] with the season”. The poet Thomas Wood put its importance in the context of Christmas’ history, writing, “If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were ever in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease.” Upon Dickens’ death in 1870, the novelist Margaret Oliphant noted that A Christmas Carol had become somewhat of “a new gospel” during the festive season.

Thus far, I have refrained from re-describing a story which, in reflection of its huge cultural power, I’m sure all of you know so well. To make sense of this power, however, I must give the briefest overview of the story’s plot. I refuse to say, “spoiler alert” as I refuse to believe enough of you are unfamiliar with the story – maybe that is uncharitable, but to that I say, “Bah Humbug!”

A Christmas Carol follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a repellently greedy moneylender who despises the festive season. Over the course of the night before Christmas, he is visited by the spirits of his Christmases past, present and yet-to-come. These spirits show Scrooge the lonely roots of his avarice, the innocent joy and value of Christmas spirit even for the poorest and the consequences his cruelty in the form of the death of his clerk’s son, Tiny Tim, and his acquaintances’ joy at his own, lonely death. Reformed by these visions, Scrooge embraces Christmas, buys an enormous turkey for Tiny Tim’s family, the Cratchits, and, if you believe the Muppets, ends by singing of the joy of Christmas as he shares his wealth around London.

So, in the context of England’s history with Christmas, what type of celebration does Dickens present?

Gone are the days of religiously imposed fasts or celebrations in baronial halls, and instead embodying the Christmas spirit is a deliberate choice made to fortify oneself with a day of joy against forces beyond one’s control, like want and ignorance for the poor or isolation and loneliness for Scrooge. Though the Victorians did not ‘invent Christmas’, as is often claimed, Dickens certainly went a long way to invent urban Christmas. The shocking inequalities of industrialising cities and the potentially isolating effect of urban life, especially for those without a family, with all traditional, communal bonds of the rural world dissolved, are key themes in Scrooge’s story. The Cratchit’s retreat into family and centring of the child is integral to A Christmas Carol as those millions suffering in Victorian cities reached for the innocence of family and especially of children to strengthen them against the merciless world outside.

Fundamental, also, is charity. The ills of the industrialising world came precisely when the ideological toolbox of laissez-faire government was empty of essentially all policies of state intervention, perhaps best exemplified by the Great Famine in Ireland which came just a few years on from A Christmas Carol’s publication. On Christmas Eve 1846, Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary at the Treasury, responded to calls to expand the meagre state food-supplying schemes in Ireland by writing, “No exigency, however pressing, is to induce you to furnish supplies of food for any districts except those for which we have already undertaken.” In place of government intervention, redistribution or the questioning of the system that produced such inequality, Dickens provides Scrooge’s charity as a solution to the poverty which the comfortably-off saw all around them. The novella is also inexplicitly Christian. Though it does not centre on church or the nativity, the three spirits as the three Wise Men and Tiny Tim as the infinitely good child certainly draw on Christianity as do the themes of redemption and universal goodwill. Christianity still predominated, but Dickens captures the early-Victorian reality, especially in urban centres, of religion’s less explicit, though continued, importance in a secularising world.  

In the UK especially, this Dickensian Christmas has certainly become somewhat of an idyll with its family and child focus, the urban setting, the deliberate and secular sanctification of Christmas ‘spirit’ and, of course, its turkey. If there’s one thing that the continued popularity of the Muppet’s version demonstrates above all else, it is the remarkable staying power, 178 years on, of A Christmas Carol. But why, given how we’ve seen Christmas in England change so dramatically over the centuries, has history left the importance of this story untouched? Well, it undoubtedly predicts aspects of modernity that remain relevant today, like the predominance of urban life and secularisation along with the material inequalities of capitalism. This latter point, however, has sustained the story in another way; given the commercial risks which the unforgiving market poses to innovative forms of art, as Dickens himself experienced with Martin Chuzzlewit, capitalism, in many ways, incentivises the cultural re-creation of forms of art which are reliably popular. Some of A Christmas Carol’s endurance can undoubtedly be chalked up to market-incentivised cultural re-creation given the innumerable adaptions on the page, stage and screen which the story has experienced.

In 1843, Dickens substantially remodelled Christmas in the UK in response to a rapidly changing world and some of his themes continue to resonate for our Christmases. But the world has continued to change, and we can question Dickens’ themes of Christmas just as he questioned the themes of Christmases that came before him. Does charity really remain the best we can do to tackle the inequalities with which capitalism confronts us? Can we not extend our Christmases beyond family and revive communal celebrations?

Maybe it is best, therefore, that we continue to revel in A Christmas Carol, but see it as an expression of an historical moment, whilst asking ourselves what we want Christmases in our historical moment to represent. Or maybe you’ve had quite enough of my Christmas musings! Either way, Merry Christmas and “God bless us, everyone!”