7 Holiday Traditions Owed To Charles Dickens & 'A Christmas Carol'
Every holiday season there is much hand-wringing and think-piece-writing about Christmas traditions, and how they are being ruined by non-denominational carols/window displays/coffee cup designs. The idea in certain circles seems to be that good old fashioned Christmas has been corrupted by the boogeyman of "political correctness." But... are things like cards and trees and goodwill towards men actually part of a "traditional" Christmas celebration in the first place? Or do we owe them almost entirely to everyone's favorite wet blanket SJW, Charles Dickens?
Of course, I'm not suggesting that Dickens himself invented caroling or Christmas trees (there were "Christmas" trees in Europe long before there were Christians). But it is his fault that the holidays are still celebrated this year. You see, Christmas was actually falling out of fashion in the early 1800s. Puritanical religious leaders disapproved of the decadent feasting and the pagan influences of medieval Christmas. Most businesses did not allow time off for the holiday, and most of England was so extremely poor and overworked at the end of the Industrial Revolution that there was little money or energy for merrymaking, anyway. Child labor was common. Workhouses with brutal conditions were a popular "solution" to poverty. The dominant political ideology of the rich was that the poor should be made miserable in order to motivate them to stop being poor, or else they should be allowed to starve to “decrease the surplus population.”
Enter Charles Dickens. He'd grown up working in factories as a child, and he did not agree that torture and an early death were effective methods to end poverty. He was already a popular fiction author by 1843, and he desperately wanted to use his clout to help impoverished children. So he started writing a stirring political pamphlet, titled An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child, set to be published near the end of the year.
But Dickens was worried that no one was going to care about his passionate social justice rants. He decided to re-brand his pamphlet as a ghost story (because the Victorians may have hated the poor but they freaking loved ghosts). The book came out on December 19th, titled A Christmas Carol.
By Christmas Eve, the entire first edition had sold out. The book was so instantly, wildly popular that it started a Christmas craze in Victorian England, almost single-handedly reviving the holiday traditions that now dominate Thanksgiving through New Years:
I mean, it's right there in the title. Caroling was already an old fashioned Christmas tradition by the Victorian Era. Almost no one actually went caroling anymore, although collecting old carols in songbooks was starting to become popular among the nerdier Victorians. Dickens just went ahead and wrote carolers into his book anyway, as if it was an intrinsic part of holiday festivities. One of the earliest scenes in the book involves Scrooge yelling at carolers through his mail slot. Since the book was almost immediately adapted into a stage play as well, Christmas music became synonymous with the happy Christmas as depicted in A Christmas Carol, and the tradition exploded back into fashion (so blame Dickens the next time you're stuck listening to that one Mariah Carey song for the umpteenth time in the Macy's line).
Dickens shares credit for this one with Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. The Prince Consort brought the Christmas tree to England in 1840 as a custom from his native Germany, and people were... meh about it. It seems kind of foreign and kind of pagan. But in 1850, once Dickens was already established as the modern father of Christmas, he wrote a short story called "A Christmas Tree," depicting the tree as the cozy, nostalgic centerpiece of a classic Christmas celebration and people ate it up. If Dickens declared indoors trees a part of traditional Christmas, then obviously indoor trees were a part of traditional Christmas (even if they weren't exactly traditional).
3Cards and gifts
Gift-giving was already a part of New Years celebrations, but Dickens went ahead and depicted presents (specifically, giving toys to children) as an integral part of Christmas, as though the tradition had always been there. He was trying to inspire acts of charity in men like Scrooge, and not necessarily to create the capitalist nightmare of commercialism that is modern day Christmas shopping but... so it goes.
The whole Christmas card thing was actually less intentional on Dickens' part. It just so happened that in 1843, a prominent patron of the arts named Henry Cole was trying to worm his way out of answering all his correspondences. Cole was a big fan of the postal system (it was a simpler time), so he had the ingenious idea to collaborate with an artist friend and send the same exact card to all his buds, wishing them a happy holidays. The card was mildly controversial because it depicted a child being given a glass of wine at Christmas dinner, but most people liked it—and all of England was already losing their minds over A Christmas Carol during December of 1843. The idea of sending a card during the holidays got swept up in Dickens' Christmas madness, and within a few years it became a standard practice.
If you get paid vacation over the holidays, thank Bob Cratchit (and if you don't, send your employers a copy of A Christmas Carol pronto). Dickens made it abundantly clear that if you refuse to pay your employees adequately and give them time off for the holidays, then you will be haunted by ghosts and eventually die hated and alone. He terrified rich people so thoroughly, in fact, that getting time off for holidays gradually went from an "unrealistic" pipe dream to a reasonable demand.
If you've read A Christmas Carol, you've probably noticed the emphasis on food — specifically, that the Cratchits don't have enough of it. An enormous holiday feast was largely considered a decadent tradition by the 1840s, but Dickens flipped the script: the point of feasting in his book isn't to stuff your face, but to spend time with family. And Scrooge doesn't buy that humorously large turkey at the end of the book because he wants to live it up, he buys it for the Cratchits, so that their very small son doesn't die of turkey deficit. Suddenly, eating copious amounts of food over the holidays was seen less as a selfish move, and more as an opportunity to share the bounty.
Santa Claus/St. Nicholas/Father Christmas is a weird hybrid remix of a number of different figures from folklore. Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present splices them all together pretty neatly, though, to create a jolly, big-bearded fellow who wants to dance about celebrating the season and shaming capitalists for the inadequacy of child welfare. He's not the sole source for our modern Santa myth by any means, but he is the one ghost from the book who managed to attach himself permanently to our concept of the holidays.
7The Holiday Spirit
Trees and turkeys aside, Dickens cemented December as a season of generosity. He clearly loved both the old and the newfangled Christmas traditions, but A Christmas Carol has less to do with the actual holiday than with the culture of giving to others and fighting for labor reform by the warm glow of midwinter candlelight. He half revived, half created the traditional spirit of the holidays, giving us the hyped up franken-holiday season we know and love today.
(...so yes, getting into a fight about politics over the dinner table with your weird uncle is exactly what Dickens would have wanted.)