It’s a fact not universally known that Christmas as we know it today owes much of its current format and popularity to Victorian author Charles Dickens, whose wildly popular book A Christmas Carol gave the holiday a huge shot in the arm at a time the holiday seemed in danger of dying out.
In 1843 Dickens was struggling financially. His most recent novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, had been pretty much an uncharacteristic flop. As the father of ten children, not to mention a man fond of going out to attend parties, social events and plays, etc., he required a lot of money to keep his household going. A few years later he’d be not only supporting a huge family but also a mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan. A steady stream of money was absolutely crucial to maintaining the sort of lifestyle Dickens demanded, and he was in truly dire straits.
In a bid to make more money and recover his reputation as the most popular novelist of his day, Dickens penned A Christmas Carol. Desperate to get the project moving forward, Dickens funded the publication with his own money. The edition he chose to publish was a red cloth illustrated edition, with gilded page edges. As luxurious as it was, printing costs ran high, resulting in the fact Dickens didn’t make all that much profit on it. To top it all off, pirated editions of the book started coming out, further cutting into his profits. He challenged the literary pirates in court, as well, costing him a fortune in court fees.
However little the profits of this first edition of the book, the story proved wildly popular. Dickens was a tremendously popular novelist, greeted upon his visits to this country with a roar echoed later only when the Beatles first landed on our shores. His books enjoyed the sort of following J.K. Rowling’s books do now, if you can imagine that. His books were published in serial form, in various periodicals in the U.S. and U.K., and when ships carrying the latest serial installment arrived at port in the U.S. there were throngs there waiting to get a copy.
When he published A Christmas Carol Dickens singlehandedly gave Christmas the boost it needed to come back to the forefront of family celebration. The reading public was so completely enthralled by this story of a curmudgeonly old man who received new hope after having the wits scared out of him by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come the holiday seemed to suddenly take on more meaning, becoming much more a family event to be celebrated in a very big way. If not for Charles Dickens there’s no telling where Christmas would be today, and whether it would still be celebrated with so much hedonistic joy and good cheer. So, as you cut into the Christmas goose, or pop the figgy pudding into the oven, give a bit of due to Charles Dickens, the man who effectively saved Christmas as we know it from dying out.
As Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us, everyone!”