How Fiction Changed Christmas

1971-toon-ghost of christmas presentI received this on my SF Canada listserv from Celu. But it fit so well into what we’ve been talking about here–that FICTION has power to change the world, that I wanted to post it. If there are errors in this posting, I apologize. I did not vet it ahead of time. The pic is from the 1971 cartoon. I grew up on this one and the Mr. Magoo version.

Merry Christmas!

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE LITTLE GHOST STORY THAT SAVED CHRISTMAS

Not too many people are aware of the influence of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on the evolution of the modern Christmas holiday.

First of all– in 1843, when Dickens wrote it, the state of the Christmas Holiday was in flux. In the decades before that, Christmas celebration had been slowly falling off in Britain as a result of two factors: the residual effect of Puritanism under Cromwell’s government, which had completely shut down overt Christmas celebration in the mid-17th century, and a desire to get away from the older, more raucous practices of British Christmas.

Before Cromwell’s English Revolution and the resulting Protectorate, Christmas was celebrated much differently than most today imagine. It was more akin to 12 days of Mardi Gras, dominated by the “festum fatuorum,” or Feast of Fools on January 1st and lasting until Twelfth Night— during which time people traditionally took to the streets in all manner of outlandish costumes, with the sole motivation of getting drunk and eating until one was ready to burst. Roles were often reversed during this period, with servants “taking over” households and playing the part of the Master and Mistress of the house, while the rich rubbed elbows with the poor in a way not seen during the rest of the year– a way not always to their liking. This practice dated back to Roman rule in Britain, and had mingled with various Celtic and Norse traditions to produce a great feast of plenty to end the year, a fiery masquerade to drive away the cold and dark of winter and send the ghosts of the dead off in gran

Wassailing, the act of traveling in groups and singing at houses, was less a festive entertainment than an act of robbery. Drunken mobs would move from door to door like trick-or-treaters, demanding food and spirits from every house they passed “to honor the Season.” And if the occupants of a house were not forthcoming, they could expect retribution, and the mob might even storm the building and loot it then and there.

Give us some Figgy Pudding, indeed.

This debauchery sometimes got completely out of hand and turned into drunken city-wide riots, during which shops and homes were looted indiscriminately and whole neighborhoods were burned down. Several popes and prominent clergymen passed Papal Bulls and Interdicts against the practice, and it was roundly denounced by several English monarchs.

Oliver Cromwell and his puritan Protectorate squashed all of that. But after the Restoration, people didn’t really have much left by way of tradition to apply to their Christmas celebrations. Christmas became a big party, or series of smaller parties– but the riotous drunken feasts of yore were no more.

As the Age of Reason progressed into the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, the celebration of Christmas began to lull. Many considered it an uncouth throw-back to heathen times best forgotten, and not civilized enough for the new buttoned-down, corseted society of the dawning era of enlightened Victorianism.

Christmas had become old fashioned and passe. And was gradually fading away.

Enter Charles Dickens.

By 1843, Dickens was already a best-selling author and novelist, who had firmly gained the ear of his country and whose works were growing in international popularity. Victoria, 23 years old, had been queen for 5 years, and a new spirit of youth and vigor was abroad in the land, supported by Victoria’s rejection of the stodgy customs and arbitrary political probity of the Charlesian period which preceded her. British economic might was on the upswing, there was a hint of liberalism in the air, and things were changing.

So it was that Dickens sat down in December of 1843 to write a Christmas book. It was not entirely a charitable act for the ages– Dickens had recently had a number of monetary investments go sour on him, and needed to generate some quick cash to pay off a debt. But as was his gift, Dickens had the uncanny knack for stating in prose what the rest of his countrymen were thinking. He was England’s literary conscience. And he was able to speak directly to the hearts and minds of his readers.

The name of his story was “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” Dickens himself called it his “little Christmas Book.” It was first published on December 19, 1843 with illustrations by John Leech. Despite his financial duress, Dickens didn’t believe it would do that much to bail him out– his own sentimental insistence that the novella be richly bound and copiously illustrated seemed to doom the little book to earn little in the way of profit. Still, its simple message seemed worth telling– that there was much that was good and true about the sincere celebration of the Christmas season, and that the true meaning of the holiday– forbearance, hope, brotherhood and good will to all men– still had a worthy place at the center of the ever-changing English hearth and home.

Dickens was wrong about its financial chances. Despite its brevity (Dickens was known at the time for lengthy novels published in serial form), it was a smash hit– a runaway bestseller. It completely sold out and went to reprint almost immediately, selling over six thousand copies in one week. It has never been out of print since the day it was published.

The book re-popularized Christmas in the British Isles, and the “traditional British Christmas” it represented spread far and wide to influence the rest of the world. Christmas had become civilized– indeed, NOT to celebrate the holiday had become downright UNcivilized.

What traditions did Dickens re-popularize in his little Christmas book?

Well, there are no Christmas trees in A Christmas Carol. Those had yet to be imported from Germany by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, nor did that happen until 1848, when a woodcut featuring the Queen and Royal Consort at their Christmas tree appeared publicly, sparking a frenzy of emulation througjout England and abroad.

Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas do not appear in A Christmas Carol, either. Not in his Victorian (and later accepted British and American) form, that is.

But he DOES appear in the story in his original pagan form– The Ghost of Christmas Present— the SPIRIT of Christmas– is depicted in Dicken’s work as being essentially identical to the far older concept of “Olde Christmas” and “Master Christmas” described by Ben Jonson in the late 16th century, and believed to be older by far even than that.

The Christmas traditions Dickens reinvigorated were simply the act of giving, of generosity of the spirit, of familial togetherness and joyful celebration. Dicken asserted that Christmastime was still, and had always been, SPECIAL. And the world believed him.

Dickens’ tale is also primarily a ghost story– a fact which he adamantly asserted until the end of his days. Ghost stories are also traditionally connected with Christmas, that 12 day period being the time when the last wandering ghosts of the dead are sent by the finality of year’s end to their ultimate fates. Christmas ghost stories are very much a part of our oldest traditions, a way to bid farewell to our fallen friends and love ones, while enjoying a shudder as we consider the icy hand of death that constantly awaits, perhaps just beyond our doors.

It also bears mentioning that the events depicted in A Christmas Carol are not strictly Victorian– in fact they seem to predate Victoria by several decades, despite the fact that many modern interpretations of the tale move it forward into the mid-1800’s.

Scrooge was an old man, or at the very least middle-aged, when the ghosts visited him. The events of Christmases Past took place around the turn of the 19th century, therefore, or even earlier– which explains Fezziwig’s old style powdered Welsh wig. The events of Christmas Present, to Scrooge, take place over the holiday when the ghosts visited him– but we are later told by Dickens, who is writing in 1843, that Scrooge went on to become much-revered as a great champion of Christmas in the time following his great change of habits. So it makes sense that Scrooge was visited by the ghosts much earlier than 1843– perhaps in the 1830’s or thereabouts.

None of which really matters. The simple fact is, Christmas was a dying tradition by the time Dickens took hold of it and reinterpreted it for his Victorian audience, who took it to heart and embarked on a Victorian Christmas craze from which we today draw our most beloved and revered Christmas traditions. Dickens lit the spark– and a romantic Victorian England, hungry for the stability and emotional resonance of tradition, fanned it into a flame that has since warmed the world.

And so I raise my proverbial glass to Master Dickens, this year and every year, and toast the old fellow, whose little Christmas book reinvigorated and reinvented one of the celebrations which so many hold so near and dear to their hearts.

Well done, sir, sayeth I. Well done indeed.

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Thanks, CELU!!

PS.  Wherever you find pics of the Ghost of Christmas Present, he’s always a hunk.

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3 thoughts on “How Fiction Changed Christmas

  1. Keyan December 28, 2008 / 9:59

    What a great essay!

    (I say as I prepare to take down the tree, covered at present with about 300 ornaments, glare at the weighing scale, clear the bits of wrapping paper still popping up in odd corners, and fold away the stockings for another year.)

  2. Tobi Tufnell May 18, 2012 / 9:59

    Great information 🙂

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