A Very Dickensian Christmas

Sarah Roller

History Hit's History Editor gives the lowdown on A Christmas Carol & the Dickens Museum.
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A Very Dickensian Christmas

Christmas as we know it was largely defined by the Victorians: from the arrival of Christmas trees to the development of crackers and the sending of cards, most of our modern-day traditions date back to the mid-19th century.

The royal family gave us many stalwarts of Christmas: decorating trees, for example, was a German tradition brought to England by Prince Albert, and Queen Victoria was keen on giving elaborate gifts. However, Charles Dickens was perhaps the other key proponent of Christmas ideas, and arguably his most famous novel, A Christmas Carol (1843), captured the essence of the ideas and atmosphere of Christmas in Victorian England. As one critic wrote, “Dickens, it may truly be said, is Christmas”.

Charles Dickens in 1842, the year before A Christmas Carol was published.

A Christmas Carol was far from the first and certainly not the last Christmas novel Dickens wrote, but it proved to be the most popular. Inspired primarily by the plight of children working in horrendous conditions in the mines and London’s ‘ragged schools’ for orphans, the novel aimed to have something of a didactic purpose. Dickens wanted to raise awareness of the conditions many of the urban poor experienced, and show that benevolence, kindness and charity were all important qualities for the more fortunate to show. What better time, A Christmas Carol shows, to do this than Christmas?

Many of the most Christmassy aspects of the novel, such as spending time as a family, turkeys for Christmas dinner, and festive merriment like dancing and games were all relatively new in Britain. Dickens’ writing, however, captured the Christmas at a key moment. Ever in-tune with popular sentiment and people from all levels of society, Dickens’ Christmas fable is far more about generosity of heart and spirit being at the heart of Christmas than materialism, although that does not go amiss.

In homage to the picture of Christmas it is so closely associated with, the Charles Dickens Museum, at 48 Doughty Street, transforms itself every year into a Victorian Christmas wonderland. With holly and mistletoe dripping from every fireplace, bower and chandelier, soft candlelight illuminating the rooms, and carols piped gently in the background, every room gives a sense of what a Dickens-era Christmas might have looked like: all that’s missing is the aroma of roasting turkey floating from the kitchens in the basement.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the month of December is the museum’s most popular, and a string of Christmas-related events run throughout: but what is it about a Victorian, or Dickensian, Christmas that particularly captures the imagination in a way no other period manages to do?

Perhaps it’s the nostalgia for a simpler Christmas, free from not quite so many material trappings, the traditionalism of decorating homes with evergreens rather than tinsel, or the fact that so many of the traditions Dickens popularized remain at the core of our celebrations today. In fact, seeing a Victorian Christmas almost feels like going back to the beginning, seeing the origins of Christmas – one free of parties, family politics, Christmas dinner woes and the excessive expense that often characterizes Christmas for most people today.

Dickens’ Christmas gives us a glimpse into a simpler world: one often bleak and not to be romanticized (let’s not forget the plight of Tiny Tim and the Cratchetts after all, who scrape together barely enough to live day to day, live in abject poverty and suffer at the hands of a miserly employer) but joyful in its relative simplicity. The first edition of A Christmas Carol sold out within a week of its publication, and it met with uniformly good review, saving Dickens from increasingly dire financial straits in time for Christmas. Today, A Christmas Carol’s ongoing popularity has cemented Dickens in the modern Christmas canon, where it looks set to remain.

Sarah Roller is the History Editor at History Hit.

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