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The Man Who Invented Christmas

'A Christmas Carol' was not just a book but rather a Victorian-era Christmas miracle.

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For many Christians of the period, Christmas had uncomfortably pagan associations and they preferred to keep it low-key. Certainly, Standiford points out, “There were no Christmas cards in 1843 England, no Christmas trees ... no Christmas turkeys ... no weeklong cessation of business affairs, no orgy of gift-giving ... no plethora of midnight services celebrating the birth of a savior.”

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Apart from the Christmas turkey, “A Christmas Carol” did not actually feature any of the above. But it did, as Standiford explains, give a fresh gloss to some traditional Christmas elements of the time: “[B]azing fireplaces, mince pies and wassail bowls, carol-singing, plum puddings, holly sprigs, mistletoe, fiddling and dancing.”

The effect of “A Christmas Carol,” Standiford claims, “was to make the incorporation of such elements seem obligatory for anyone’s Christmas.”

In addition, says Standiford, the story’s focus on charity, goodwill, and the hope of redemption offered a different kind of gift to Victorian England: It created “a secular counterpart to the story of the Nativity.”

Certainly, Dickens was ever after associated with the Christmas holiday by his readers. (“Will Father Christmas die too?” cried a cockney produce vendor on hearing of Dickens’s demise.)

Ironically, however, that first Christmas his book seemed to have failed him. Although it was an immediate success and sold out in four days, Dickens had underestimated the expenses of its printing and he made only a little more than £100 on that first edition.

He was left to marvel that, “[S]uch a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment.” Even the many theatrical adaptations that rapidly sprang up (on Feb. 5, 1844, three productions opened simultaneously in London) were of little financial benefit to Dickens as at that time there were no copyright laws to  protect his work.

In the end, of course, it didn’t really matter. Dickens had regained his reputation (and his confidence) and he went on to write “David Copperfield,” “Great Expectations,” and the string of other classic titles that have never – to this day – gone out of print. Never again, however, did he have great success with a Christmas book (although he tried several more times, with long-since forgotten works like “The Chimes” and “The Battle of Life.”)

Of course, over time “A Christmas Carol” brought Dickens huge remuneration. (Toward the end of his life he liked to read it aloud in public and could easily fill a theater with sobbing listeners eager to pay for the privilege of hearing him) and it is still honored as one of his greatest creations.

Interestingly, however, Standiford notes, “A Christmas Carol,” as widely read as it is and has always been, receives relatively little commentary from literary critics.

Perhaps, he suggests, Dickens’s contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray (normally a tough critic himself) explained that best when he said: “Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this? It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.”

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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