Father Christmas; How Charles Dickens almost single-handedly created our sense of what makes the season
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 December 2008)

It happened that snow fell on southern England, not a particularly snowy region, every winter from 1812 to 1820. Since those were the first eight years in the life of Charles Dickens, snow and Christmas arrived around the same time in his childhood and became permanently linked in his writing. As a result, even in places that are mainly snow-free, greeting cards exchanged at this time of year depict an ideal Dickensian world cloaked in snow. With later assistance from Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby, Dickens set much of the world dreaming of white Christmases.

That's among dozens of ways he shaped this week's holiday. He deserves credit for much of it -- or blame. If banal anthems and dreary imagery make Christmas (as Christopher Hitchens argued in the Post on Friday) "a moral and aesthetic nightmare," then Dickens shares the responsibility. Twenty years ago, a heading in the London Sunday Telegraph called him "The Man Who Invented Christmas." Last month an American writer, Les Standiford, used the same title for a book about Dickens. The statement is not true, but not entirely untrue either. In 1990, Peter Ackroyd wrote in his Dickens biography that he almost single-handedly created the modern idea of Christmas.

No other writer ever devoted as much attention as he did to searching its meaning and using it as a moral standard and a way of piercing the public conscience. Christmas appeared in his first book, Pickwick Papers, and his last, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. One of his masterpieces, Great Expectations, has a melodramatic scene in which police break up a Christmas dinner while chasing an escaped convict, the character who becomes the fulcrum of the plot.

And then there's all the work Dickens directed specifically at this one subject. In the period 1843 to 1848, he wrote five novellas on Christmas themes, the first of them A Christmas Carol, perhaps his longest-lasting best-seller, crammed with mass-culture tokens from Tiny Tim and his "God bless us every one!" to the Scrooge character most recently put to use by Margaret Atwood in her book version of the Massey lectures, Payback.

When he was too busy to write more Christmas books, Dickens produced (between 1850 and 1867) a series of collaborations with other novelists, notably Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. He often wrote about Christmas in magazines, including the one he edited, Household Words.

This outpouring of Yuletide prose illustrates both the emotional life and social ideas of Dickens. When he was 12 his father's desperate money troubles abruptly fractured the family and soured a life that had been relatively comfortable. Stories he wrote in his first years as a journalist and author reflected his yearning for the happy Christmases of his lost childhood.

When he was 22 years old he wrote, "Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment, which abound at this season of the year? ... Would that Christmas lasted the whole year." Pickwick Papers, published when he was 24, was heavy with nostalgia: "Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days."

He recalls it as the season of hospitality, merriment and -- most important -- "open-heartedness." But while Pickwick Papers illustrated the Christianity Dickens favoured, it also described the kind he deplored. He borrowed Jonathan Swift's phrase about those who have just enough religion to make them hate one another and not enough to make them love.

I was talking the other day with Philip Allingham of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., an expert on this subject since he wrote his PhD dissertation on dramatic versions of Dickens' Christmas books. He sees the great accomplishment of Dickens as a work of rediscovery. Celebration of Christmas having been a mainly rural practice for a long time, it lost its hold on the British public early in the 19th century as they moved into cities.

Separated from their specific regional cultures, they abandoned many of their ceremonies, including Christmas parties.

As I understand Allingham, Dickens, through his writings, invented a kind of national Christmas, based on tradition and the "Christmas spirit" his characters did or did not embody. A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, "fixed our image of the holiday season as one of wind, ice, and snow without" and "piping hot turkey and family cheer within." It was Dickens' idealized recollection of Christmas. England embraced his memories and from England they spread around the world. They formed into an institution that proved durable even among people who had lost their Christian faith and in countries (Japan a striking example) where Christians were a small minority.

Katherine Ashenburg, recently the author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, also wrote her PhD dissertation on Dickens and Christmas. As she sees it, the image of Christmas in Dickens steadily darkens over the years. At the beginning it provides him with a symbol of the communal life and a demonstration of the way people should be treated. But as he grows older, angrier and more pessimistic, his Christmas stories increasingly reflect his feelings about how badly the poor are treated by those with money and power. He reflected what Victorians called "the hungry Forties," when a drop in trade and bad harvests led to widespread misery.

All this found a way into the Christmas stories, along with surprising elements like alcoholism and adultery. There were many prickles on Dickens' holly, as an English critic, D. L. Murray, wrote. Dickens has often been accused of preaching a philosophy of sugar plums and draughts of punch, plastered with sentimentality. But he really believed, Murray says, "that salvation could be found only in realistic acceptance of life as a whole with an unembittered spirit."

In the Christmas stories, whether high-spirited or pessimistic, Dickens expressed his unequalled ability to identify with his audience. G. K. Chesterton said with admiration that he did not pity the people, champion the people or merely love the people. "He was the people." The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge (1990), by Paul Davis, quotes a story first told by Theodore Watts-Dunton, a lawyer and poet. On June 9, 1870, near Covent Garden Market, Watts-Dunton heard a Cockney barrow-girl's reaction to the news of the great man's death: "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?"

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