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What the Dickens!

13 Nov 2019

Few writers are more inextricably linked with Christmas than Charles Dickens. There are plenty of Christmas tales, but none that resonate as much around the world as “A Christmas Carol”. Countless adaptations of this story have been performed and filmed in the last century, from serious actors to Muppets injecting their own brand of humour into the telling of the tale.

But how much did Charles Dickens shape Christmas as we now know it?

Christmas celebrations had actually been falling out of fashion at the time in England. Old customs like carols, 12-day feasts, and Father Christmas had all but faded away, and the Christmas tree was still a new-fangled fad from Germany, an idea imported by Prince Albert, Queen Vicoria’s Husband, in 1841.

It was the end of the Industrial Revolution after all, and most of England was poor. Child labour was common. Working conditions were generally abysmal. Charles Dickens had firsthand experience with this: as a child, he was forced to leave school and work 10-hour days in a boot-blacking warehouse in order to support his family.

By 1843, he was already a successful author, but the memory of brutal childhood poverty never left him. He toured factories, mines, and government run schools, and was consistently appalled by the abuse of working class children.

The most widespread theories of how to “help” the poor at the time revolved around getting the poor to “help themselves.” The idea was that work-houses and prisons should be unpleasant, so poor people would be motivated to work harder and improve their station in life. This refused to recognise the situations that those in poverty are subject to, often poor health and disability, eliminating their ability to work and change their circumstances.

“A Christmas Carol” was written in six weeks and finished by the end of November. The book was published during the Christmas season of 1843 and its low selling price did not bring in a lot of profits. The book however, was an immediate success. By Christmas Eve, the first edition of A Christmas Carol had entirely sold out.

The story’s vocabulary has crept into today’s conversations, with a “Scrooge” being someone who refuses to get in the holiday spirit, and “Tiny Tim” being any innocent in a vulnerable situation.

The story does not only give us a vivid portrayal of Christmas feasting, Dickens is also concerned to tell a story of change, of release from the imprisoning chains of material wealth and possessions into the freedom of compassion and generosity.

Most importantly, every time this piece of literature is read or displayed on the silver screen, it reminds us of a vision of Christmas that has little to do with displays of wealth, and instead focuses on loved ones and the joy of an act of charity.

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