Dickens, the man who reinvented Christmas

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Contrary to popular thought, Charles Dickens didn’t invent Christmas with A Christmas Carol, writes Simon Tait.

But with its publication on December 1843 he was able to place it with history under the fir tree introduced to British drawing rooms by the new Prince Consort and shown to the public for the first time in The Illustrated London News, decorated with the newly invented tinsel, alongside the Christmas card devised by Henry Cole (founder of the Victoria & Albert Museum) and sent for the first time that year.

“He may not have invented Christmas” says Cindy Sughrue, director of the Charles Dickens Museum “but he capitalised on it and made it what it has become, an evocation of home. He made Christmas fashionable again.” 

(https://dickensmuseum.com) 

The story of how publishing and Christmas changed each other for ever under the hand of one writer is told in a special exhibition at the museum, Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas which runs until April 19.

A young and struggling author and journalist with a burning sense of mission, born out of the injustices he saw in the 1834 New Poor Laws, and with a family already of four children, Dickens had loved Christmas as a child, says Dr Sughrue. At the time of Dickens’s birth in 1812 there had been a renewed interest in Christmas prompted by the Romantic movement, and he knew joyous seasonal celebrations as a small child. 

But his happiness was shattered at the age of seven when his father was sent to debtors’ prison and he subsequently had ten different childhood homes. “For him it meant the comfort of home and the romanticisation of the ideal family environment which we know how he did not have” she says.

The season was celebrated among poorer families rather than the middle and upper classes, who nonetheless exchanged gifts of almanacs and beautifully bound “gift books” such as Forget Me Not and Keepsake with colour illustrations, verses and short stories. Dickens contributed to many of them, but had already begun writing Christmas stories for serialisation – by 1838 he had published A Christmas Dinner in his publication Sketches by Boz and two Christmas chapters in The Pickwick Papers - but in 1843 he wrote and published the full-length novel that would change Christmas for ever.

“The 1840s were an important time for establishing the key Christmas features that we all know” says the exhibition’s curator, Louisa Price. “Dickens was involved in every part of publishing - Christmas publishing did exist, but what he did was to do it really well.”

In the early decades of the 19th century publishing had become very much less expensive with steam-powered printing, cheaper paper and inks and the introduction of lithography. Distribution became many times speedier; the population became more prosperous after the Industrial Revolution and moved from the country into towns; literacy was increased and the buying power of the middle classes very much enhanced. A Christmas Carol, with hand-coloured illustrations by John Leech, was published in a limited edition of 6,000 funded by Dickens himself and it sold out in six days at an affordable price of five shillings - the equivalent of 30 loaves of bread or a week’s rent for a single room for a manual labourer, says Louisa Price - undercutting the outlay for the more opulent publications on offer by more than half. But the prohibitive cost of the hand colouring meant that he made no profit from it, and he republished five times in 1844 alone with black-and-white engravings. 

Dickens was acutely aware of the experience and condition of his readers, and his story lines invariably had social messages written in simple style and sensitively illustrated, often by Leech, Daniel Maclise or Clarkson Stanfield. Some of the more elaborate publications Dickens’s cloth-bound editions were competing with have been loaned for the exhibition by Maggs Brothers, one of the oldest bookdealers in the world which was set up in 1853 by Uriah Maggs and is still run by his family. As well as selling books, Maggs distributed them through a lending library and Dickens’s books would have been among his most popular offerings. 

The look of the book was extremely important to the author, and he had control of the whole process, from the choice of illustration and typeface, to the weight of the pages and the colour of the cover. He preferred red.

And as a result of the success of the book, followed by The Chimes (1844),  The Cricket and the Hearth (1845), Battle for Life (1846) and The Haunted Man (1848) the accepted date for the publication of new novels was switched from the spring to pre-Christmas, and it has never reverted.

“There were lots of copycats after that, with people telling ghost stories, whose content was not unique” says Dr Sughrue. “A Christmas Carol was the first book that came out one-off, and change publishing and our view of Christmas for ever.”

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