Poor Charles Dickens. Here is an author who seriously remarked: “In a hundred years I hope to be remembered as the man who wrote Martin Chuzzlewit.”
Martin who? Sorry, Charles, it’s now been way over a hundred years, but Mr. Chuzzlewit has become a literary casualty of the Missing-In-Inaction variety. Did Dickens happen to mention a second work that he hoped would bring him immortality? No, he did not — which is so odd given the fact that he made the prediction in 1843 when he was not only writing the now neglected CHUZZLEWIT but also had just finished one other little work: A Christmas Carol.
Ironically, it is this work — Dickens’ shortest piece of great fiction — that has guaranteed that we’ll celebrate Dickens as long as we celebrate December 25th. His fifteen much longer novels languish on the bookshelves compared to the perennial popularity of his diminutive Christmas Carol. Today we do not read the best of Dickens or the worst of Dickens; we read the least of Dickens.
But does A Christmas Carol deserve its fame? Did the writing of it change the way we celebrate Christmas and at the same time provide what many critics have called “the greatest expression of the Christmas spirit in the English language?” Well, in terms of its influence on future celebrations of Christmas, Dickens did prompt astonishing changes through this one piece of fiction. The writing of it was indeed a far, far better thing Dickens did than he could have ever known.
For example, the first Christmas card ever designed was created in London a week after A Christmas Carol initially appeared in early December of 1843. The creator of the card, Sir Henry Cole, had read A Christmas Carol during the previous week (we know this from his private journal), and although he never stated directly that Dickens’ work was the primary inspiration for the Christmas card, critics believe, given the remarkable timing, that it would be foolish to think otherwise.
And when we consider that Cole’s card was also the very first GREETING card to be mailed, and therefore can accurately claim to be the father of the thousand varieties of such cards we possess today, Dickens’ influence becomes all the more impressive. When a New York City card shop can boast of stocking a greeting card which reads, “For My Secretary’s Father On His Retirement,” we realize how deeply Dickens’ original inspiration has been mined. Many call A Christmas Carol the high-mark of Dickens’ career; I prefer to call it the Hallmark.
But Dickens had a more lasting effect on Christmas celebrations than the Christmas card which, after all, was only indirectly related to him. Critics have been more impressed that in A Christmas Carol Dickens links snow and Christmas for the first time in popular literature. Of course, there had been mention of snow in Christmas works before Dickens. “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” written fifteen years before A Christmas Carol in 1828, is a good example.
But before Dickens’ story, the snow was merely mentioned by an author, never utilized to create that uniquely cozy atmosphere which has become synonymous with our modern Christmases featuring “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/Jack Frost nipping at your nose” or “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow" — a song which opens by defining Dickens' unique coziness so perfectly: "Though the weather outside is frightful / The fire is so delightful."
And just how did Dickens invent this Currier-and-Ives atmosphere? He did it by very cleverly having the ghosts, who escort Scrooge on his Christmas journeys, keep the miser on the outside looking in. When we think of Scrooge in the story, we remember how he and the ghost were always hovering in the sleet and snow of a London street as they gazed into a window to view, for example, the Christmas dinner at the Cratchit home or the grand ball which Fezziwig so joyously hosts for his workers. In each case, the scene Dickens wishes to describe is permeated with a rare and special warmth because Dickens cleverly forces our own point of view as readers to be the same as that of poor miserable Scrooge. We, too, see the scene while stationed in the outside bitter cold. Each interior, therefore, like the Cratchit’s home, becomes instantly more snug, warm and inviting to us because of the comparison we instinctively make to the rather frigid position from which we view it. So Dickens invented the first cozy Christmas, and the celebration of it has been more tender and warm ever since.
Darian and I now want to wish for you and your families a good old-fashioned, cozy, Dickensian Christmas. Sadly, though, has it not been an awfully “BAH-HUMBUG!” kind of world for the last twenty-one months?
Well, here’s to 2022 being a bit more like 1843, the year Christmas Carol was written: no Covid, no political divisions to cleave us from one another, and no social media to rile us up. Instead may our new year, like 1843, be overflowing with Victorian virtues and civilities and perhaps with the same old-fashioned joy to the world which we experience while singing a Christmas carol — or while reading the everlasting one by Charles Dickens.