Charles Dickens and Christmas Today

December 19, 2019 Updated: December 20, 2019

Charles Dickens is largely responsible for our idea of Christmas today, more than 170 years after he published his Christmas books. He could be called the father of Christmas itself, or rather, of the business of Christmas. Of course, it’s not all down to Dickens. Many changes were afoot in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.   

The recently opened exhibition “Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas” explores the blossoming industry of Victorian publishing and Dickens’s Christmas books, alongside other artifacts that illustrate how Christmas publishing developed the modern idea of Christmas. 

Where better to see this exhibition than the Charles Dickens Museum at 48–49 Doughty St., London. Number 48 was the Dickens family home from 1837 to 1839, where Dickens wrote “Oliver Twist” and “Nicholas Nickleby,” and where he completed “The Pickwick Papers.”  

Dickens house
Number 48 Doughty Street, London, the former home of Charles Dickens from 1837 to 1839. (Siobhan Doran/Charles Dickens Museum)

The exhibition is curated by guest curator Simon Eliot, Professor Emeritus in the History of the Book at the University of London. Eliot gives us an overview of the exhibition in a recent phone interview.

The Epoch Times: What was British book publishing like in the 19th century?
Mr. Simon Eliot: Book production was increasing, partly because it had been industrialized. From 1805 on, you could actually produce paper through a steam-driven machine. By the 1820s, it was possible to print books by steam-driven machines. Therefore, you’ve got a higher throughput, and with this you’ve got cheap paper; that alone means a huge increase in output. 

And you’ve got to link this to the growth of the middle classes. This is the beginning of industrialization, from the late 18th century onward, so there are many more middle-class people. And the middle classes have a disposable income. 

If you as a manufacturer or as a salesperson are interested in selling more, Christmas becomes an obvious and almost inevitable way of marketing your product. So that’s happening in the early 19th century. 

Another really important feature of Christmas in the 19th century was this growing concentration on children. Children became a focus. Therefore, the number of toys and games and books for children increased at an astonishing speed.

A lot of the developments in the 19th century have their origins in the 18th century. The idea of the nuclear family, for instance, comes from the Enlightenment view that your marriage ought to be a companionship marriage, a marriage, if not of equals, at least of people who complement each other—the ideal of romantic love. The nuclear family, the loving husband and wife bringing up loved children, is something the 18th century develops quite strongly.

There’s a very strong Puritan tradition dating right back to the 16th century, and indeed before, which views children as little sinful adults, so they had to be punished and forced into virtue. But by the end of the 18th century and the Romantic period, there’s the idea of children as separate and different and, to use Wordsworth’s phrase, that they bring “trailing clouds of glory” with them when they arrive. 

That’s a remarkable change. It certainly develops through the 19th century and, of course, Dickens was critically important in this. Lots of his characters are children or behave like children. And he’s very conscious of the way that children are misused, or abused, or callously treated. 

The growing importance of children, the distinctiveness of children, their innocence—that’s exaggerated, in the sense that they’re not guilty, they’re not stained with sin, and that they should be educated and encouraged—that’s something very characteristic of the late 18th century. Then that really explodes in the 19th century. So then Christmas becomes the time for children and children’s books, annuals, and pantomimes. And Christmas as a celebration of children becomes progressively more important. 

Christmas Annuals 1881
Children were the growing focus of Christmas celebrations. Here, The Publishers’ Circular in 1881 shows a couple of children’s annuals. (Charles Dickens Museum)

In one sense, Dickens in the 1840s just brings all these new developments together and focuses them and articulates them. But they were there before Dickens started writing about Christmas. In a sense, Dickens was the first one who put all of them together and presented an idea of Christmas to this new consuming class. And that, of course, has had an astonishing impact on our view of Christmas ever since.

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, Illustrated by Harold Copping _(copyright Charles Dickens Museum)
“Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim,” from “A Christmas Carol,” circa 1920, illustrated by Harold Copping. (Charles Dickens Museum)

The Epoch Times: Do you think that the publishing of “A Christmas Carol” was a catalyst for a Christmas publishing phenomena?
Mr. Eliot: I don’t think it was a catalyst. Or rather, one could say it was one of the catalyzers. The desire to sell books, for instance gift books, very expensive, beautifully produced books, in the 1810s and 1820s—that was there already. 

Washington Irving Book
The back of “The Sketchbook,” 1897, by Washington Irving, an example of a gift book given to the wives of Maggs Bros. workers. (Maggs Bros. Ltd.)

The gift books were mostly a sort of literary compilation of poetry, of short stories, and of specially commissioned illustrations, usually steel engravings. Frequently, these books were edited by members of the aristocracy, particularly female members of the aristocracy, so they were a highly respectable, upmarket sort of product. 

Most of the poetry was uplifting, the sort that would do you good. The book was shouting with respectability, improvement, wealth. Actually, most of the literature contained in those books wasn’t very good. But it was almost more important that you were seen to be giving and receiving this. 

What Dickens did was find a sort of Christmas myth that everyone could understand, appreciate, and celebrate. So these things were there; he articulated them. And of course in articulating them, yes, he accelerated them. 

To some extent, at least in the first production of “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens follows the concept of the gift book. For the first time, Dickens was interested in every aspect of the book’s production—not just the printing, not just the illustrations, but also the binding.

The coloring of the illustrations was done by hand, and they were very expensive. Although the 6,000 first edition copies sold out within a few days of “A Christmas Carol” being published on Dec. 19, 1843, Dickens made hardly anything out of it because the cost of production was so high. That continued to be the case for the next few editions. Gradually, of course, the cost dropped and his profits increased. But it wasn’t initially a commercial success—certainly not that first issue. 

A Christmas Carol
A rare trial edition of “A Christmas Carol,” 1843. (Charles Dickens Museum)
Fezziwig's ball
The woodblock for “Fezziwig’s Ball,” 1852, by Hablot Knight Browne, commonly known by his pen name, Phiz. The woodblock was made for a compilation of all five of Dickens’s Christmas books called “Christmas Books,” cheap edition, 1852. (Charles Dickens Museum)

And of course, it wasn’t just “A Christmas Carol” that Dickens wrote for Christmas. There were four other Christmas books that followed in the 1840s. Then, there was a Christmas story every year in his magazines until his last, “No Thoroughfare” in his periodical All the Year Round, in 1867. So Dickens not only articulated it, he provided a whole host of books and stories that elaborated on the new idea of Christmas. 

Dickens Christmas Books
First editions of some of Charles Dickens’s Christmas books: (L–R) “The Chimes” (1844); “The Cricket on the Hearth” (1845); “A Christmas Carol” (1843); “Battle of Life” (1846); and “The Haunted Man” (1848). (Charles Dickens Museum)
Dickens Christmas Books
Some of the beautiful book covers of Dickens’s novels from the Charles Dickens Museum collection. (Charles Dickens Museum)

The Epoch Times: In 1868, Dickens wrote that he was sick of Christmas.
Mr. Eliot: Yes, he was. He just generally felt he had done all that he could. He felt that there was a lot of trash being written to imitate him as well. Dickens mentioned almost being haunted by the need to write a Christmas story. Almost like Scrooge, he began to be haunted by the very thing he created. And certainly, two of his later novels do deal with Christmas very extensively, which are “Great Expectations” in 1861 and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” which he didn’t complete, of course; he died halfway through in 1870. He had visions of Christmas in both, but they’re very somber. They’re very dark. They’re nothing to do with sparkly snow and good cheer.

Dickens study
Charles Dickens’s study where he wrote “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” and where he completed the “The Pickwick Papers.” (Siobhan Doran/Charles Dickens Museum)

Even if some of his novels are more somber about Christmas, his readings that he went on to give and partake in until 1870 still revive the old books. The very last reading he gave, on March 15, 1870, certainly included a reading from “A Christmas Carol” and “The Pickwick Papers,” so he went right back to his early works. He could always return to performing the sort of cheerier early writings. 

The Epoch Times: Please highlight a few of the exhibits for us.
Mr. Eliot: I’d like to highlight two exhibits in the exhibition that tell us a lot about the social, economic, and material circumstances of the world in which Dickens published his Christmas stories.

One exhibit is an illustration of a colored engraving called “Approach to Christmas” that was produced by James Pollard between 1830 and 1837. At that time, Dickens was beginning to write about Christmas in “The Pickwick Papers.” The illustration features a horse-drawn mail coach driving toward London. The coach is laden with Christmas food, Christmas goodies, and right on the top is a Christmas tree. The coach is driving toward London in a snowstorm. That’s important because it’s a common image we have, certainly in the UK, that Christmas and snow are associated. But actually, if you think about the last hundred years, there have been very few white Christmases in the UK. But while Dickens was growing up between sort of 1812 and 1840, it was the last bit of what’s been called the Little Ice Age, which was from the 16th to 19th century, when average temperatures were as much as 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit lower than they are today. 

It meant that Christmas was commonly a white one, and that’s associated with the height of the mail coach era between 1800 and 1840, after which the railways took over. Our Christmas cards of snowy scenes and mail coaches are fixed very firmly in the first 40 years of the 19th century, and that’s the sort of image Dickens lived and grew up with. That was appropriate then but not really appropriate now, yet we carry it on, almost like a living fossil. 

We also have Dickens’s rushlight holder on display. A rushlight is a primitive form of artificial light where the dried pith of the rush plant is soaked in melted animal fat called tallow, and that sits almost horizontally in a pair of pincers. You light one end of the rush and it slowly burns back along its length. The light is not great; it’s about the equivalent of a modern match. But that was certainly the cheapest way of getting artificial light. 

Dickens Rush Light
Charles Dickens’s rushlight holder, circa 1830. He kept the light on his writing desk throughout his life. (Charles Dickens Museum)

And it’s quite clear that Dickens had this rushlight holder on his desk throughout his writing life. Now, he could only have used it when he was at his poorest, probably as a child. But obviously, he wanted to be reminded of this, so there it is. 

Dickens gas light
Glass gaslight lamp owned by Charles Dickens, circa 1860. (Charles Dickens Museum)

For most people, certainly the poorest people, there really wasn’t adequate lighting. Gas lighting was for the middle class and only came into domestic homes in the 1850s. There were candles, but they were appallingly smelly because most of them were made of animal fat and their wicks didn’t burn away, so you had to trim the wick every 10 minutes or the candle would lose a lot of its light. So reading was tricky and expensive. If you could only afford one candle at a time, you had a race, as it were, to the length of the candle as to the amount you could read. For the very poor, who could afford a fire but not a candle, they would actually have to be almost on top of the hearth to get sufficient light to read by firelight. So that’s one thing, which just reminds us not just of Dickens, but how people would’ve read over the Christmas period.

To find out more about “Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas,” visit DickensMuseum.com. The exhibition, running until April 19, 2020, is a collaboration between the Charles Dickens Museum and the antiquarian booksellers Maggs Bros. Ltd. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.