The year was 1843 and Charles Dickens had a problem. His last novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was not selling well and his publishers were threatening to cut his monthly income by fifty pounds. With a fifth child on the way, Dickens needed to come up with something new to present to his readers - and fast.
Meanwhile, over in Buckingham Palace, the German husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, was settling in nicely into his role of Prince Consort. The couple’s union had already been blessed with two children since their marriage three years before, and the young family was preparing to celebrate the festive season.
They had no idea at the time, but Albert and Dickens were about to change Christmas forever.
A Christmas classic Is born
Dickens decided to write a Christmas story. It was October. If he wrote the story quickly enough, he could have it published and on the shelves by December. He had already written four Christmas stories. One, he decided, was worth revisiting. ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’, a story from his 1836 novel, The Pickwick Papers, told the tale of an ill-tempered man who changes his mind about Christmas after goblins appear and show him visions of his past and his future. It would form the basis of his latest book about a mean-spirited old businessman who hates Christmas.
Dickens wrote his new book in just six weeks. Each night, the author would leave his home and walk for up to twenty miles around London as he fleshed out the story in his mind. During those long walks through the soot-blackened streets of the city, the story of the miser who changes his ways after he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future took shape. By the start of December, A Christmas Carol was finished.
Dickens’ book was published on the 19th of December 1843. The first print run of six thousand copies sold out by Christmas Eve. Dickens’ publishers, Chapman and Hall, managed to deliver a further two print runs before the year was out. By the Christmas of 1844, an astonishing thirteen editions had hit the market. Dickens had a smash hit on his hands.
The story struck a chord with the public. People loved the book's message that Christmas should be a time for friends and family, for forgiveness, for redemption, for generosity and, perhaps most importantly of all, for thinking about and helping those less fortunate than themselves. In just six short weeks, Dickens had distilled into print the very essence of Christmas.
A new addition to the Royal Family
While Dickens was delighting readers with his latest novella, an item was introduced to the Royal Family Christmas that would, in very short order, come to be as much a part of the festive season as the message of peace and goodwill imbued in Dickens’ tale of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge.
Albert had a Christmas tree installed in the palace. While there had been Christmas trees in the country before, they were a much more common sight in Albert’s native land. It was no surprise, then, that he brought the tradition with him when he married Queen Victoria in 1840. When an illustration of the Prince, his wife and their children gathered around their tree was published in the London Illustrated News in 1848, the Christmas tree was suddenly thrust into the limelight.
Within a decade, there was hardly a better-off family in Britain that didn’t have a Christmas tree as they sought to emulate the Royal Family. While trees remained out of reach of the poor, they became more and more common in public places, and by 1906 a charity was ensuring even the poorest children of the slums in London got to enjoy the sight of one. World War I dented the popularity of Christmas trees, but by the 1920s they were a common sight in houses rich and poor.
The book that changed Christmas
Dickens gave his first public reading of A Christmas Carol in 1853. It proved so popular that he continued to do readings of what would become his most famous story every year for the rest of his life. Three stage adaptations hit the theatres a month after publication; by the end of February 1844, this had swelled to eight. The plays and the public readings proved just as popular as the book. In a very short space of time, Dickens’ novel was familiar to most of the population, and its themes were being embraced across all social classes as Christmas - before Dickens’ book was still very much a rural celebration - continued to surge in popularity in the industrialised towns and cities.
By the turn of the 20th Century, families up and down the land gathered to exchange presents, play games and remember those less fortunate than themselves. A Christmas tree would soon grace even the most modest of homes. For those with the means, even the traditional Christmas meal of roasted goose was falling out of fashion - replaced by turkey, as featured in a book that was the nearest thing most people had to an instruction manual on how to keep Christmas well.
A Christmas Carol had seeped into the bones of Christmas like nothing else before or since. It had even influenced the language. The book popularised ‘Merry Christmas!’ as a greeting, and ‘Bah! Humbug!’ entered the lexicon. The word miser fell out of fashion; in its place, the name ‘Scrooge’ was levelled at anyone who didn’t care to put their hand in their pocket, especially at Christmas time.
An enduring legacy
A Christmas Carol has been adapted for the theatre, radio and television hundreds of times. Film versions date back as early as 1901 with the release of the short film, Marley’s Ghost. Since then, there have been faithful adaptations such as 1951’s Scrooge starring Alastair Sim, a 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney, a comedy version set in 1980s New York starring Bill Murray and even a Muppets version. Dickens’ story has influenced Christmas films throughout the ages. Its DNA is in everything from the Christmas Ghost-like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life to James Caan’s Christmas curmudgeon in the Will Ferrell comedy, Elf. Without A Christmas Carol, Christmas films would have looked very different, as would a plethora of books, plays, radio shows, comics and advertisements. Indeed, a year rarely goes by without at least one reference to Ebenezer and co. as the nation’s retailers fight for our attention and our money.
Today, the twin influences of Prince Albert and Charles Dickens are all around us at Christmas.
The introduction of the Christmas tree paved the way for an invasion of German festive traditions and a unique mingling of the Germanic and the Dickensian. In towns and cities across the country, people visit German Christmas markets manned by stallholders decked out in capes, bonnets and top hats, looking for all the world like extras from a production of A Christmas Carol. Glasses of gluhwein and bratwurst sausages are consumed as shoppers snap up traditional German nutcrackers and old-fashioned Victorian fudge. The centrepiece of a town’s decorations is a towering Christmas tree, beneath which Salvation Army bands play the traditional German Christmas carol Silent Night, taking donations for those less fortunate than themselves. Our Christmas is Dickensian, with a smattering of Düsseldorf.
While Prince Albert opened the door to a whole host of German festive traditions, Dickens popularised so much of what we now think of as integral to the season. Without them, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same. These two eminent Victorians can truly be called the men who invented Christmas.