If you’re one of those diehard anti-consumerists who usually spends this time of year blaming Coca Cola for all things Christmas, it might come as a surprise to see a book titled The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.
Did Charles Dickens invent Christmas? Kathryn Harrison in the New York Times doesn’t think so, even if she enjoys author Les Standiford’s revelations about the origins of Scrooge et al. A Christmas Carol one of those books that have become so idiomatic that most people have never read it yet quote it subconsciously. As with most oft-cited, seldom-read books, the reality is somewhat different to the perception.
Dickens is one of the most sentimentalised authors. Film and television adaptations of A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and the like have defanged his social commentary. His heroes have become caricatures of the “noble” Cockney poor in the public mind — in much the same way than Jane Austen has been reconfigured as highbrow Mills and Boon. A Christmas Carol, while obviously a more fantastical book than Dickens’ regular work, was still grounded in the social issues and concerns of the day. “Scrooge” may be an all-too-easy insult today, but the original character was a charged metaphor for a cruel and indifferent society — as well as disturbingly similar to many actual bosses.
It makes you wonder whether Dickens invented Christmas, or whether Christmas reinvented Dickens. Even if A Christmas Carol is a shamelessly populist book (as was a lot of Dickens’ work), it was written at a time when Christmas as a holiday was starting to be reshaped. It might have been commercially appealing, but it wasn’t commercially-driven in the way that, say, Four Holidays or Now That’s What I Call Christmas! are. It certainly had a more complicated message than the usual “Christmas is a time to be nice to people”. But our expectations of Christmas stories have shifted with time and we start to view Dickens and others as more of the same schmaltz.
Just as it’s tricky to imagine how Christmas was before Bing Crosby and Miracle on 34th St, it’s hard to think of A Christmas Carol without all the attendant baggage of the century-and-a-half since. Perhaps the only answer is to forget everything you thought you knew about Marley and the other ghosts and read the story anew.