Published By: Pen & Sword History
Publication Date: 3rd October 2017
Dickens and Christmas is an exploration of the 19th-century phenomenon that became the Christmas we know and love today – and of the writer who changed, forever, the ways in which it is celebrated. Charles Dickens was born in an age of great social change. He survived childhood poverty to become the most adored and influential man of his time. Throughout his life, he campaigned tirelessly for better social conditions, including by his most famous work, A Christmas Carol. He wrote this novella specifically to “strike a sledgehammer blow on behalf of the poor man’s child”, and it began the Victorians’ obsession with Christmas.
This new book, written by one of his direct descendants, explores not only Dickens’s most famous work, but also his all-too-often overlooked other Christmas novellas. It takes the readers through the seasonal short stories he wrote, for both adults and children, includes much-loved festive excerpts from his novels, uses contemporary newspaper clippings, and looks at Christmas writings by Dickens’ contemporaries. To give an even more personal insight, readers can discover how the Dickens family itself celebrated Christmas, through the eyes of Dickens’s unfinished autobiography, family letters, and his children’s memoirs.
In Victorian Britain, the celebration of Christmas lasted for 12 days, ending on 6 January, or Twelfth Night. Through Dickens and Christmas, readers will come to know what it would have been like to celebrate Christmas in 1812, the year in which Dickens was born. They will journey through the Christmases Dickens enjoyed as a child and a young adult, through to the ways in which he and his family celebrated the festive season at the height of his fame. It also explores the ways in which his works have gone on to influence how the festive season is celebrated around the globe.
Dickens and Christmas takes the reader back to 1812, and the year of Charles Dickens’ birth. Here we see Christmas as it was celebrated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Over the course of the book we see the changes to Christmas traditions and Dickens’ part in it.
In the year he published A Christmas Carol the first Christmas cards were published commercially, a few years later the Christmas cracker was invented. Christmas trees, hitherto limited to the British-Hanovarian royal family and aristocracy, and the German immigrant community, became popular, and now universal. The festive season, formerly 12 days long and culminating on Twelfth Night shrunk down to 24th to 26th December, with Twelfth Night losing its central place in favour of Christmas Day. The first recipes for Christmas cakes, and meatless mince pies were published in the same time period.
By the time Charles Dickens died at the age of 58 the whole festival had been transformed and was nearer to the one we’d recognise. And Dickens has a major part to play in this transformation. It started with A Christmas Carol, tapping into contemporary fears that ‘Christmas wasn’t what it was’. Over the years, his Christmas books and the short stories in the magazines All the year round and Household Words that he edited, Dickens became a central part of Christmas for his fans. He became ‘Father Christmas’ for them.
In charting the changes to the festive season Hawksley also describes Christmas as Dickens experienced it, using his daughter Mamie’s book My Father as I knew Him, Dickens’ own unfinished autobiography, letters and articles. We learn of the early hardships caused by (Charles Dickens’ Father) John Dickens’ financial instability, later family games and theatricals, his constant work on novels and short stories and the later magazines that started to take up all his time, the years of readings to packed rooms, a Christmas spent on a train in the U.S., his part in a famous train crash, and marital breakdown caused by an affair Charles Dickens had with an eighteen year old actress called Ellen.
This event shows us his less affable side. Dickens tried to place the blame entirely on his wife Catherine, although she’d done nothing wrong. He also kept Ellen a secret for the rest of his life. The separation brought the cheerful family Christmases to an end for a few years, because his eldest son went to live with Catherine, while Charles insisted the younger children had to stay with him – except those who were already married or had been sent off to school or the Navy. He also argued with several long-time friends and changed his publishers over the separation – he believed they were taking Catherine’s side and was paranoid news of his affair and horrible treatment of Catherine would get out and damage his reputation.
The use of contemporary documents, and judicious organisation of quotes from his autobiography and Mamie’s biography, illustrations and background information, really does make this a fascinating book. It’s well written and accessible.
Definitely worth reading if you’re interested in the development of modern Christmas traditions, as well as the life and works of Charles Dickens.
On a personal note, my niece and nephew are currently studying Dickens in their English Literature classes, they’re two years apart; this book would be useful for teachers in their classes, I feel.