Dickens and the story of Christmas

by Katie Rowe

Category: History & heritage
December 18 2013

Charles Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, tells us all about the man who “invented” Christmas, and how the Dickensian Christmas became a part of our culture.Lucinda Hawksley © John Quintero

When writing my biography of Dickens’ artist daughter Katey, and when writing my current book on Charles Dickens, I realised that Christmas had always been special in the Dickens family. Mr Fezziwig’s Ball in A Christmas Carolharks back to Georgian England and is suggestive of the kind of family Christmases that Dickens, my great great great grandfather, enjoyed as a small child, with traditions passed on from his parents and grandparents.

Every Christmas Eve, Dickens took his own children to a particular toy shop in Holborn, where they would choose their one present. He loved the tradition as much as the children did. In fact, "My father was always at his best at Christmas," according to Charley, the eldest son of Charles and Catherine Dickens.

Charles Dickens is often described as the man who “invented” the way we celebrate Christmas. In many ways, it was a case of Dickens being in the right place at the right time and of his being an integral part of the zeitgeist – but no one can detract from his importance in the way we celebrate Christmas today. Many of the “olde English” traditions that we enjoy every December were brought to us by our Hanoverian monarchs but we can safely credit the popularity of some traditions to Dickens’ writing, many of which have become such an important part of our culture that people search out the “Dickensian” Christmas experience.

Portrait of Dickens by Samuel Laurence, courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

"I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it."

Charles Dickens, December, 1843

The Christmas stories in Pickwick Papers proved very popular, but it was with the publication of A Christmas Carol on 19 December 1843 that Dickens really made his name as the inventor of Christmas. The novella was written in just six weeks and it has never been out of print since. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his heart-warming conversion is so powerful because Dickens wrote it truly from the heart.

He had visited Manchester in the autumn of 1843 and was so shocked by the poverty that he went back to London determined to write a story that would “strike a sledge-hammer blow on behalf of the poor man’s child”. His object was to make rich people – especially money men like Ebenezer Scrooge – realise that the poor were their responsibility. He wanted his readers to be inspired to do something to help others.

By sheer coincidence, 1843 was also the year the very first Christmas card was sent. Henry Cole, a civil servant who would go on to become the first director of the South Kensington Museums, was frustrated by his lack of time. In order to avoid writing a long Christmas letter to his many friends and family he commissioned a card to send instead. It featured a picture by the illustrator JC Horsley of a family happily celebrating together. That, in combination with the fervour that surrounded A Christmas Carol, proved inspirational.


Children playing at A Victorian Festival of Christmas, Portsmouth © DRM ImagesThree years earlier, Queen Victoria had married Prince Albert and it was he who decided that the German Christmas traditions of his own childhood and those of Victoria’s should be shared with the public. Within a few years there were images of the royal family in illustrated papers, showing Victoria, Albert and their children standing in front of a decorated Christmas tree. Suddenly, everyone wanted to do the same.

The tradition of bringing evergreen branches and lights into the home over the winter solstice was one that dated back to pre-Christian Britain, but over the centuries these traditions had been outlawed as Pagan and blasphemous. When Oliver Cromwell was in power, he banned all such celebrations of Christmas, making decorating one’s home and even eating certain Christmas foods illegal. The traditions had returned after Cromwell’s demise, but now they were truly reinvented.

Between them, Henry Cole, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens had allowed the reintroduction of a traditional British winter celebration. But perhaps the greatest testimony to the association in people’s minds between Dickens and Christmas came from the poet Theodore Watts-Dunton. He claimed that, after Dickens’ death in 1870, as Watts-Dunton was walking along a London street, he heard a girl ask the question “If Dickens is dead, does that mean Father Christmas will die too?”

Did you know…?

A Christmas Carol was not Dickens’ only Christmas book. He also wrote The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and The Haunted Man (1848).

In later years he concentrated on writing seasonal Christmas stories for his weekly magazines Household Words (1850-1858) and All The Year Round (1859-1867).

Charles Dickens by Lucinda Hawksley (published by Andre Deutsch) makes a perfect Christmas present for Dickens fans!

Plan your Christmas break.

Katie Rowe

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