Did Dickens really "invent" Christmas?

No, he did not, not even in a figurative sense. People have been allowing themselves to believe something of the kind since the last years of the nineteenth century, however, and the notion was given its classic form in 1903 by one of the founding fathers of Dickens scholarship, F. G. Kitton, who published an article on the subject, entitled “The Man Who ‘Invented’ Christmas.”

A Christmas Carol, published in December 1843, was a sensational success. Readers laughed over it and wept over it. Thanks to it, some changed their behavior. The author of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, declared that it “occasioned immense hospitality throughout England; was the means of lighting up hundreds of kind fires at Christmas time; caused a wonderful outpouring of Christmas good feeling; of Christmas punch-brewing; an awful slaughter of Christmas turkeys; and roasting and basting of Christmas beef.”  Kitton and others noted such comments, and earlier ones, too, suggesting Christmas was in decline.  In 1808, for instance, Sir Walter Scott had written about the festival as something almost forgotten:

England was merry England when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
‘Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale;
‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;      
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.

“Still linger in our northern clime,” he mournfully observed, “Some remnants of the good old time.”

Kitton and like-thinkers drew a simple conclusion: Christmas had become a thing of the past by the early nineteenth century; it took Dickens to revive it—to “invent” it, if you like. The facts, however, are more complicated. In the early nineteenth century Christmas was a popular festival, but unfashionable. In the Middle Ages it had been celebrated gleefully, but the main event had been communal feasting and games in the squire’s great hall. The Black Death, the emancipation of the serfs, the hostility of the Puritan authorities during the Commonwealth era—even changes in architectural fashion like the disappearance of the great hall—had put an end to the old communal Christmas. Ordinary people were undeterred, however. They simply enjoyed themselves by their own firesides. “Christmas is come and every hearth / Makes room to give him welcome now,” said John Clare, the working-class poet, in 1827. But he did not speak for the aristocracy and the gentry, who had lost their role, hosting festivities. They and those members of the middle classes who followed them in behavior, were making little of Christmas. It was their behavior that A Christmas Carol changed. It prompted them to follow the example of humbler folk who had never stopped making merry.

You can in fact work this out from A Christmas Carol. Why is Scrooge thought odd and mean, because he refuses to celebrate Christmas? Why are we invited to suppose that the Cratchit family, and the family of Scrooge’s nephew, do the right thing in celebrating it?  Would readers in 1843 have responded as they did if Scrooge’s behavior had been the more normal?  

It will be many years, though, before Kitton’s mischievous phrase is dismissed as it ought to be. It is the smart thing to say that Dickens was the man who “invented” Christmas. Show you are smarter by disputing it.

Further reading:

  • David Parker, Christmas and Charles Dickens (2005).