William Cook

How Dickens invented Christmas

Time was, the Christmas shopping season used to last a week or two. Now it drags on for months. Never mind wage inflation – what about present inflation? The whole thing is like a gigantic poker game, where the stakes are raised remorselessly every year.

How did Christmas mutate into this orgy of rampant consumerism? Step forward the man who invented Christmas: Charles John Huffam Dickens Esquire.

The story of how Scrooge recovers his lost innocence speaks to something deep in all of us, a yearning for lost childhood

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that Dickens invented Christmas – but like the exaggerations of his novels, it articulates a basic truth. Folk were making merry at Christmas time before Dickens came along, but it was his emotive fiction which established Christmas in the English imagination as the apotheosis of family life, the most important festival of the entire year. 

Only Dickens had the power to do this. It was a testament to his unique skill as a storyteller, his unrivalled ability to create (as Peter Ackroyd put it) ‘A world in which everyone felt at home, yet a thousand times brighter than the real thing.’ But in 1843, the year he wrote A Christmas Carol, he was a man under pressure, worried that his success might be on the wane.

Dickens’ early bestsellers had established his reputation as Britain’s finest novelist, bringing him commercial success and vast critical acclaim. His byline brought a circulation boost to any publication, but he wasn’t merely a man of letters – he was a modern celebrity, the first literary superstar. His opinion was solicited on every matter – his public readings drew huge crowds. 

Yet while The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop, all written in his twenties, had proved immensely popular, his latest novels, Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit, hadn’t done so well.

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