The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

Genre: Non-fiction
Main characters: Charles Dickens
Time and place: 19th century England
First sentence:In London, in 1824, it was the custom to treat a debtor little differently from a man who had reached into a purse and stolen a similar sum.
Verdict:Interesting :)

Book read as part of Charles Dickens month over at Fig and Thistle. The occasion? Charles Dickens’ Bicentennial anniversary! (he was born in February 1812)

Faced with bankruptcy, he was contemplating giving up on writing fiction altogether. Instead, he pulled himself together and, in six short weeks, wrote a book that not only restored him in the eyes of the public but began the transformation of what was then a second-tier holiday into the most significant celebration of the Christian calendar.

This is a short book (a little over 200 pages) focusing on the part of Charles Dickens’ life related to A Christmas Carol. What has inspired him to write it, his plans for his little Christmas volume, the problems he had with it, and, not the least, the effect the book had on Christmas then, and ever since.

No individual can claim credit for the creation of Christmas, of course–except, perhaps, the figure that the day is named for. But Charles Dickens, given his immense and lasting influence and his association with all things Victorian, played a major role in transforming a celebration dating back to pre-Christian times, revitalizing forgotten customs and introducing new ones that now define the holiday.

General impression
This is just the “little did he know that he was changing the world” kind of story that I very much enjoy. At 31, Charles Dickens has already published a handful of novels, yet he was on a path seemingly going downward, rather than up. His once record-breaking readership levels were decreasing, and he was getting deeper in debt. He had doubts on his value as a writer, and even seriously considered leaving England for good. And then, during a visit to Manchester, an idea struck: he will write the story of a man that learns the true value of Christmas. It was already late autumn, so Dickens set to work straightaway, in order to finish his book in time for the holiday. He had so much faith in this new endeavor, that he chose to self-publish the book; he expected to make thus enough money to cover all his expenses and pay off his debts. The book was a success, and sold really well, but the costs were so high that he was left with only about a couple hundred pounds.

We are also treated to a few pages from the history of Christmas itself. Those were the most interesting ones for me, as I realized I knew little to nothing about the matter. It seems that not only the birth of Jesus was not celebrated for centuries, but later, after being established, it was even banned at one time by the puritans, who considered it a Catholic invention. Even after the ban ended, various religious people still discouraged the observance of the said holiday, so the sentiments people regarded it with were pretty mixed. The fact that it was considered mainly a religious event did not particularly help. Enter Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is this book that introduced a whole new idea of Christmas: a secular holiday to be spent with one’s family, a time of goodwill, generosity, and compassion. Even the phrase ‘Merry Christmas!’ entered common usage after being used in the book.

Back to our own volume, the thing I have liked most about it is that the book is chock-full of trivia tidbits, offering me a glimpse of things as yet unknown. A few of the things I learned:

  • as a young man, Dickens was apprenticed as a law clerk; he hated it and “he quickly came to loathe the hypocrisy of a labyrinthine and self-serving legal system–he formed a lifelong commitment to the distinction between “justice” and “the law.”” ;
  • I already knew that piracy was a problem for the writers of the times, and Dickens was one of those that insisted on a worldwide copyright agreement being instituted. What I didn’t know was that there actually were copyright laws at the time, yet they were valid only in one’s own country. American laws protected American author’s books, everything else was fair game; likewise, British laws only protected its citizen’s rights, and anyone could pirate a book by a non-British author whichever way one pleased;
  • Dickens’ serialized book The Old Curiosity Shop was selling 100 000 copies per issue, which is a huge number considering that the number of readers was considered to be somewhere around 300 000 and 500 000; comparing the 2 million people Dickens had access to with the hundreds of millions any US author can reach, and taking into consideration that even today 100 000 of books sold is considered a huge success,  Dickens’ 100 000 is positively mind blowing;
  • over the (rather recent) centuries there was no Santa Claus but a figure called Father Christmas, represented as “typically fat, with his backside and belly stuffed with straw, and, though old and bearded, nonetheless vigorous“, yet also carrying a sword and having a tail (which, according to the author, suggests the character’s roots in the image of the Devil and also the image of Pan);
  • scrooge was a verb used in Dickens’s day, meaning “to squeeze, or crush” and derived from the Old English scruze;
  • the impact of A Christmas Carol was said to have sent the nation’s goose-raising industry to near ruin“, as prior to the book the bird that was usually cooked for Christmas dinner was the goose, which was later replaced with the turkey (the bird sent by a repentant Scrooge to the Cratchits);
  • I was surprised that most people, on meeting Dickens for the first time, noted his unkempt hair (I only remembered the painted portraits of him, which naturally had perfect hair, and older photos of him, where his hair seemed rather normal-looking). Looking at the below picture (from Wikipedia), taken in 1850, a few years after the Carol, kinda cleared out the matter:
The man did not care a whit about his hair, did he? Reading about his later life I had the impression he was quite vain, and he cared a lot about keeping appearances. Perhaps he will grow to be so, later on. More interesting, his face seems very familiar to me in this picture (has felt so ever since I first saw it) — can anyone pinpoint who he resembles?
… Back to the book now.

Thoughts on the title
Intriguing. I wonder what one would have made of it if the subtitle (“How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived our Holiday Spirits“) was not present. Although A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books, I never would have associated the idea of Christmas with Dickens prior of reading this book.

Thoughts on the ending
“Eliminate ignorance, Dickens dreamed in his Carol. Eliminate want. A tall order then, and a tall order now. But one does not need to be a social scientist to know that he identifies the true sources of misery in this world.”

I consider these last few lines eye opening. Of course things are actually more complicated than that (wars are being fought over various people’s wanting more than they will even know what to do with), but if one sits and thinks about it, eliminating ignorance and want would set us well on the way of a perfect world. A note though: I say that thinking about the kind of want Dickens met with, starving children with ragged clothes, not the kind of ‘I am mad because my parents didn’t get me an iPhone for Christmas’ want we see around us today. Alas, the ignorance levels are dropping fast enough in some places (including Europe, my own Europe) to be well on the way of reaching the same threshold Dickens met with one day prior to writing his little book.

A few more (earlier) lines on the matter:

He proclaimed his belief that with the pursuit and accumulation of knowledge, man had the capacity to change himself and his lot in life. With learning, said Dickens, a man “acquires for himself that property of soul which has in all times upheld struggling men of every degree.” The more a man learns, Dickens said, “the better, gentler, kinder man he must become. When he knows how much great minds have suffered for the truth in every age and time…he will become more tolerant of other men’s belief in all matters, and will incline more leniently to their sentiments when they chance to differ from his own.”

I cannot agree enough.

Recommend it to?
Everyone interested in knowing a bit more about Christmas, Charles Dickens, and/or A Christmas Carol.

Buy this from | Buy this from | Les Standiford’s website | Dickens’ life in 4 minutes (via Becky’s Book Reviews)