What the Dickens! It’s Christmas Tradition

Xanthe McCracken | Content Writer

A white Christmas, carollers at the door, and ghost stories around the fire are just a few of the images that spring to mind when we think of a picture-perfect Christmas, but what influence did Charles Dickens have on these popular traditions? 

Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812 to John and Elizabeth Dickens, being the second of eight children. At the age of twelve he was pulled from school to work in Warren’s blacking factory as his father had been imprisoned for debt. The impact these years of factory work had on Dickens are apparent within many of Dickens’ works, inspiring the exploration of child labour in novels such as David Copperfield. Dickens had a passion for the theatre, and had he become an actor after securing an audition in Covent Garden in 1832, Christmas may not have been the same as we imagine it today. 

Dickens grew up during the ‘Little Ice Age’, experiencing six white Christmases within the first nine years of his life. The River Thames would freeze over and frost fairs would be held on the river, the last in 1814 during which an elephant was led under Blackfriars Bridge. These cold winters undoubtedly had an immense influence on his writing, contributing to the happy Christmases of his early childhood, which are apparent in his works. ‘The people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music, in scraping the snow from the pavement in front of their dwellings’ as Dickens describes in A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843. Dickens’ novels ultimately created a great nostalgia for the picturesque White Christmas which persists today. 

Dickens also immensely influenced the re-emergence of Christmas carols. Carolling fell from popularity in the early nineteenth-century, but with the encouragement provided by Dickens’s writings, it once again became intrinsic to the holiday celebrations; the scene of the morose figure of Ebenezer Scrooge shouting at renditions of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ provides one such inducement. 

Perhaps the most important and recognisable tradition for which Dickens is acknowledged is the emergence of ghost stories, the most famous being A Christmas Carol which sold out almost instantly after publication. Dickens however published several other ghost stories during his lifetime, such as The Haunted House, The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain to name only a few. 

With all Dickens’ influence on Christmas traditions, it is no surprise that he accurately sums up the true meaning of the holiday in the Christmas chapter of The Pickwick Papers

‘And numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment. How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill’. 

Dickens truly was the father of Christmas.

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