Dickens and the Construction of Christmas

The best-loved of Britain's novelists penned a tale that struck a potent chord in the popular revival of the season of goodwill. Geoffrey Rowell explains its appeal and its powerful religious and social overtones.

"Marley's Ghost" Original illustration from A Christmas Carol.

In October 1843, Charles Dickens began the writing of one of his most popular and best- loved books, A Christmas Carol. It was written in six weeks and finished by the end of November, being fitted in the intervals of writing the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzrlewit, a work which was causing him some financial anxiety because the public did not seem to have taken to it as readily as to his earlier serials. A Christmas Carol would, he hoped, bring a better financial return.

John Forster, Dicken's biographer, noted how the story, once conceived, gripped Dickens. 'He wept over it, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself to an extraordinary degree'. 'He walked thinking of it fifteen and twenty miles about the black streets of London', often at very late hours of the night. He kept Christmas that year with an extraordinary zest; 'such dinings, such dancings, such conjurings, such blind-man's buffings, such theatre-goings, such kissing-out of old years and kissing-in of new ones, never took place in these parts before'. Savouring the atmosphere of Christmas in London became part of Dickens' annual routine. Every Christmas Eve he went to visit the Christmas markets in the East End between Aldgate and Bow, and he liked to wander in poor neighbourhoods on Christmas Day, 'past the areas of shabby genteel houses in Somers or Kentish Towns, watching the diners preparing or coming in'. A Christmas Carol captures in many places what Dickens so acutely observed:

The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp-heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers' and grocers' trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do.

The Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge into the city streets, mired with mud and sooty snow, and the same scene is evoked:

The poulterers shops were still half-open, and the fruiterers were radiant in their glory. There were great, round pot-bellied baskets of chesnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown- faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shop- keepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons...

The grocers' shops are redolent with the rich scents of tea and coffee, almonds, cinnamon, figs and candied fruits. And Dickens' skill in conjuring up the richness of Christmas fare is used to good effect in his description of the goose, and stuffing, and gravy of the Cratchits' Christmas dinner, not to mention the sharply observed mingled smells of laundry, eating- house and pastry-cook, as the Christmas pudding is unrolled from its pudding cloth and set alight with its sprig of holly on top.

Dickens does not only give us a vivid portrayal of Christmas feasting, he is also concerned to make his story the vehicle of Christian truths. The theme of A Christmas Carol is not simply Christmas feasting; it is a story of conversion, of release from the imprisoning chains of grasping covetousness worn by Marley's Ghost into the freedom of compassion and generosity. The smog-filled streets of the city in which Scrooge sees the ghosts of avaricious, selfish and grasping contemporaries ('some few [they might be guilty governments] were linked together'), are suffused on Christmas Day with the light of heaven:

No fog, no mist; clear, bright jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!

The Spirit of Christmas Present, Scrooge observed, is able 'notwithstanding his gigantic size', 'to accommodate himself to any place with ease'. 'He stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like a super-natural creature, as it was possible he could have done in any lofty hall', just as the Christmas gospel pro- claimed the humble stooping down of the Creator to be born at Bethlehem. The Spirit of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the crowds hurrying to church and chapel 'with their gayest faces', and Dickens links this with the other throng bearing their Christmas dinners to be cooked in the communal bakers' ovens. There is a sharp piece of observation as Dickens notes what he must have seen in his Christmas walks in London, 'the thawed blotch of wet above each baker's oven; where the pavement smoked as if its stones were cooking too'.

Dickens links the Christmas worship in the churches and the cooking Christmas dinners with their smoking pavements, when he writes of the Spirit taking the covers off the dinners as they are carried to the ovens, and sprinkling incense upon them from his torch – a strange torch for it also sprinkles water (an image of baptism) on quarrelsome dinner-carriers. 'Their good humour was restored directly. For they said it was a shame to quarrel on Christmas Day. And so it was, God love it, so it was.' The bells of Christmas move from dream to reality as Scrooge wakes on Christmas Day:

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash. Oh, glorious! Glorious!

The marvellous onomatopoeic evocation of change-ringing, serves as symbol of the grave revealed in the incarnation and now in Scrooge's life. That new reality is summed up in the final sentences of the story, when Dickens writes that Scrooge now knew 'how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One'.

Scrooge goes to church on Christmas Day, but Dickens simply states the fact and does not describe the service. Like Coleridge's converted Ancient Mariner, Dickens is concerned with the spirit and life of Christianity. The Ancient Mariner ends with the stanza:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Dickens in his will urged his children to 'try to guide themselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man's narrow construction of its letter here or there', echoing a letter he wrote to the Reverend R.H. Davies at Christmas, 1856:

There cannot be many men, I believe, who have a more humble veneration for the New Testament, or a more profound conviction of its all-sufficiency, than I have, [but] I discountenance all obtrusive professions and tradings in religion, as one of the main causes why real Christianity has been retarded in this world; and because my observation of life induces me to hold in unspeakable dread and horror, those unseemly squabbles about the letter which drive the spirit out of hundreds of thousands.

There is no doubt that A Christmas Carol is first and foremost a story concerned with the Christian gospel of liberation by the grace of God, and with incarnational religion which refuses to drive a wedge between the world of spirit and the world of matter. Both the Christmas dinners and the Christmas dinner-carriers are blessed; the cornucopia of Christmas food and feasting reflects both the goodness of creation and the joy of heaven. It is a significant sign of a shift in theological emphasis in the nineteenth century from a stress on the Atonement to a stress on the Incarnation, a stress which found outward and visible form in the sacramentalism of the Oxford Movement, the development of richer and more symbolic forms of worship, the building of neo-Gothic churches, and the revival and increasing centrality of the keeping of Christmas itself as a Christian festival.

At the time of the English Reformation the celebration of Christmas was retained, along with other holy days, but a strong Calvinist and Puritan theology argued that only what was explicitly commanded in Scripture was normative for Christian worship. The Christian Passover of Good Friday-Easter was the chief and most ancient of Christian festivals. Christmas only became generally celebrated in the fourth century, with the Constantinian recognition of Christianity, and the date on which it was observed, December 25th, was thought to have been chosen as a Christian counter-blast to the pagan festival of Natali Sol Invicti, the birth- day of the unconquered Sun. When the Westminster Directory was substituted for the Prayer Book under the Commonwealth Christmas was abolished. The rubric stated: 'there is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel, but the Lord's Day, which is the Christian Sabbath', therefore 'festival-days, vulgarly called holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued'.

The abolition of Christmas was by no means universally accepted. There was a report, for instance, in 1647 of a disorder at Canterbury:

The Major endeavouring the Execution of the Ordinance for abolishing holy- days was much abused by the rude multitude, had his head broken, and was dragged up and down, till he got into a house for his safety... Like insurrections were in several other places of the Kingdom.

The restoration of Charles II brought with it the restoration of Anglicanism, and so Christmas was restored. Pepys noted that on the first Christmas kept after the Restoration his pew was decked with the traditional rosemary and bay. At the beginning of the eighteenth century an article in the Spectator noted that:

The church, as it is now equipt, looks more like a Greenhouse than a place of Worship: the middle Isle (sic) is a very pretty shady Walk, and the Pews look like so many Arbours of each side of it. The Pulpit itself has such Clusters of Ivy, Holly, and Rosemary about it, that a light Fellow in our Pew took occasion to say, that the Congregation heard the Word out of a Bush, like Moses.

Other witnesses commented that Christmas greenery was far more common in the south than in the north.

Christmas was often the occasion for a general communion; some Lon- don churches had two celebrations on Christmas Day in the mid-eighteenth century. Amongst Methodists the custom began of holding watch- night services to mark the New Year. In the Church of England, where Christmas continued to be celebrated, there was also continuing concern about the precedence of secular jollification taking precedence over religious observance. The Non-Juror, Robert Nelson, the author of a. well- known Companion to the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England (1704) warned, in his section on Christmas Day, of the abuse of the Christmas season, when:

...instead of making it an instrument of religion, we chiefly employ this holy season in vanity and folly: when our joy evaporates in extravagance, and degenerates into sin and sensuality; when we express it by luxury and intemperance, to the great scandal of our Saviour and his holy religion.

A traveller through England in 1723 noted that the twelve days of Christmas were widely kept:

The Nobility and Gentry retire to their respective Seats in the Country; and there, with their Relations, Neighbours, and Tennants, keep Carnavals in their own Houses, Hospitality, Musick, Balls, and Play as much during this Season all over England, as in any Kingdom whatever.

Perhaps Nelson had reason for his concern.

Although Christmas was a time of festivity its church celebration in the nineteenth century owed much to the Oxford Movement. A significant feature of the concerns of the Tractarians was the revival and enrichment of the Prayer Book forms of service, and a proper observance of the seasons and festivals of the church calendar. It was no accident that John Keble's influential book of poems of 1827 entitled The Christian Year, providing verses and meditations on the Prayer Book services and on the Sundays and holy days observed by the Church of England. At St Saviour's, the church built by Dr Pusey in the slums of Leeds, a midnight Eucharist was celebrated on Christmas Eve in contrast to Leeds Parish Church where W.F. Hook had begun a mid- night Eucharist on New Year's Eve, as an Anglican response to Methodist watch-night services. J.H. Pollen, who served as a curate in the parish, wrote of the St Saviour's Christmas in 1849. The church was decked with boughs, banners and flowers:

Large brass candelabra were placed before the altar full of lights; three tapers were put in the place of one in the sconces of the chancel; red hangings on the walls, a rich carpet on the floor, flowers on the altar screen, a white embroidered altar frontal.

... The Evensong was at nine with a meditative Sermon. At twelve, the Eucharist was celebrated and a Sermon preached on the mystery of the Incarnation. The Church was lighted, and before the Service the whole choir proceeded round the Church two and two, singing the hymn –

Ye faithful, approach ye,
Joyfully triumphing, 
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.

(The unfamiliar opening of '0 come, all ye faithful', is from the translation of Adeste fideles made by Frederick Oakeley in 1841 for use at the Margaret Chapel in London.)

St Saviour’s also laid on a Christmas feast:

Here was a vast tree fifteen feet high, all covered with lights, and hung with pictures, lolly-pops, 'spaice whistles', [i.e. barley-sugar whistles], &c. &c... On the steps at the end, a rough picture... of a 'Presepio' (i.e. a nativity scene) was covered round with green boughs, and lighted up.

Hostile observers were to misinterpret this picture as implying the worship of 'Adam and Eve' or 'Cain and Abel'. The 'Presepio', or nativity scene anticipates the Christmas 'crib', a custom going back to Francis of Assisi, which began to appear in English churches in the later nineteenth century. So accepted has this become that the word 'crib', which originally meant the 'manger' or 'rack' in a stable, and then a child's bed, is now used simply to refer to the representation in churches at Christmas of the birth of Christ at Bethlehem.

What began as part of the Catholic revival in the Church of England spread to other sections of Anglicanism, and indeed to other churches. In 1887 John Hunter, a notable Church of England minister in Glasgow pioneered the keeping of Christmas Day in the kirk. In 1875 a clerical journalist, the Reverend C.M. Davies, whose collected articles on the London religious scene are invaluable vignettes of church life, noted that Christmas decorations in churches and special Christmas observances were no longer a party badge of High Churchmanship. Davies managed to visit twenty-seven churches on Christmas Day that year and noted a host of fascinating details. At St Paul's, Hammer- smith, he found a splendid cross of white feathers on the pulpit, with the word 'Alleluia' on a crimson scroll. The texts on the windows were made out of tapioca. St Philip's, Earl's Court, was adorned with Christmas shrubs: 'holly, laurestina, ivy and box'. St Matthias, West Brompton, boasted ten vases of white flowers and nearly a hundred candles on the Holy Table. 'Potted hothouse flowers bedecked the altar steps, and the ser- vices were of the most ornate description'. White azaleas and camellias all but engulfed the altar at St Peter's, Kennington Park.

The decorations observed by Davies may well have been influenced by Edward Young Cox's The Art of Garnishing Churches, at Christmas and other Festivals, This first appeared in 1868 and had reached a third and much expanded edition by 1871. The book is a catalogue of wreaths, devices in evergreen, ever- lasting flowers and moss. There are illuminated devices, designs for straw decorations, instructions for making temporary reredoses and wall diapers made of perforated zinc. Peter Anson commented on this work in his Fashions in Church Furnishings 1840- 1940 (1960):

[The decorations] are Gothic going mad... Nothing in a church must be left without decorations. Every gas standard must be treated with wreaths of evergreens and everlastings. Not a column or a spandril of an arch must be left bare, so as to show forth the words of the Benedicte: 'All ye green things upon the earth bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever'.

The ecclesiastical warehouse run by Cox and Sons at 28, Southampton Street, advertised a vast range of designs in zinc, cardboard and linen carton-paper, together with a selection of illuminated banners, texts and complete temporary reredoses.
St Saviour's, Leeds, boasted a Christmas tree. This new addition to the English Christmas was German in origin and Prince Albert has usually been credited with its introduction to England. It provided the title of the first of Dickens' Christmas Stories which appeared in Household Words in 1850. The story begins with a wonderful evocation of the magic of the Christmas Tree:

I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lit by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and there were real watches... there were French polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping... there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint- boxes, sweetmeat boxes, peep-show- boxes... there were tee-totums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises.

Dickens uses the Christmas Tree as a kind of medieval memory system tracing the associations of Christmas down the branches of the tree. As the Waits' music sounds from the street, he links the powerful images of the Christmas story, with the presents of childhood. In the light of grace 'all common things become uncommon, and enchanted to me. All lamps are wonderful; all rings are talismans. Common flowerpots are full of treasure'. There is the echo of the same theme of transfiguration and conversion that is so central to A Christmas Carol.

That Dickens chose to call his story of Scrooge's Christmas conversion A Christmas Carol, is a reminder of the musical transformation of Christmas in the nineteenth century. That the story should have ghosts as a central feature is a reminder of the mid- Victorian interest in the paranormal. The most English Christmas service, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, was a nineteenth-century creation, being devised by Archbishop Benson when he was bishop of the newly established see of Truro for use on Christmas Eve 1880. Although the church of the early centuries and the medieval church had employed a rich hymnody, at the Reformation the old Latin hymns we) e not replaced by English ones. The only hymns commonly sung were metrical versions of the psalms. Carols were originally songs of joy accompanied by a dance. The word itself comes from the Italian, carola, meaning 'a ring-dance'.

In the Middle Ages carols and ballads had both secular and sacred themes. Both suffered at the time of the Reformation, though Bishop Grindal authorised a book of Chrestenmas carroles in 1562. The place of hymnody in the Methodist revival is well-known, and the Christmas collection of Hymns on the Nativity (1741) composed by Charles Wesley included 'Hark, how all the welkin rings' – an early version of 'Hark the herald angels sing'. The nineteenth century saw a veritable explosion of collections of carols, new and old. The Religious Tract Society gathered together carols originally circulated as separate tracts and broadsheets in a book of carols called The Christmas Box. In 1822 Davis Gilbert published some Ancient Christmas Carols, set to the tunes to which he had heard them sung when a child in the West of England:

They used to be practised several weeks beforehand: and on the night of Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day they were sung with great fervour, at home after the 8 pm drawing of the cakes hot from the oven, washed down with ale or cider, and at church instead of the metrical psalms.

The carols include 'While shepherds watched', 'A Virgin most pure', and 'The Lord at first did Adam make'. Thomas Helmore and John Mason Neale who produced The Hymnal Noted in two parts (1851 and 1854) under the aegis of the Ecclesiological Society, published in 1853 Carols for Christmastide. They wrote in the preface:

The want of a good and cheap collection of Christmas Carols must have been felt by most parish priests; the present is an attempt to supply the deficiency.
We have felt with regard to these... that it is impossible at one stretch to produce a quantity of new carols, of which words and music shall alike be original. They must be the gradual accumulation of centuries; the offerings of different epochs, of different countries, of different minds, to the same treasury of the Church. None but an empiric would venture to make a set to order.

Neale and Helmore selected twelve ancient melodies and set them to 'imitations of the original words', deriving a number of them from the rare Piae Cantiones published in 1582 for the use of the Lutheran Church in Sweden. 'In Dulci Jubilo' appears for the first time in Neale's translation, 'Good Christian men, rejoice', and the little collection also saw the first appearance of Neale's own composition, 'Good King Wenceslas', which has remained popular ever since. Later in the century H.R. Bramley edited Christmas Carols, New and Old, and the 1880s saw the publication of numerous collections of carols, coinciding with Ben- son's nine lessons and carols at Truro.

Dickens' A Christmas Carol both reflected and contributed to the Victorian revival of Christmas. In 1844 William John Butler, soon to begin a thirty-four year model incumbency at Wantage, wrote to his parishioners near Ware in Hertfordshire:

The people here seem hardly to feel Christmas Day. I observed that they wore their working-day clothes, and a very scanty attendance at church in proportion to that on Sundays. This seems to be the case very generally throughout the country. The people have utterly lost sight of the great Christian feasts, and with them the knowledge of the mighty events they celebrated. The Popish ways may all be very bad, but at least they teach something of the grounds of our faith and salvation. The religion of the English peasant is confined to generalities.

Butler was a keen observer (his Wantage parish diaries provide one of the fullest accounts of parochial ministry in the nineteenth century) and his comments are probably accurate. In the course of the century, under the influence of the Oxford Movement’s concern for the better observance of Christian festivals, Christmas became more and more prominent. By the later part of the century cathedrals provided special services and musical events, and might have revived ancient special charities for the poor – though we must not forget the problems for large: parish-church cathedrals like Manchester, which on one Christmas Day had no less than eighty couples coming to be married (the signing of the registers lasted until four in the afternoon).

The popularity of Dickens' A Christmas Carol played a significant part in the changing consciousness of Christmas and the way in which it was celebrated. The popularity of his public readings of the story is an indication of how much it resonated with the contemporary mood, and contributed to the increasing place of the Christmas celebration in both secular and religious ways that was firmly established by the end of the nineteenth century.

Geoffrey Rowell is Fellow, Chaplain and Tutor in Theology at Keble College, Oxford and author of The Vision Glorious: Themes and Personalities of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism.