Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Man Who Invented Christmas

At this time of year we think of Charles Dickens because of the well-known tale A Christmas Carol. So it is not surprising that Maud Newton chose yesterday to discuss her visit to the Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street where Dickens lived from April 1837 to December 1839, while completing The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby.

The Doughty Street residence is the only surviving home of Dickens so, as Newton says:

So, apart from the all-kitsch-all-the-time Dickens World, it is now the flagship tourist destination for fans of A Christmas Carol, or even Great Expectations or Bleak House.

But I don't think she is overly impressed:

Although the memorabilia housed there is extensive — it could be, as the museum site contends, “the world’s most important collection of material relating to the great Victorian novelist and social commentator” — the place itself feels incidental.
She does recommend the museum's virtual tour. What better activity could there be for a Christmas afternoon?

If you are a fan of The Christmas Carol, NPR has an excerpt from the book The Man Who Invented Christmas, by Les Standiford.

The Man Who Invented Christmas
By Les Standiford
Hardcover, 256 pages
Crown Publishing
List price: $19.95

For all the strengths that are evident to the modern eye in A Christmas Carol, and despite his own confidence in the power of his tale, Dickens had at least two good reasons to be apprehensive as publication day for his story approached. One had to do with the nature of the holiday itself, and the other with the dire financial straits he found himself in.

As for the first, Christmas in 1843 was not at all the premier occasion that it is today, when Christmas stories and their Grinches and elves and Santas abound, when "Christmas stores" purvey Yule decorations the four seasons round, and a marketing effort that begins sometime in mid-October is said to determine the fate of an entire year for retailers.

There were no Christmas cards in 1843 England, no Christmas trees at royal residences or White Houses, no Christmas turkeys, no department-store Santa or his million clones, no outpouring of "Yuletide greetings," no weeklong cessation of business affairs through the New Year, no orgy of gift-giving, no ubiquitous public display of nativity scenes (or court fights regarding them), no holiday lighting extravaganzas, and no plethora of midnight services celebrating the birth of a savior. In fact, despite all of Dickens's enthusiasms, the holiday was a relatively minor affair that ranked far below Easter, causing little more stir than Memorial Day or St. George's Day does today. In the eyes of the relatively enlightened Anglican Church, moreover, the entire enterprise of celebrating Christmas smacked vaguely of paganism, and were there Puritans still around, acknowledging the holiday might have landed one in the stocks.

I am glad I live now and not in the good olde days.

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