In The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, author Les Standiford points out that in the publication year of A Christmas Carol, 1843—written when Dickens was only 31—“there were no Christmas cards, 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.”
Charles Dickens is, to quote G.K. Chesterton, the man who “saved Christmas.” But is he to blame for the detour contemporary culture has taken towards obsession for sales and marketing of the season so much so consumers glaze right over genuine attempts to celebrate? Actually, the purity of why we celebrate the wonder of the season lies at the core of all of Dickens, not just A Christmas Carol. Or, as Chesterton puts it: “The mystery of Christmas is in a manner identical with the mystery of Dickens. If ever we adequately explain the one we may adequately explain the other.”
There is a moment in the 1935 film version of the Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities in which Sydney Carton, the sad-faced would-be martyr masterfully portrayed by Ronald Colman, stands unmoving and unseen under a lamppost as carolers pass him singing “Adeste Fidelis.” Carton, while a bit intoxicated, had just attended Christmas Eve Mass with his unrequited love Lucie Manette and her family. Juxtaposing the refreshing beauty and optimism of Lucie is Carton’s own condemnation of himself as one beyond redemption, lingering outside in the snowfall on what should be the joyous commemoration of the birth of the Christ. In the whimsical look on Sydney Carton’s face, however, maybe, just maybe, there may be some hope in even the most cynical of men.
Such is the mission of the works of Charles Dickens.
I myself had held a long aversion for all things Dickens when I heard he was paid by the word, enough of an excuse for a then teenager to ignore such titles as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. The world of Dickens seemed cliché, with his soot-covered miscreants and purported verbose Victorian-era prose with seemingly endless, contorted sentences and plotting. With the ever-popular A Christmas Carol, dismissed as predictable and tired, one wondered when something new would come along to replace it—for awhile it appeared to be the Tim Allen Santa Clause series or its variations.
And then, somehow, like Sydney Carton, a conversion. Last year, the approaching Christmas season was met with eager anticipation not seen in years, and I was suddenly fervent for houses adorned with lights, dotted with wreaths and spotting crèches in town squares. Inevitably, I was back to the timeless tale of Bob Cratchit and Mr. Scrooge. Merry Christmas, Mr. Scrooge, indeed! I also picked up A Tale of Two Cities, and enwrapped myself in its setting, pulling for the redemption of Sydney Carton, and connecting the themes Dickens employed once waved away as trite as genuine in fact to the author’s heart—and undeniably Christian. It became clear to me one cannot separate, once pushing aside the lumbering coats of the crass commercialization in the cultural, that the atmosphere, characters, and emotions Dickens created centered around Christmastime and have imbedded themselves deeply, almost imperceptibly, into our own dreams and embraces that we still have of Christmas today.
We all have our faults. And Charles Dickens the man—as Ralph Fiennes chose to portray him in his film The Invisible Woman—is no exception. But at his core, which invariably came forth in his works, was a man devoted to the Christian project, so much so he penned a gift strictly for his children, The Life of Our Lord. Based on the Gospels, it was to be a fatherly testament so that his very offspring may have a personal account of “Our Saviour” as Dickens was fond of referring to Christ. Gratefully, it was published to the rest of the world in 1934, more than sixty years after Dickens himself passed, and was syndicated in three hundred newspapers, according to the New York Times. Once aware of its existence and read, it is impossible to separate the thread of Christianity from the classics he left us. Indeed, Dickens worked on the manuscript around the same time as the publication of David Copperfield.
While it’s tempting to root the modern day “X-mas” machine to the Dickensian era of snowy cobblestones and stockings hung on fireplaces, it’s his penchant for the plight of the poor that makes Charles Dickens the man who saved Christmas. It’s this notable characteristic that stood out for Cardinal Albino Luciani, the future Pope John Paul I, who for the Messenger of St. Anthony, scribed letters to influential people in history who impacted him, like St. Therese of Lisieux, Goethe, and G.K. Chesterton. Among them was Charles Dickens.
“I read [your “Christmas Books”] as a boy and I liked them immensely because they were completely pervaded by a feeling of love for the poor and a sense of social regeneration. […] Love for the poor, and not so much for the individual poor person as for the poor who, rejected as individuals as well as peoples, feel that they are a class and feel solidarity among themselves,” Luciani writes. “It is to them, without hesitation, that the sincere and open preference of Christians should be given, after the example of Christ.”
Dickens’s concern for the impoverished was not borne out of an attempt to exploit the struggles of a class to ensure book sales, but because he believed it was an injustice that needed public attention. One only needs to read his journal American Notes to find that on his touring America, Dickens insisted on visiting prisons, asylums, and hospitals. Chesterton remarked that Dickens addressed social topics like poverty or alcoholism not with broad strokes, but by creating fully realized human characters facing these struggles in their own way.
It was the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, then, who presented readers with more than a miserly character audiences loved to hate, but rather a demonstration of evil becoming good, of the wealthy helping the poor, compelled to change because of them, and the Christmas spirit intertwined with the hope of mankind.
Professor Gary Colledge has devoted a career to Dickens and his faith. He suggests in his book God and Charles Dickens that readers “give careful attention to the all-important conversation early in the story between Scrooge and Marley’s ghost.” The scene’s importance, while quite familiar to students of A Christmas Carol, is sometimes lost in movie versions.
Marley’s ghost had just explained his torturous wandering as a shadow for seven years, to the bemusement of Scrooge. “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Where there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
While film adaptations of A Christmas Carol often leave this line out, it is a key premonition to Scrooge’s own journey throughout the story, and a revelatory insight into the author’s own faith journey.
Cardinal Luciani concluded his letter to Dickens like this: “Trust in God, through the mouth of your Marley, you hoped that the star of the Magi would illuminate the houses of the poor. Today the whole world is a poor house that has such great need of God!” Less than five years later, Luciani would be dead after a month as pope and the poor remains with us to this day. But no longer do we have recourse to avoid Dickens’s tales: in all, he devoted five books set during the Christmas season, all of which—just like every one of his works—are still in print today, nearly 145 years after their creator’s death.
Editor’s note: The illustration above is the frontispiece from the first edition of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.