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A Tale of Christmas Past.

In 1842 the British government issued a report on child labor in mines.1 It told of 16-hour days, squalid workplaces and physical abuse — conditions we would call Dickensian. Its authors could never have imagined the changes it would bring.2

Illustration of girl dragging coal in narrow mine shaft.
Girl Dragging Coal in Mine Shaft.3

One Reader’s Response. In London a young father of four read the report. His world as a journalist and popular author was fairly comfortable, but the report reminded him that it hadn’t always been. Only a few years before his father had lost his job and the family had ended up in debtors’ prison. As the eldest boy he had been sent to work at an uncle’s shoe polish factory pasting covers and labels on pots of polish 11 hours a day, six days a week. The squeaking sound of rats scurrying up from the basement remained a vivid memory.

Anxious to do whatever he could for child laborers, he began writing a pamphlet called “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s child.” But after a few days he realized that an appeal to the heart usually changes more minds than facts alone, so he put the pamphlet aside and vowed to do something that would hit with the force of a sledgehammer.4 But he wasn’t clear exactly how best to strike that blow.

Victoria Bridge over the Irwell River, Manchester, England about 1850.
Manchester in the 1850s.6

As a celebrity author he was welcomed into the salons of the rich and famous, yet his own experience told him that the food stuffed into the burgeoning bellies of people he once described as “overfed, apoplectic, snorting cattle”5 could have fed many of the starving urchins he saw on a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School. Tough economic times in the 1840s put added pressure on working families — unemployment was high and two successive crop failures made food scarce.

A Magic Moment of Genius. That Fall his sister recruited him to chair a fundraiser for the Manchester Athenaeum, an educational center for the city’s working people. Traveling north, he may have worried about his own finances since his latest novel wasn't selling well. Walking about town he saw the poverty that was everywhere in the capital of British industry and staying with his sister he observed the challenges her family faced raising a disabled son on a modest income.

At the fundraiser he congratulated the Athenaeum members on having shepherded their institution through the economic difficulties and tore into the industrialists who considered workforce education to be wasteful. He emphasized that education benefits everyone, even the bosses who end up with more reliable and productive employees.

The talk was enthusiastically received and something in the room seemed to ignite a magic moment of genius, for suddenly it became clear how the sledgehammer blow could be dealt. Christmas was fast approaching and he would write a story about the benefits of compassion and the cost of miserliness.

Water color showing Charles Dickens in 1839.
Charles Dickens in 1839.7

The Sledgehammer Blow. The author was Charles Dickens, and he spent the next six weeks writing what is perhaps his best-known work, A Christmas Carol. He became totally immersed in his work, laughing and sometimes weeping as he wrote, and often walking miles through the streets of London at night. The characters were drawn from his own experience: the wealthy, over-stuffed “snorting cattle” became Scrooge the miser; his own boyhood family and those of the working people of Manchester became the family of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s ill-used clerk; and his sister’s disabled son Harry became Tiny Tim.

The first press run sold out in five days and A Christmas Carol was the best selling book of the 1843 Christmas season. The book didn’t earn Dickens the money he so needed, his insistence on costly illustrations and a low selling price saw to that, however, it secured forever his reputation as an author.

The Birth of Victorian Christmas. But the book’s significance goes far beyond its tale, for it did much to shape our view of Christmas and how it should be celebrated. In the early 1800s Christmas was not widely celebrated as a festive holiday, a remnant of the time in the seventeenth century when its observance had been outlawed in Britain as pagan.8

Illustration of the Fezzwig's Ball from the first edition of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
Christmas Celebration from A Christmas Carol.8

But Dickens loved Christmas and had fond memories of his own childhood holidays. A Christmas Carol shows men and women, bosses and workers, young and old coming together to share and celebrate at Christmas, much as his own close-knit family had. As A Christmas Carol was hitting the booksellers, another young father, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was introducing Britain to some of his own boyhood traditions, such as the German Christmas tree. Together, Dickens and Prince Albert created the Victorian Christmas that we know.

* * * * *

Dickens’ goal had been to reach the hearts and minds of his readers, especially those with the power to effect change. He succeeded in at least one case right here in Boston.

Franklin Fairbanks and his wife attended a reading by Dickens in 1867. Their family owned a large manufacturing company in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and Mr. Fairbanks seemed unusually quiet on leaving the hall. His wife asked why, and Fairbanks responded that after listening to Dickens he felt he should change the firm’s practice of working on Christmas. From that point forward, the business was closed on Christmas and each employee was given a turkey as a gift, just like at the end of Dickens’ book.

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  1. The Condition and Treatment of the Children Employed in the Mines and Colliers of the United Kingdom (1842). Available on-line on the British Library’s web site.
  2. Information for this article comes from Lucinda Hawksley, How Did a Christmas Carol Come to Be? (December 22, 2017) BBC web site (Ms. Hawksley is Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter); John Simkin, Fanny Dickens (September 1997, updated August 2014) on Spartacus Educational web site; Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas, web site of The Morgan Library and Museum; David Perdue’s Dickens web site.
  3. The Condition and Treatment of Children, op. cit., p. E2.
  4. Letters dated March 6 and 10, 1843 from Charles Dickens to Southwood Smith. C.L. Lewes, Dr. Southwood Smith, William Blackwood and Sons, pp. 90–92 (1898). Smith was a member of the commission that wrote the report.
  5. Letter dated May 3, 1843 from Charles Dickens to Douglas Jerrold, commenting on men Dickens had met the night before at a hospital fundraiser. Available on-line at ReadCentral.com.
  6. Victoria Bridge and Irwell River in Manchester in the 1850s. Image from Greg Clark, How cities took over the world: a history of globalisation spanning 4,000 years, The Guardian (December 1, 2016).
  7. Watercolor based on painting by Daniel Maclise. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, Reference NPG D19292. View on-line.
  8. Clemency Burton-Hill, When Christmas Carols Were Banned (December 19, 2014). BBC web site.
  9. The Fezzwig’s Ball, illustration by John Leech from frontispiece of the first edition of A Christmas Carol. View on-line at the British Library’s web site.

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Updated January 2, 2018.