Did you know Christmas was cancelled? In 1664 the British Parliament with the strong support of Puritans, abolished Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun holiday. Each of these were seen as pagan festivities. Neither feast nor festival was to be held. Church doors were locked. Businesses remained open. Citizens were to use the former Christmas celebration days (think Twelve Days of Christmas) as a day in fasting and prayer, while they continued their jobs and labors.
Sixteen years later, 1660, the ban was lifted, largely due to the end of a civil war and placement of a new king. Yet, Puritanism was the prevailing religion, and the ban though no longer a law, was still practiced. Simultaneously, the Industrial Revolution with its overcrowded workhouses, eliminated the opportunity for extended holidays and reverie.
During the final decades of the 17th century and into the 18th century, Christmas as it had once been celebrated could only be found in rare pockets of life. Even in America, Christmas was not practiced as we know it, until 1870.
In a strange way John Dickens, father of Charles Dickens, deserves credit for the resurrection of Christmas. John Dickens was born to parents who were house servants of an aristocratic family. Young John's life brushed up against the glitter, merriment, and abundance of the family his parents worked for. He fell in love with it. As he made his way into the world he lived as though he too were very well to do. He bought fine clothes, beautiful homes, and expensive items like books. However, his wages never covered his expenditures. Across the city, John Dickens was racking up debt. In 1824 the Dickens family was sent to debtors prison. Only one child remained free, twelve-year-old Charles Dickens. Free though would not be the correct word because upon his family's incarceration, he was removed from school and sent to work in a boot blackening shop.
In his first months at the blackening shop he stayed in lodgings for young workers nearby. But the horrible conditions tore at him. Eventually he was granted permission to visit his family at the prison after his work shifts.
During this time, Dickens began to muster a resolve that would propel him into the very life his father dreamed of. Keenly aware of the black mark of debtors prison on his life resume, Dickens kept the details of those awful years to himself, and used them to fuel his gift of storytelling, eventually visiting them in novels Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit.
Christmas- What Does This Have To Do with Christmas?
For better or worse, Charles Dickens was bitten by the same cravings his father had. He loved luxury, finery, celebrations, and high living. To achieve that end he wrote a lot. But not every publication was a success. Some came out as books and were loved. Others had to be written and sold to newspapers as serials to make ends meet.
In the late autumn of 1843, Dickens writing and life were meeting an impasse. His wife was expecting their fifth child. His last book was languishing near failure. Family members needed funds, most likely his father, whom he had set up in a home outside of London.
One evening after giving a speech about adult education opportunities, Dickens was struck with the idea of a Christmas story. A tale where the full bounty of a holiday of merriment could be celebrated in one day, not twelve. Where family was the anchor not mystical traditions. A story where wrongs could be righted. And most of all, common men could live like kings. Simply titled, A Christmas Carol.
Dickens fell in love with it tale as he wrote it. He had always been a theatrical writer. Standing for hours before his mirror and playing the parts of each character he was writing about. This book however was more than that. The three visitors, the miser Scrooge, the humble Cratchit's all mirrored a world he knew deeply.
His biographer wrote, "He wept over it, and laughed, and wept again. He walked about the black streets of London at night fifteen or twenty miles a night when all sober folks had gone to bed." The story was beyond alive in him. It possessed him.
He wrote and published it in record time. Being a man of taste, he was exact on the specifications of binding, leafing, and print of the book. While at the same time determined to make it available to everyone, which in Victorian England was a rare gift. The book and story were a hit. They also were a hit to his pocketbook initially. Yet over time the tale of the visit of three spirits to a miser would pay off more handsomely than even Dickens could imagine. Over the centuries the book was purchased, sold at auctions, transformed into plays and movies to be seen and loved the world over. The best part of all was Dickens fulfilled an unseen dream to infuse the darkness of winter with,
"a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys"
Happy Christmas, Mr. Dickens.
Sidenote: When Dickens died he wanted to be buried in private grave at Rochester Cathedral however he was interred in Poets Corner in Westminister Abbey. Allowing more of us to pay our respects to him.
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