I spent an afternoon just before Christmas on a walking tour in London of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which seemed appropriate at the close of his 200th anniversary year. We started near St Dunstan’s, where Scrooge lived, and ended at the graveyard that once belonged to the church of St Peter Cheap, near Cheapside, where Scrooge is taken by the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come to see his grave.
In between we stopped in the lee of St Michael Cornhill, where Scrooge had his office (close to the The George and Vulture in Castle Court, one of Dickens’ favourite haunts), in Leadenhall Market, which in an earlier incarnation may have been the location where Scrooge sent the boy to buy the turkey for the Cratchit family, and the Royal Exchange where Scrooge is also taken by Christmas Yet To Come.
A Christmas Carol, written in six weeks, was an instant hit when it was published in 1843. While a lot of Britain’s modern Christmas traditions were imported from Germany by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, our guide argued that Dickens had played a large part in the 19th century (re)invention of Christmas, connecting a new urban Christmas with rural Christmas traditions that were dying out. Historian Philip Allingham agrees:
It is A Christmas Carol, published on 19 December 1843, that has preserved the Christmas customs of olde England and fixed our image of the holiday season as one of wind, ice, and snow without, and smoking bishop, piping hot turkey, and family cheer within.
Piecing together the story, it was striking how this idea of Christmas was constructed through newly developing industrial age media. The Christmas tree gained popularity after a story in the 1848 Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News featured the royal family’s tree at Windsor, according to the guide, with the description a “pretty German toy”; many of Dickens’ other Christmas stories were serialised in the new mass circulation magazines serving an increasingly literate population; the Christmas card itself grew in popularity because of the falling cost of printing and the introduction in the 1840s of the penny post. And Dickens, in Christmas Carol, was the first to use the phrase “Merry Christmas” in print.
Perhaps it is not surprising that when Dickens died, a Cockney barrow-girl was overheard saying, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”
The photograph at the top of this post, of the Christmas tree in Leadenhall Market, in by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons Licence: some rights reserved.