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Did Charles Dickens invent Christmas?

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Carolers singing at the St. Paul Hotel before Gerald Charles Dickens' Tuesday night performance of "A Christmas Carol." (MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert)
For many families the Christmas traditions extend beyond setting up the tree, eating lots of food and giving away gifts. They also include taking in one of the many performances of "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens. For them the holiday just wouldn't be the same without Dickens' famous story of Christmas-time redemption. As it turns out, our modern conception of Christmas owes a lot to Charles Dickens.

St. Paul, Minn. — Believe or not, you can now hear Mr. Dickens perform "A Christmas Carol." It's available on compact disc. He even reads the prologue: "I have endeavored in this ghostly little book to raise the ghost of an idea."

The voice on the CD is Gerald Charles Dickens. He's an actor, and he's the great-great grandson of the Charles Dickens. For the last decade he's been been traveling around, performing his one-man show interpretation of "A Christmas Carol." And for nine of those ten years he's been wrapping up his American tour, at Christmastime, right here at the St. Paul Hotel. Karen Brown actually rearranged her Holiday plans just to see him one last time. It's her fifth time.

"I was planning to come until forever, because it's just such an important part of the season for me," Brown said as she waited for the show to begin Tuesday evening.

But after Friday night, Gerald Dickens is hanging up his black top hat, at least for a while. He's given over 500 performances, playing all 26 characters in "A Christmas Carol" by himself, and Mr. Dickens is ready for a break.

"For the last ten years I've been telling this story about togetherness and companionship at Christmas and giving," says Dickens, "and I suddenly realized that for ten years I've actually been away from the family during all that time."

What Gerald Dickens does, dramatically, bombastically acting out "A Christmas Carol," isn't so different from what his great-great grandfather did 150 years before him. Charles Dickens liked to perform his own work, doing voices for each of the characters and drawing big crowds.

In fact, as another British writer pointed out on a recent visit to the Twin Cities, Charles Dickens was the first real celebrity author. In a speech this fall in Minneapolis Salman Rushdie pointed out that Charles Dickens basically created the modern-day book tour. And that's not all.

"Charles Dickens was good at inventing or popularizing things," Rushdie said, "One of his other inventions, Christmas, seemed to catch on."

Hold on. Dickens invented Chirstmas? Is that possible?

When we read or hear a Christmas Carol, we are not seeing a reflection of what Christmas was like in his day. We're seeing what Dickens would like Christmas to be.
- Bruce Forbes, chair of the religion department at Morningside College

"It's overstated," says Bruce Forbes, chair of the religious studies department at Morningside College is Sioux City, "but he certainly had a major role in the comeback of Christmas."

Christmas has actually been around since the Fourth Century, but Forbes says British Puritans hated the celebration. There was too much drinking and partying, and they saw the festival as part of the pagan tradition, not part of Christianity. The Puritans had even succeeded in banning Christmas for a while. So by the time Charles Dickens came along, big Christmas celebrations were largely a thing of the past in the English-speaking world.

"When we read or hear a Christmas Carol," Forbes says, "We are not seeing a reflection of what Christmas was like in his day. We're seeing what Dickens would like Christmas to be."

Think about how Dickens describes the Cratchits' Christmas feast: "Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce."

Forbes says that in Dickens' Englad Christmas "was not lavishly celebrated, except in some country homes. It simply wasn't a major, culturally dominant celebration, but I think Dickens wanted to make it more so."

It wasn't the big holiday it is today, either. Here in the U.S., Congress met on Christmas day up until the 1850s. In fact, Bruce Forbes says most people worked on Christmas. Bob Cratchit was lucky to get it off, even if Scrooge wasn't happy about it.

'A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!" said Scrooge, buttoning his great-coat to the chin. "But I suppose you must have the whole day.'

Charles Dickens wrote a lot of Christmas stories. "A Christmas Carol" was one of the first, and certainly the most popular. But he wrote one almost every year. So, why was Dickens so interested in Christmas?

Dickens scholar John Jordan says the Christmas stories, like Dickens' other writings, are meant as social commentary about life in 19th Century England.

"There was a lot of unemployment," Jordan says. "There was misery, and he saw Christmas as something that tended to function as a sort of counter force to the negative effects of the industrial revolution."

Jordan, who directs the Dickens Project head-quartered at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says Dickens also saw the stories as a successful franchise, a money-maker. But Jordan doesn't want to give the impression that Dickens was just greedy, or just trying to make a point. He really did love Christmas.

"There's a clearly nostalgic tone to Dickens' celebration of Christmas," Jordan says, "and I think it's associated with a kind of fantasy of an ideal childhood."

And through the wild popularity of his stories, Dickens' fantasies, to some extent, became a reality. It wasn't just that Dickens made Christmas more popular. He changed it.

John Jordan gives Dickens credit for helping turn Christmas into a family-centered holiday, and associating it with charity for the poor. Bruce Forbes says even some of the food we eat at Christmastime can be traced back to Charles Dickens.

"It isn't an accident that many Christmas meals feature turkey," Forbes explains. "That's what was featured in 'A Christmas Carol,' and so that carries on."

But Christmas trees? Thank queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, for making them popular in the English-speaking world. Actually, Christmas trees predate Christians. So does the good old Yule log. And our red and white version Santa Claus comes courtesy of Coca Cola.

So maybe Charles Dickens didn't invent Christmas. But he did help revive it. And, come on. Would it really even be Christmas without Scrooge, Marley and, for goodness sakes, Tiny Tim?

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