The Real Hackstory of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

Hayley Milliman

Hayley Milliman
Content Lead

This year, as we’ve been trimming our trees and stuffing our stockings, we’ve been doing some thinking about the man who created Christmas. And no, we’re not talking about jolly old Saint Nick or baby Jesus. We’re talking about the man whose obsession with roasted chestnuts and yuletide carols turned Christmas from a second-rate Christian holiday to the unrestrained season of giving, receiving, and Instagramming we know today.

We’re talking about Charles Dickens.

Seriously.

It’s been said that Charles Dickens is the man who invented Christmas. (Literally – there’s a new movie out now with that very title.) And with good reason, too. Before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, Christmas was seen as less important than Boxing Day. Yeah, it was that bad. After the novel’s publication, Christmas experienced a rebirth not seen since the aforementioned baby Jesus.

But why did Charles Dickens write A Christmas Carol? And why did it resonate so strongly with the world when it was published?

Pour yourself a cup of hot cocoa, cozy up next to a crackling fire, and read on to learn the real hackstory of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

The OG War On Christmas

It’s hard to imagine, but nineteenth century Londoners were just learning about the beauty and majesty of the Christmas tree. | Photo by David Iliff, #CC-BY-SA 3.0

Bill O’Reilly may claim we’re in the midst of a war on Christmas, but the OG war on Christmas actually took place centuries ago and wasn’t a war of consciousness, but of apathy.

People living prior to the Victorian era simply didn’t care about Christmas the way we do today. They went to church, they said their prayers, and that was basically it. Easter was a much bigger deal and celebrated with the days of feasting and frivolity we associate with Christmas today.

By Dickens’ time, Christmas was starting to undergo a bit of a revival. Queen Victoria had recently married Prince Albert of Germany, who along with his passion for education reform and the abolition of slavery, brought to England the custom of having a decorated Christmas tree.

Victoria and Albert debuted their Christmas tree to the public and people freaked the f*ck out after they realized how fun and festive it was to chop down a perfectly good tree and adorn it with ridiculous ornaments, only to dispose of it days later. Around the same time, a number of composers published collections of Christmas carols, so Londoners found themselves suddenly interested in the previously humdrum holiday.

Among those swept up in the Christmas spirit was Charles Dickens.

The Ultimate Father Christmas: Charles Dickens

A rare photo of Charles Dickens wondering if he’s going to be on Santa’s naughty or nice list.

Charles Dickens had absolutely zero chill about Christmas. While the rest of nineteenth century England was slowly warming to the idea of Christmas trees, Dickens was already full-scale Kris Kringle.

Every year, Dickens celebrated Christmas with over-the-top exuberance, bringing his bemused friends and family together for days of dinners, dances, games, and theatrical performances. According to Dickens, Christmas was a great time for storytelling, especially if those stories were ghost stories (yeah, he was a little weird). To the introspective Dickens, Christmas was a great time to reflect on the past and imagine the future.

For all his ho-ho-hoing, though, it wasn’t until 1843 that Dickens thought about putting pen to paper to tell a Christmas tale. And, when Dickens finally started writing A Christmas Carol, it wasn’t Christmas spirit that motivated him… it was cold, hard cash.

Well, cold hard cash and concern for the poor.

You see, in 1843, Dickens was facing a money shortage. His latest work, Martin Chuzzlewit, hadn’t quite taken off the way he hoped (we can’t imagine why) and rent on his spacious London townhome was proving to be a bit too much to manage. Couple that with the fact that his father and siblings were always hitting him up for cash, and poor Charles found himself with rather thin pockets and a cold London winter approaching.

Around the same time, Dickens paid a visit to a school for underprivileged kids, which opened his eyes to the horrible living conditions of the poor in nineteenth century London. Frustrated by the greed around him, while himself in need of money to accommodate his snazzy lifestyle and spendy family, Dickens decided to write a scathing critique of the miserly rich.

That scathing critique was, of course, A Christmas Carol.

Lucky for Dickens, the rich weren’t pissed off by his dire predictions of their fate. Rather, the heartwarming tale of Tiny Tim, Scrooge and the Cratchetts translated into huge sales. A Christmas Carol first hit bookshelves on December 19, 1843 and was sold out by Christmas Eve of that year. That’s less than five days later, in case that math was hard.

In the wake of the failure of Chuzzlewit, Dickens had written a bonafide smash hit.

Christmas Forever

A Christmas Carol proved to be not only Dickens’ bread and butter, but his most enduring success.

After the first printing of the book sold out in record time, the publisher ordered a second printing. And then a third, and then a fourth. By 1860, thirteen different editions of A Christmas Carol had been published.

The printers couldn’t even keep up with the public clamoring for the book and Dickens almost bankrupted himself trying to fight copyright infringement as pirated copies popped up to meet demand.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Audiences demanded more, and Dickens began doing live readings of the book to rapturous fans. He ended up touring around Britain doing readings, where he would perform meticulously rehearsed scenes of Martin Chuzzlewit until people told him to shut the f*ck up and talk about Scrooge already. No matter where Dickens went and what he read, A Christmas Carol remained the favorite. And the traditions and goodwill Dickens described in the book became equally popular, too.

Eventually, Dickens took his show across the pond to the US, where he performed for more than 100,000 people and earned the equivalent of $1.5 million today. The tour was rigorous, though, and Dickens’ health would never quite recover – he died two years after his tour in 1870.

Even after Dickens’ death, A Christmas Carol remained popular. To date, it’s been adapted about a million times (no, seriously, check out the Wikipedia page) and there are new versions and takes on the classic tale coming out all the time. Dickens’ vision of a holiday where people were brought together by a love for family and a passion for helping others proved to be an enduring vision that laid the groundwork for what Christmas is today.

What’s the best version of A Christmas Carol you’ve seen? How about the worst? Tell us all about it in the comments!

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