The man who invented Christmas?

Some years ago, I spoke to the curator of the Dickens Museum, who told me that as Christmas approached, he would always be phoned up by journalists who wanted to talk about A Christmas Carol’s influence on the modern celebrations of the season. These journalists would know that, prior to Dickens, newspapers often didn’t even mention Christmas. And almost without fail, the journalists would comment: “So, you could say that Dickens was the man who created Christmas, couldn’t you?” It was as though every aspect of the season – turkeys, mince pies, mistletoe, present-giving and overall merriment - was down to good old Charlie’s portrayal of Scrooge’s spiritual transformation.

The trouble is, the idea of Dickens as ‘The man who created Christmas’ simply isn’t true. It would be more accurate to say that after A Christmas Carol, celebrating Christmas became fashionable, among all classes, and this is why newspapers started to publicise Christmas. But in rural areas, and among the working class, Christmas had been celebrated long before Dickens came along, and although some commentators had spoken of Christmas being in decline, there were still strong traditions of seasonal celebration.

An uncanny weather forecast

Insofar as Dickens could be said to have ‘created’ any part of Christmas, it would be that festival’s traditional association with snow. And this did not happen because of A Christmas Carol, but because of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.  As we know, in the UK it rarely snows at Christmas, but it so happened that when Dickens was a boy there were several snowy Christmases – and, as a result, he came to see snow as an essential part of an ideal yule. It is not surprising, then, that some years later, in 1836, when he wrote the Christmas scenes of The Pickwick Papers, he inserted a snowfall into the story. This was when Mr Pickwick and his friends were gathered around the fire at Manor Farm, with Mr Wardle and others:

“How it snows,” said one of the men, in a low tone.

“Snows does it?” said Wardle.

“Rough, cold night,” replied the man, “and there’s a wind got up that drifts it across the fields in a thick white cloud.”

From that simple exchange, and the scenes in Pickwick that followed, we derive the traditional association of snow with Christmas – it is the ultimate source of millions of Christmas card pictures and the song White Christmas. How could one episode, in one book, be so powerful? Well, by an extraordinary coincidence, the Christmas of 1836 was the occasion for an extremely heavy snowfall. So heavy that mail coaches could not get through. But more importantly, the serial part of Pickwick containing that Manor Farm episode was published just a few days later – and so the readers of The Pickwick Papers found that Dickens’s fictional world was the perfect mirror of the real world of Christmas that year, and the author almost seemed to have the gift of prophecy.  This created a powerful association between Christmas and snow which has never gone away. 

Robert Seymour - the real Jacob Marley?

Here’s another Christmas insight coming from Pickwick.  I am going to suggest that a key character in A Christmas Carol, namely the ghost of Jacob Marley, is a fictional representation of one of the most significant figures in Dickens’s career: namely, Dickens’s illustrator, Robert Seymour, who shot himself while working on The Pickwick Papers. To make the connection between Marley and Seymour you have to realise that, shortly before Seymour’s suicide, Dickens invited the artist for “a glass of grog” at his flat in Furnival’s Inn, in London. Seymour left that meeting in a state of extreme emotional distress, and when he got home he burnt all his papers and correspondence about The Pickwick Papers. Two years after that meeting – almost to the very day - Dickens wrote a little-known story, which he inserted into Nicholas Nickleby, called The Tale of the Baron of Grogzwig. Note that name – Grogzwig… sounds like ‘grog swig’ doesn’t it? And how on earth could Dickens write about grog without thinking of Seymour, especially as it was so close to the anniversary of the fateful “glass of grog”?

Christmas for Charles Dickens

Insofar as Dickens could be said to have ‘created’ any part of Christmas, it would be that festival’s traditional association with snow

Furthermore, the tale featured a ghostly character who also seems to allude to Seymour – a character called The Genius of Suicide and Despair. And here is the key point: the character is an obvious forerunner to Jacob Marley – instead of Marley’s chains, cashboxes and padlocks, this spectre was dressed in coffin handles and coffin plates. Suddenly, the idea that Marley is really Seymour in disguise starts to form, and it is reinforced by other things.

Because Seymour was associated with Christmas as no other artist of his era was – he had produced the illustrations for a pioneering work, The Book of Christmas, shortly before meeting Dickens.  A book, incidentally, which itself proves that Dickens did not ‘create’ Christmas – because Seymour shows coaches loaded with Christmas turkeys, mistletoe, pantomimes, carol singers and many other traditions of Christmas.  And note too that at the start of the Carol Dickens writes of Marley being dead seven years – and the Carol was written in 1843, seven years after Seymour’s death.

Above all, what is Jacob Marley but a man who comes back from the dead to accuse his former partner of misdeeds – and what was Robert Seymour but Dickens’s former partner on Pickwick?

Christmas with the Dickenses

Finally, what sort of books did Dickens read at Christmas? Again The Pickwick Papers can help us out.  The Christmas scenes in Pickwick carry echoes of traditional celebrations of Christmas which appear in the works of the American author Washington Irving, the creator of Rip Van Winkle. To take just one example, Pickwick features the traditional Christmas game of snapdragon, in which children attempt to pull raisins from brandy-fuelled flames; and Irving mentions this game too.

It must be admitted, though, that Dickens possibly played snapdragon as a child himself, and so we cannot automatically assume that he took that detail from Irving. Indeed, when Dickens refers in Pickwick to the burnt fingers resulting from the game, he may well have been recalling his own family’s Christmas experiences when he was a child.

And, as Dickens’s great-grandson Cedric Dickens once said: “Just think what the NSPCC would say to any parent encouraging their children to play that game today!” 

  • Death and Mr Pickwick

  • On 31 March 1836 the publishers Chapman & Hall launched the first issue of a new monthly periodical entitled The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Conceived and created by the artist Robert Seymour, it contained four of his illustrations; the words to accompany them were written by a young journalist who used the pen-name Boz.

    The story of a sporting-cum-drinking club presided over by fat, loveable Mr Pickwick, assisted by his cockney manservant Sam Weller, The Pickwick Papers soon became a popular sensation, outselling every other book except the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays, and read and discussed by the entire population of the British Isles, from the duke’s drawing-room to the lowliest chophouse. The fame of Mr Pickwick soon spread worldwide – making The Pickwick Papers the greatest literary phenomenon in history.

    But one does not need to have read a single word of The Pickwick Papers to be enthralled by the story of how this extraordinary novel came to be. The creation and afterlife of The Pickwick Papers is the subject of Stephen Jarvis’s novel, Death and Mr Pickwick.This vast, intricately constructed, indeed Dickensian work is at once the ultimate homage to a much-loved book, tracing its genesis and subsequent history in fascinating detail, and a damning indictment of how an ambitious young writer expropriated another man’s ideas and then engaged in an elaborate cover-up of The Pickwick Papers’ true origin.

    Few novels deserve to be called magnificent. Death and Mr Pickwick is one of them.

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