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Did Charles Dickens invent Christmas?

Did Charles Dickens invent Christmas?
Written by Scheherazaad Cooper

There is a celebration at wintertime in almost every culture around the world; but, what we currently understand as Christmas, here in North America, is actually a combination of a number of holidays. In his book, Inventing Christmas: How our Holiday Came to Be, author Jock Elliott charts the evolution of Christmas and notes that a large number of what we consider to be established traditions for the holiday, were actually created in a short 25-year window between 1823-1848. For example, the Christmas tree, hanging stockings, Christmas carols, and candy canes, even Santa Claus— who has a number of regionally specific aliases, were all popularised around this time. And right within this Christmas boom, in 1843, the world saw the first publication of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol.

The classic tale of a miser, mean and selfish, who is visited first by his former business partner and then by three ghosts— over a night that changes his very life— is, at once, a tale of Christmas spirit and a ghost story. The tale has been adapted numerous times and continues to inspire Christmas plays, TV shows, and movies. To track the scope of the story’s influence, one need only consider that ‘Scrooge’ has been included in the Oxford English Dictionary as a synonym for someone lacking in generosity since 1982.

The idea that Christmas has the power to transform even the darkest of souls into one who brings joy and light is at the centre of A Christmas Carol’s enduring power. The winter is a dark and cold time, the harvest is over, and nothing new will grow until the spring. Many celebrations around this time emphasize ‘light’, both literal and metaphorical: Diwali includes the lighting of small lamps called diyas as a symbol of hope and knowledge over darkness and ignorance; Hanukkah includes the daily lighting of the menorah over eight days and nights to commemorate an ancient light that burned for as many days despite only having enough oil for one; the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, is also the focus of Yule and the Iranian celebration of Shab-e Yalda, where families stay up late, sharing food and reading poetry. In contemporary celebrations, many Christmas stories include similar ideas of light defeating darkness, of hope, and of the potential for transformation. Consider, for example, the beloved holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life, where Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey gets the chance to see what life would have been like if he had never existed, a chance to evaluate his current life and to change it, or his perception of it at least, for the better.

Dicken’s beloved ghost-story has had a profound effect on the way we tell Christmas stories and on what we understand to be the purpose of Christmas spirit. Our fascination with Scrooge and his creator has endured in the 174 years since the story first appeared, and continues— there is even a movie about Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol coming out this month: The Man who Invented Christmas starring Dan Stevens and Christopher Plummer.

In the spirit of Dickens, the spirit of Christmas, and the spirit of the light of hope, Gateway Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol begins, as the candle is lit…

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About the Author

Name: Wendy