How “A Christmas Carol” Came to Be Such a Massively Important Cultural Touchstone

What is the importance of the book “A Christmas Carol”? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Robert Frost, ‘ve seen A Christmas Carol performed onstage 18 times, on Quora:

A Christmas Carol is an important book for oh so many reasons. It is important because it is an example of brilliant writing. It is important because it is a captivating and entertaining story. It is important for the lessons it teaches. And it is important for the impact it has had on western culture.

A Christmas Carol was an immediate success. In October of 1843, Charles Dickens was in Manchester giving a speech about the problems of ignorance and want. After his speech, he took a walk and thought about those ideas and a story came to mind. That story became A Christmas Carol. He wrote it quickly, in six weeks, to have it ready for Christmas and had to self-publish because he couldn’t get his publisher to meet the schedule. He had 6000 copies printed and they were put on sale on December 19. All were sold by Christmas Eve.

On December 23, The Atheneum reviewed the book. The opening paragraph read:

A tale to make the reader laugh and cry – open his hands, and open his heart to charity even towards the uncharitable, - wrought up with a thousand minute and tender touches of the true ‘Boz’ workmanship – is, indeed, a dainty dish to set before a King.

Within weeks there were stage productions across London and by the following Christmas there were performances on American stages. In 1853, Dickens himself gave a public performance of the story to an audience of 2000 people. The book has been continuously in print for almost 174 years.

The book had two significant impacts on western culture. It is often said that Dickens invented the modern Christmas (there is even an upcoming film called The Man Who Invented Christmas, about the writing of the tale). That is an overstatement, but Dickens did help revitalize Christmas and set the foundation for the modern image of Christmas.

Christmas, as a celebration, has waxed and waned since the fourth century. In the 1640s, a movement within the Presbyterian Church, in Scotland, evolved into the Westminster Director (AKA Directory for Public Worship) which prohibited the celebration of Christmas and other festival days under the idea that the Bible only called for the observation of the Sabbath as a holy day.

Ordered – that in the Directory for the Sabbath-day something be expressed against parish feasts, commonly called by the name of rushbearings, whitsunales, wakes, as profane and superstitious.” “Ordered – Being the only standing holy day under the new Testament to be kept by all the churches of Christ.” “Consider of something concerning holy days and holy places, and what course may be thought upon for the relief of servants (to meet to-morrow in the afternoon) wakes, and feasts, whitsunales, rushbearings, and garlands, and all such like superstitious customs.

In 1660, when Charles I recovered the throne from those dastardly puritan parliamentarians, the Westminster Director was purged and Christmas was allowed to return, but it was muted.

The puritan Presbyterians took their bah humbug spirit to America and celebration of holy days other than the Sabbath was prohibited. Only in 1788 did they amend their standards to allow observation of “days of fasting and thanksgiving, as the extraordinary dispensations of divine providence may direct, we judge both scriptural and rational.” At the time of publication of A Christmas Carol, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists in America were still begrudgingly tolerated mild acknowledgement of Christmas as a holiday.

Other religious groups were much more open to the celebration, but this fragmentation meant there was no common imagination of Christmas. Dickens drew such a vivid portrait idealizing Christmas traditions and practices and then distributed that depiction around the world. Readers were captivated and wanted their own piece of that world. He created a market for Christmas stories that would later make Santa Claus a household name. While certainly not shying from the Christian origins of the holiday, Dickens showed that the spirit of Christmas was one that could be shared by believers and non-believers alike - essentially creating the secular Christmas.

The other significant impact is the one Dickens set out to make when he wrote the story. At that Manchester speech, Dickens had spoken of ignorance and want. He was horrified by a world in which the poor and suffering were ignored and taken advantage of. He was horrified by the child labor situation in his country. When he has the Ghost of Christmas Present open his robe to reveal the two tiny children, Ignorance and Want, at his feet, Dickens was positing a progressive idea - the idea that employers are responsible for the welfare of their employees - that those who had benefited had a debt to those who had not. He states this more broadly when he has the ghost of Marley say:

It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!

But the example Dickens uses is Scrooge’s responsibility to care for the well-being of his employee, Bob Cratchit, and Bob Cratchit’s family - particularly the infirm child, Tiny Tim.

Again, Dickens neither invented Christmas or charity nor was he the only one campaigning for workplace reform, but by capturing these ideas in a brilliantly entertaining and heartwarming story, he, as the song say, provided a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. The popularity of A Christmas Carol carried his ideas around the world and the evergreen nature of Christmas made sure those ideas were revisited on an annual basis.

For that, we can say that A Christmas Carol changed the way people thought.

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