I know precisely when and where modern Christmas was born. It was late on the evening of Thursday, 5 October, 1843. And it was on the dismal streets of the Lancaster industrial town of Manchester, England.
Then and there a dapper 31 year old clean shaven Charles John Huffman Dickens (above) went for a stroll. He walked purposefully past the clattering cotton and textile mills and the stinking bleach works.
He slipped like an alien through the laborers milling around the foundry shops and on the docks of the befouled Irwell River - men women and children who toiled 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, to survive on a paltry £9, 3 shillings. It was on such walks as these ““...when all the sober folks had gone to bed” that Charles Dickens created our Christmas.
Michelangelo once said his David was always hidden inside the marble. All he had to do was chip away everything which was not the young Israelite contemplating the approaching Goliath. Writers work the same way, but first they must create their own stones. And then they must mercilessly chip away until they reveal the story hidden inside themselves. Or, as sportswriter “Red” Smith put it, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” And to do that on demand is to be a professional writer.
Charles Dickens had achieved instant fame with his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, published in serial form beginning in 1836.
This was followed by the hugely popular Oliver Twist in 1837, the equally successful Nicholas Nickleby (above) in 1838, the less successful Old Curiosity Shop, in 1840, and the forgettable and forgotten Barnaby Rudge in 1841, all serialized in magazines.
It began to seem Charles Dickens had peaked. But he still had to support a wife and four children, with a fifth child on the way. He remained the sole financial support for his impoverished parents, and other relatives in desperate straits. And there were the demands from his tailor, for Charles Dickens was a lifelong enthusiastic clothes horse.
In Chapter 29 of the Pickwick Papers, published at the end of October 1837, Dickens made one of his first references to the holiday, in the story of a garrulous old church sexton and grave digger named Gabriel Grub. “A little before twilight one Christmas eve, Gabriel Grub...betook himself towards the old churchyard, for he had got a grave to finish by next morning.” On his way, Grub pauses to threaten a young boy who is singing carols. Then, later, when he pauses to drink from a wicker jug he is challenged by a goblin king.
"What man wanders among graves and churchyards on such a night as this?" asked the goblin. "Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!" screamed a wild chorus of voices that seemed to fill the churchyard.”
The goblins take Grub under the earth, and display a tableau of a lives of a typical middle class English family, including the fate of a dying child. “His brother and sisters crowded around his little bed, and seized his tiny hand, so cold and heavy... What do you think of THAT? " said the goblin...,Gabriel murmured out something about its being very pretty.... You, a miserable man!" said the goblin in a tone of excessive contempt...”
After more lessons, Grub “came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world, after all...” In the morning Gabriel Grub has mysteriously disappeared. “The lantern, the spade, and the wicker bottle were found that day in the churchyard.” But 10 years later Grub returns, to share his story of the Christmas goblins. It was far from a perfect holiday story. But it clearly chipped away a few of Charles' stones.
Six years later, on that Thursday evening of 5 October, 1843, Charles Dickens (above) faced a real financial crises. His bank account was over drawn. Sales of his latest serialized book, Martin Chuzzlewit, had landed with a thud in 1842. The man who had hired him to write the Pickwick Papers, William Hall, was increasingly turning the business over his senior partner, Edward Chapman. And it was Chapman who suggested that Dickens' stipend (what today would be called an advance) be reduced from £50 to just £37 and 10 shillings a week. The author figured he would need £1,000, to re-balance his checkbook and meet his obligations. Such were his hopes for the creation he conceived on that late evening walk in Manchester.
The creation of this story, like all 15 novels and 27 short stories Dickens would write, began with the title - “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story at Christmas. ”. It would not be a novel, but a novella, only about 110 pages long and less than 30,000 words total. In keeping with the musical theme, Dickens divided the novella not into chapters but into “Staves” (above). In American English these 5 lines and the 4 spaces between them are referred to as a staff, upon which musical notes are written. In English, English they are staves. On the morning train returning him to London, Dickens began to dip his pen into ink and scratch his solution for his financial crises onto paper.
Dickens plucked the name of his central character, Ebenezer Scrooge, from a headstone he had come across in an Edinburgh graveyard in 1841 – Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie. The real Ebenezer had been a corn merchant and bottler of “Scroggie's Highland Brandie”. His grave marker called him a “meal man”, but Dickens misread the inscription as a “mean man”, which is why he remembered the name. In truth, Scroggie was not mean or cruel, but he was a social reprobate, a 'dirty old man', who raped a servant girl on a churchyard grave stone, fathering a child, and broke up a solemn convocation of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by groping the Countess of Mansfield in the pews.
Scrooge's miserliness seems to have been based on James (Jemmy) Wood (above), famous as the “Gloucester Miser”. He was one of the richest men in England and left an estate worth £900,000. His primary business was the Gloucester Old Bank but Wood also owned an undertaking business. He wore the same clothes for weeks on end, and never took a cab when he could walk. The staff of his bank consisted of himself and just 2 clerks. But where Wood was an active participant in the city, Scrooges' mean spirit toward the poor was found in philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who, when asked about the working poor, replied, "Are there not treadmills, gibbets; even hospitals, poor-rates, New Poor-Law?s"
The name of Scrooge's business partner came from a sign Dickens had seen in his childhood, “Goodge and Marney”. And Marley's chains were the reality seen by Dickens during his 1842 tour of the Western Penitentiary, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The crippled Tiny Tim (called “Little Fred” or “Tiny Nick” in early drafts) was based on Dickens' sister Fanny's 5 year old son, Henry Burnett, Jr, whom Charles had met while in Manchester. Dickens agreed to pay for the boy's medical care, adding to his own financial burden.
Bob Cratchit (above, left) was just one of the 104 clerks Dickens created in his writings. because in the era when computers were still humans, clerks were ubiquitous in the “nation of shop keepers”. Punch described the 1845 tongue in cheek requirements for the job. “First take your son, and soak him well in spelling and writing. Grind in a few ounces of grammar, stuff with arithmetic, and season with geography. Lard with a little Latin, and baste with birch (whipping cane) whenever you find it requisite. Serve up on a high stool, at the first convenient opportunity.”
The common saying went that “A good clerk is always employed”, but the pay was meager and the restrictions were onerous. Applicants were expected to provide a doctor’s certificate as to their health and “steady and sober habits”. And if hired the clerk must “devote himself exclusively to the Company’s service and interest” even when off duty. They must also provide a 2 week salary to their boss, as “as a security for good conduct.” Bob Cratchet worked for 15 shillings a week, or less than $100 in modern American currency.
Dickens wanted the book he was about to write to be on sale no later than the Monday before Christmas, which in 1844, would be 19, December. That gave him just 74 days to write and edit the story. But he found his publishers, Chapman And Hall, less than enthusiastic. Edwin Chapman suggested either no illustrations or simple woodcut drawings. But Dickens had conceived of the book as a keepsake Christmas present, which would require color art. When Chapman refused, Dickens agreed to pay the full cost of publishing the still uncompleted book himself, and split the profits with the publisher. His hoped for £1,000 profit was already fading into the distance.
The little tale was haunting Dickens. His sister-in-law, wrote that he “...wept and laughed, and wept again” and that he “walked about the black streets of London fifteen or twenty miles many a night”.
Now, Dickens had to find an artist for those drawings he was paying for. When his usual collaborator was already engaged, and with time at a premium, Dickens asked John Leech (above) to create the art. Leech was journeyman known as a “rapid worker”. But Dickens' shortage of funds forced him to limit the color illustrations to just 4, with another 4 black and white etchings.
On Tuesday, 24, October, 1843, Dickens wrote to a Scottish friend, that he had “...plunged headlong into a little scheme ...and set an artist at work upon it.” And by Saturday, 2 December, 1843 his scheme was finished. But not done. Now he began the editing and rewrites. It was not until late in this process that Dickens changed the penultimate line. “ He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, he was a second father”, adding the phrase describing Tiny Tim, “who did not die”. That allowed a happy ending.
On Sunday, 17 December, 1843, Dickens was forced to finally release the book to the printer. Because of the color art work, and the rewrites, if the first edition of 6,000 copies sold out completely at the steep price of 5 shillings each (about $24 today), Dickens stood to profit just £230, far from the £1,000 he had been hoping for. The book went on sale Monday, 19 December. By Christmas eve, every single copy was sold.
The Illustrated London News praised Dickens' “impressive eloquence” and praised the novella's “unfeigned lightness of heart—its playful and sparkling humor... its gentle spirit of humanity".
The reviewer from the literary magazine The Anthenaeum said the story was a "tale to make the reader laugh and cry – to...open his heart to charity even toward the uncharitable”.
Long time Dickens critic, Theodore Martin, writing in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, fell over himself to praise the author, He called the book, "a noble book, finely felt and calculated to work much social good".
Chapman and Hall were quick to respond to the unexpected success of Dickens little scheme. They immediately issued a second edition, which sold out immediately, and then a third edition before the week – and the year - was over. All three editions sold out.
But almost equally quick were the folks at Peter Parley's Illuminated Library, published by Richard Egan Lee and Henry Hewitt. In January of 1844 they issued an almost exact copy of the Christmas Carol, stealing Dickens work and selling it for a mere two pence. Dickens quickly sued and won, but Lee and Hewitt promptly declared bankruptcy, leaving the author to swallow the £700 in court costs and legal fees.
Over the rest of 1844, 11 more additions of “A Christmas Carol” were released. But because of Dickens' demands for quality, the printing costs remained high, and a year later the author had profited only £744. Stung by what he saw as Edmund Chapman's lack of faith in his work, and burdened with a bill he felt his publishers should have paid, Dickens left Chapman and Hall and moved to the publishing house of Bradbury and Evans.
Since that December of 1843, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has never been out of print. But perhaps the most telling effect of Dickens' scheme was the story of a Boston factory owner who attended a Christmas eve reading by the author. The very next day this man gave all his employees a Christmas turkey, and the day off.
But to me. “A Christmas Carol” is proof that if you struggle hard enough and long enough, you can become a journeyman at your profession. And if you work at that profession diligently, once in awhile, if you are lucky, you might achieve the level of genius.
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