The universally successful A Christmas Carol was the first of Dickens’ ‘Christmas Books’, and in it Dickens invented, almost single-handedly the myth of the ‘English Christmas’; a bustling yuletide where families gather and food and drink are abundant in a universal season of reconciliation. Yet, A Christmas Carol was not just a good story – it brought together Dickens’ interest in ‘fireside storytelling’ with his concern for contemporary social issues. The theme of private philanthropy was once again emphasised as an antidote to the bleak and cold impersonality of state institutions (something which Dickens practised as well as preached through his advocacy of public action on social affairs, private benefactions and campaigning for social and educational reform).
Despite A Christmas Carol being immediately successful, Dickens’ spent a frustrating few months without realising any substantial profits. The first edition, which contained coloured pictures, was very expensive to produce and Dickens also took the publishers of a plagiarised version to court. Although he won the case, Dickens ended up paying all costs as the offending publishers declared bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the novella was by far the most popular book of 1843 festive season and was met with critical acclaim. Written at a time when the British were examining and exploring Christmas traditions from the past as well as new customs such as Christmas cards and Christmas trees, the story captured the public imagination and has continued to do so ever since – the book has never been out of print and has been adapted many times to film, stage and other media.
After A Christmas Carol, Dickens came to see a ‘Christmas story’ as an integral part of his working life. The season is not only featured time and again in his novels, but Dickens published four more single-volume prose fictions in the 1840s – The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and The Haunted Man (1848) – which came to be known as his ‘Christmas Books’, even though not all take place during the festive season.
At the beginning of the 1850s, however, another format replaced the Christmas Books. Using his position as editor of the magazine Household Words, and later All the Year Round, Dickens established an annual Christmas edition, the idea of which really caught on and became something of a bumper ‘special’ number. Despite their manageable size, the rather more sentimental Christmas Stories receive much less attention than Dickens’ novels and the sensation that was (and still is) A Christmas Carol. The popularly of the story played a significant part in the changing consciousness of Christmas and the way in which it was celebrated, and that is why A Christmas Carol is a classic.