“A Christmas Carol” At 168

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
C. D.
December, 1843.

In the Fall of 1843, English writer Charles Dickens found himself short of cash. With his wife expecting their fourth child, he decided to write a novel – rather than the stories which he had been supplying magazines and periodicals – which he could publish himself, thereby earning all the profits.

Dickens immediately hit upon the idea of writing a Christmas story, since he felt he could write such a tale rapidly enough to see it published before the holiday. Today, we can readily see the sense of his notion; we all know Christmas as a hugely commercial bonanza, but in 1843, Christmas was not quite the retail boom that it later became. Dickens’ wife is supposed to have asked him to write an uplifting, moral tale, because she felt it would be most apt for the season, and perhaps would help offset the fairly crass commercialism of Dickens’ motive. It is also true that Dickens had a frankly political motive in mind as well: he wanted to call attention to the plight of England’s poor and uneducated, and he felt a Christmas tale would provide just the right setting. [1]

Dickens right away set about to write his book, but he experienced an uncharacteristic “writer’s block.” He started several drafts of different stories, but none seemed sustainable. With Christmas less than eight weeks away, Dickens had yet to produce any usable material. Working late one night, the story goes, Dickens drifted to sleep over his writing desk. He awoke with a start at 1:00 in the morning, his candle nearly guttering and his fire gone cold.

Ever after, Dickens claimed that the story’s key features came to him – complete – in a sudden flash of vivid inspiration. He lit a new candle and started feverishly working on his story, writing rapidly. As far as can be determined from the surviving manuscript, Dickens worked with no outline and needed very little editing. The story apparently flowed from his pen nearly in its final form. [2]

With less than a month before Christmas remaining, Dickens took the book to the publisher. There was quite a bit of wrangling over the exact nature of the final product. Dickens insisted that no expense be spared, and he finally triumphed. The first edition of A Christmas Carol – among the most valuable first editions in English literature; a good condition copy was recently offered for auction by Sotheby’s, fetching £181,250.00 ($288,555.44) [3] – was a work of art: decorated with engravings, six color plates, and a handsomely adorned fine fabric binding.

The book was published Tuesday, 19 December 1843.

The rest as they say is history: that first edition of A Christmas Carol sold out rapidly; it has not been out of print a single day in the past 167 years. There have been dozens of plays, musicals, movies, radio dramatizations, and television specials, more or less based upon the timeless tale of hope and redemption. So closely did Dickens become associated with Christmas in his own day, that when he died in 1870, children in England were said to have feared that Father Christmas would have to die as well.

In our own time, Ted Geisel, Dr. Seuss, distilled the key points of Dickens’ masterwork into the modern classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas, which has developed a life of its own.

Dickens’ prose is rather convoluted and florid by today’s tastes, and his story is filled with digressions, so that abridged versions are most popular these days, but the basic plot of A Christmas Carol, its archetypical characters, and its message of the true meaning of Christmas are as valid today as they were in London in late 1843.

As we approach this Christmas in our frenetic and anxious modern world, I can do no better than to quote from the last paragraph of A Christmas Carol: … and it was always said of [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can.

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843

FOOTNOTES:

[1]Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination, Sally Ledger; Cambridge University Press, 2007; ISBN 9780521845779

[2] http://www.sothebys.com/app/live/lot/LotDetail.jsp?lot_id=159615696

[3] http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/dickens.asp

FURTHER READING:

When first I wrote this brief piece more than 15 years ago, there was no Wikipedia to give easy access to this story. The current Wikipedia article is much more detailled and extensive than my piece, and it is well worth reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Christmas_Carol

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, Les Standiford; Crown Publishers, 2008; ISBN: 9780307405784

In this wide-ranging book, Standiford explores the circumstances of Dickens’ unhappy childhood which profoundly influenced both his inclination to randical politics and his views of contemporary British society, the development of international copyright law, aspects of 19th Century British publishing, and manages to fit in the actual story of A Christmas Carol as well. All the while, he keeps the subject fresh and compelling.

The Annotated Christmas Carol: A Christmas Carol in Prose, Charles Dickens, Michael Patrick Hearn, Ed.; W. W. Norton & Company, 2004; ISBN: 9780393051582

Both an invaluable reference work and a lovely presentation of the work, copiously illustrated with samples from every famous edition’s illustrations.

Correcting A False Interpretation Of “XMAS”

Recently I received a touching and sentimental tale of how a mega-hype retail magnate had corrupted his town into accepting the lowly and disrespectful “Xmas” to replace “Christmas,” because Christ no longer mattered. The story expounds at length upon how wicked it is to use “X” instead of Christ (because “X is the lowliest of letters and can mean anything!”) and that the use of “Xmas” is just an attempt to secularize the celebration.

Well, let me make a rather important point, as this misconception seems to be growing. I suspect that part of the reason for the present-day concern is that Christmas has been very secularized (and for a very long time) and there is a trend toward identifying this time of year as “The Holidays” in a generic attempt to encompass the many traditions that have celebrations at this time of year. (I have no dispute with “Happy Holidays,” yet I do find “holiday tree” rather affected … but I digress.)

As for the abbreviation “Xmas,” it is perfectly legitimate and a fully respectful, proper abbreviation of the word Christmas; “Xmas” means “Christmas,” and should be read as such. I know of no one who reads the familiar “Mrs.” as “mrizz” yet many folks do say “Eks-muss” when looking at “Xmas.” But it really is “Christmas.” And Xmas is no less respectful than writing “St. Nicholas” instead of “Saint Nicholas.”

Far from being a modern introduction, Xmas goes back very far into the history of the English language, and the use of “X” in as an abbreviation for “Christ” dates back at least to the 4th Century AD. The oldest such usage in the British Isles can be found in the Book of Durrow, The Book of Kells, and the Lindesfarne Gospels, all glorious manuscripts of the Gospels. The abbreviation has its origins even earlier times, very likely as far back as the days of the early Christian church.

In the Greek language used at the time of St. Paul and in the early Church, the Hebrew title “Messiah,” “anointed one,” was translated into Greek as “Christos,” with the identical meaning. The way “Christos” would be written in 1st century Greek can be rendered in our own Latin alphabet:

XPICTOC

The initial letter is the Greek chi, familiar to many fraternity and sorority folks; it is pronounced as a hard ch, translitterated as ch, and written exactly as our own letter X. As the initial of “XPICTOC,” X, was used to mean “Christos” very early on. And this usage was formerly extremely widespread with absolutely no sense of any short-changing or lessened respect in such usage. Today we use many abbreviations commonly, but abbreviations were far more common when everything was written by hand.

Elizabethan court records most often render the name “Christopher” as “Xopher.” The transcript of the Coroner’s inquest into the death of Christopher Marlowe spells out Christopher just once in the text. And the abbreviations “Xian” for “Christian” and “Xianity” for “Christianity” are commonly used in handwritten texts until the end of the 19th Century. In no sense is “X” a disrespectful or crass abbreviation in these usages: it simply makes sense in a world where many, many other abbreviations were commonly used.

Xmas shows up in America well before the Revolutionary war, but I cannot locate any reference to its first appearance in a commercial context. Undoubtedly, some sign-painter was conserving space or saving time, just as handwriters had been doing for hundreds of years. In today’s highly commercial, highly secularized, and highly diverse society, it may seem that “Xmas” is an attempt to take Christ out of Christmas, but it is no such thing. It is an abbreviation, pure and simple. It was acceptable to the holy brethren on Iona in the 6th century, and they were as observant and respectful as could be. One might just as well bemoan the fact that the “-mas” in Christmas is an abbreviation of “mass” (itself a shortening of the Latin missa, meaning – roughly – “complete:” Ite. Missa est.)

So, friends, enjoy this holiday season. Celebrate Christmas or Xmas, or Hanukkah or any holiday which you prefer. Have a restful, relaxing, contemplative time, and share it with family and friends. Love those who are here and recall those who have gone. I am deeply grateful to my mother who taught me about Xmas almost as soon as I learned to read (“Why Xmas? …”) and I think of her especially at this time of the year. Cherish what we have, and share with those who need. Above all, be at peace, be happy.

A multitude of blessings upon you and yours, my friends!

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas