How to celebrate Christmas this year? Inspired by Charles Dickens

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“This year, we cannot simply stick with the traditional approach to Christmas. Maybe like the Victorians, there are other innovations we can bring to Christmas? Now certainly is the time to consider what really matters to us.”

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Christmas is a time of traditions. There’s the annual search for the box with decorations, the seeming feeling of surprise when the shops start playing Wham’s Last Christmas ‘so early’, and then there is the time spent at airports and on the road to see family. Maybe that last bit has been differently recently, but more on that later.

Christmas is also the time of familiar stories. A nation’s favourite is clearly A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. With its many adaptations it has firmly become part of popular culture -with all the merchandise that comes with it. My favourite is A Christmas Carol Lego set I was recently given.

This year, A Christmas Carol also inspired Aldi’s Christmas advert. Ebanana Scrooge is shown the error of his ways, with an appearance by Marcus Radishford being neighbourly, all to the tune of Fairy Tale of New York.

The purpose of the ad is to show Christmas food. But food played an important part in Dickens’s story, too. Remember how the Cratchits prepare their Christmas dinner?

Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; …

And then there is the goose “Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration” and finally the pudding, Mr Cratchit believed was “the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage”.

Food, family and festive spirit clearly belong together. The Cratchits celebrate sitting round the hearth enjoying the warmth of the fire and of their family. Like the comfort that comes from the fire as a focal point for community and family – Dickens vividly shows this in his story – we find comfort in traditions, in familiar stories and well-known tunes.

Dickens is sometimes nicknamed “The man who invented Christmas”. With the first publication of A Christmas Carol just before Christmas in 1843 Dickens had chosen a very good time indeed. There was a renewed interest into the festive season which was a particularly middle-class phenomenon. There were several Victorian innovations around Christmas – Christmas cards were first sent in the 1840s, Prince Albert popularized the German tradition of the Christmas tree and Christmas crackers emerged. Also in the 19th century, the season developed into family festivals centred around children with Father Christmas giving presents to the children. So Dickens reflected a newly developing interest in the season. Ten years later, in 1853, the Christmas Carol was Dickens’s first public reading, which he gave in Birmingham Town Hall. While Dickens did not invent Christmas, he did understand what the Christmas spirit means to the public. Dickens was a master at getting to the gist of what appeals to the masses, a bit like what a Christmas advert tries to do.

This is the second Christmas we experience during a pandemic. Especially this year we could all do with some calm and comfort. But the comfort we tend to find in traditions is not as straightforward as it used to be. Celebrating with the whole family is not a given. Christmas parties have become a political matter. The public is divided in many ways – not only along the lines of those wearing masks and those who don’t. People are exhausted and for many Christmas is not simply joy but a time of grieving loved ones.

This year, it’s another year we cannot simply stick with the traditional approach. Thinking of others, being kind, looking after one another might mean again not celebrating as we used to do, not having all the trimmings. Put more positively, it might mean being more creative as to how we celebrate together. Maybe for some, the second year of a Christmas walk with a flask and packed lunch is already the start of a new tradition? Maybe like the Victorians, there are other innovations we can bring to Christmas? Now certainly is the time to consider what really matters to us.

There is still a lot of comfort to be had in enjoying familiar stories and well-known tunes. Maybe this year, we can read A Christmas Carol in a new way and think about what the Christmas spirit means for us in 2021?

If you would like to explore the text of A Christmas Carol, head over to CLiC, a web app for linguistic and literary study.

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