How Charles Dickens saved Christmas

Ransom Riggs

Back in the day -- the 16th and 17th centuries, that is -- Christmas was less about goodwill towards men, and more about letting off steam. While there were certainly carols sung, gifts given and feasts consumed, there was also lots of drinking, gambling and promiscuity. Disapproving Puritans pointed to the traditional (and traditionally bawdy) pagan winter celebrations of Saturnalia and Yule, and accused modern revelers of carrying over pagan bad habits. (They also referred to the Christmas celebration as "the trappings of Popery" and "rags of the beast.")

Such criticism led to the Catholic Church promoting Christmas in a more religiously-oriented way (rather than as an annual safety valve/opportunity for the oppressed underclasses to get their freak on), but that wasn't enough for Protestants, who banned Christmas in 1647 when Puritan rulers succeeded King Charles I after the English Civil War. Subsequently, furious pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several English cities, including Canterbury, which was controlled by mobs for weeks. (Not as scary as it sounds, perhaps -- they mostly just chanted royalist slogans and decorated things with holly.) The Restoration of 1660 ended Puritan rule and the English ban on Christmas.

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Puritans in the New World brought their ban with them, so in heavily Puritan Boston Christmas wasn't celebrated between 1659 and 1681 (though Virginians and New Yorkers kept the party going). After the American Revolution, Christmas was seen as an English tradition and fell out of favor in the states. Meanwhile in England, Christmas seemed to be fading out along with the religious and sectarian tensions that had shaped much of its history.

So what got Christmas going again? While we can't give Charles Dickens all the credit, the immense popularity of A Christmas Carol had a lot to do with it -- on both sides of the Atlantic. The book played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion over communal celebration and hedonistic excess. In the US, short stories by Washington Irving depicting the English celebration of Christmas helped re-popularize it (this from the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow!) So this Christmas, raise a glass to Charles (a glass of decidedly non-bawdy, family-oriented drink) and thank him for the day.