“Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas.” These were the sentiments of Charles Dickens in 1835.
The making of the Victorian Christmas began as early as 1800 when Queen Charlotte set up a decorated Christmas tree in the Queen’s Lodge at Windsor for the delight of her young guests at a children’s party. During the 1820s and 1830s there was a strong revival of interest in Christmas traditions, with emphasis on feasting and conviviality – a trend that was reflected by Charles Dickens in his first Christmas piece “Christmas festivities” published in 1835. “Punch” had its first Christmas issue in 1841 and the first Christmas cards were sent in 1843, three years after the introduction of the penny post. However, it was the huge success of Charles Dickens’s tale, “A Christmas Carol”, with its message of loving kindness to the poor and the themes of the home and family love which defined Christmas as we know it today.
But how did the great author himself celebrate Christmas? His son Henry Fielding Charles Dickens (Harry) had vivid recollections of Christmas at Dickens’s beloved home Gad’s Hill. Christmas was a time not only for the family but also for friends of the family. Gad’s Hill was often “full to overflowing and rooms had to be taken in the outlying cottages for some of the guests”.
Harry tells us that Christmas was “a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on.” These were not soporific Christmases with people dozing by the fire. Instead they were packed with entertainments and activity, including round games, songs, country walks and energetic dances all driven by Dickens’s prodigious energy. According to Harry “On one occasion, I remember, we had a country dance … – down the middle and up again! There was no stopping him! His energy, his light-heartedness, his buoyancy, were simply immense.”
The culmination of Christmas excitement came in 1866 when Dickens put on a sports day in a large field at the back of Gad’s Hill. It was a public event with “an immense crowd” of over 2,000 people! Charles Dickens himself describes the day in a letter to one of his best friends, John Forster, “The great mass of the crowd were labouring men of all kinds, soldiers, sailors and navvies… I made them a little speech from the lawn, at the end of the games.” The sports day was a huge success and, according to Dickens, “the road between this and Chatham was like a fair all day.”
Harry was admitted to Trinity Hall in 1868 (just a couple of years after this Christmas sports day) to read Mathematics. He worked hard and obtained a scholarship at the end of his first year in 1869 to the great delight of his father. Unfortunately, 1869 was to be the last Christmas for Charles Dickens and Harry, in his memoirs, recounts a very different Christmas at Gad’s Hill that year:
“It was on Christmas night, the Christmas before his death. My father had been ailing and had been troubled with his leg which had been giving him considerable pain, and he was lying on the sofa when we started this Memory Game… After successfully repeating a string of words the time came for him to add his own contribution.” Dickens suddenly came out with “Warrens’ Blacking, 30 Strand.” Harry remarks, “What a contrast that Christmas night… On the one hand a great name, admitted and respected throughout the world; while on the other, his mind had reverted to the tragic tale of his childhood.” That Christmas Dickens was looking back to his traumatic time as a boy when he was sent to work in a blacking factory to earn six shillings a week after his own father’s bankruptcy. Charles Dickens was to die just six months later on 9 June 1870.
Harry continued his studies at Trinity Hall and graduated in 1872 as 29th wrangler. He chose a legal career and was called to the Bar in 1873. He had a successful career, being appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1892, a Bencher of the Inner Temple in 1899 and Common Serjeant in 1917.
Throughout his life Harry continued to keep the memory of his father alive. During the 1914-18 war he gave recitals of his father’s works to raise money for the Red Cross. In “An open book” Monica Dickens tells us that at family Christmas gatherings at his home in Mulberry Walk, Harry performed imitations of his father giving his famous “Readings”, during which he would wear a geranium, his father’s favourite flower, and lean on the same velvet-covered reading stand used by Dickens during his reading tours. Moreover, to celebrate his 80th birthday in 1929, Harry went through the whole of “A Christmas Carol” without a hitch, his false teeth loosening at the melodramatic section, “I know him – Marley’s ghost!”
“A Christmas Carol” was first published on 17 December 1843 and by Christmas Eve it had already sold over 5,000 copies! The book was immensely popular and is still in print today.
“Christmas festivities” by Charles Dickens which appeared in Bell’s Life in London on 27 December 1835.
The recollections of Sir Henry Dickens, K.C. by Henry Dickens. London: Heinemann, 1934
A Christmas Carol and other Christmas writings by Charles Dickens; introduction by Michael Slater. London: Penguin Classics, 2010 (ISBN 9780141195858)
Wikipedia: Henry Fielding Dickens
An open book by Monica Dickens. London: Heinemann, 1978
“The first Christmas tree” by Alison Barnes, article in History Today, vol.56, issue 12, 2006