Students at the middle school where I substitute teach have been studying A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This classic tale, first published December 19, 1843, captures the spirit of the season better than any other I have read and has been adapted for TV and cinema many times.
But as someone trying to be a writer myself, I know a story like this doesn’t just happen. There are false starts and blind alleys, and if you work hard enough, maybe you’ll find someone who wants to read the results of your blood, sweat, and tears. And that part rarely becomes common knowledge.
However, because this story is so iconic, we do know more than usual about its birth. The Writer’s Almanac of December 19, 2019 (https://www.spreaker.com/user/prairehomeproductions/the-writers-almanac-thursday-december-19), describes it this way —
Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in six intense weeks. He was struggling for money — he had a large mortgage payment, his parents and siblings were asking for money, his wife was expecting their fifth child, and sales from his most recent novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, were disappointing. He rushed through “A Christmas Carol” in time to get it printed for the holiday season, finished it in early December, wrote “The End” in huge letters and underlined it three times.
Dickens was angry with his publisher over how little money he had made from Martin Chuzzlewit, so he refused the lump-sum payment that his publisher offered for A Christmas Carol. Instead, he decided to publish it himself. He oversaw every detail of the publication, and he had a very specific vision for the book: he wanted a gold-stamped cover, woodcuts and four hand-colored etchings, a fancy binding, gilt-edged pages, title pages in red and green, and hand-colored green endpapers. He examined the first copies and decided that he didn’t like them after all — the green on the title pages was not bright enough, and the endpapers smudged. So he demanded a new version: red and blue title pages, and yellow endpapers. All the changes were made to Dickens’ satisfaction by December 17th, two days before the book was to go on sale.
Dickens wanted as many people as possible to purchase the book, so he charged five shillings, and sure enough, it was a huge best-seller — the first edition of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. By the following spring, the book had run through seven editions.
Unfortunately, Dickens priced the book too low for the amount of cost that went into it — he had hoped to net £1,000 from the first edition, but he made just over £200. He wrote to a friend: “I had set my heart and soul upon a Thousand, clear. What a wonderful thing it is, that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment! My year’s bills, unpaid, are so terrific, that all the energy and determination I can possibly exert will be required […] I am not afraid, if I reduce my expenses; but if I do not, I shall be ruined past all mortal hope of redemption.”
There is also a 2017 film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, that brings the entire writing process to life. Of course, this begs the question, was this really the beginning of the modern holiday celebration?
That’s a bit of a stretch according to the sources I’ve found. Certainly the story was a great success and can be credited with contributing some new traditions. But its long-term role can better be described as reviving and popularizing the existing traditions of the season.
To explore this for yourself, I would recommend the questions and answers at the History vs. Hollywood website (http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/the-man-who-invented-christmas/).
Lastly, a question I asked my students just before the holiday break — If the ghost of your future were to visit you now, how would it go?