Dickens' Carol, part 1

Charles Dickens was born in 1812. His 210th birthday is coming up in February (get your presents early). He was a Unitarian. In saying that, let me acknowledge that he was baptized and reared in the Church of England and was a nominal Anglican for most of his life. From young adulthood, however, he was averse to evangelical zeal, doctrinal disputation and sectarianism. Nor did he like High Church Anglicanism.

He would probably have first come into contact with Unitarianism while working as a reporter, which job he had from age 17 into his 20s. His reporting work brought him into association with contributers to radical journals such as the Unitarian minister William Johnson Fox, and John Forster, a Unitarian who became a lifelong friend and, eventually, Dickens's literary executor and biographer.

In 1842, the year he turned 30, Dickens made a trip to America. He hoped to find in the United States progressive religious bodies, free from state control. He was disappointed with most American churches, yet he returned home full of enthusiasm for New England Unitarians in general, and William Ellery Channing in particular.

Once back home in London, Dickens began attending services at Essex Street chapel – the church founded by Theophilus Lindsey and Britain’s first Unitarian church. Later, Dickens took a pew at the Unitarian Little Portland Street chapel. Dickens and the chapel’s minister, Rev. Edward Tagart, were friends for 16 years until the minister's death.

Dickens wrote that Tagart had "that religion which has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judgment on none." In other words, 19th-century Unitarian ministers sounded a lot like Unitarians still sound. Dickens wrote in a letter that:
"I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement if they could; and practice charity and toleration."
So: it’s fair to say he was a Unitarian. And he associated with Unitarians until the end of his life.

What we know of his religious beliefs matched those of most 19th century British Unitarians. He urged a liberal, tolerant, and non-sectarian interpretation of Christianity.
In The Life of Our Lord, written for his children and not published until 1934, Dickens summarized his faith as "to do good always." He believed humanity, created in the image of the divine, retained a seed of good. He preached the gospel of the second chance. The world would be a better place if, with a change of heart, people were to treat others with kindness and generosity. ("Charles Dickens," Dictionary Unitarian and Universalist Biography)
His life’s work was dedicated to social reform – his novels made people aware of poverty, exploitation, cruelty – and helped open readers eyes to the humanity of the poor – and the inhumanity to which they were subjected. Unitarians certainly have no monopoly on working for social justice, but Dickens’ conviction that faith must be lived, and that faith must call us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless – and to change the systems that create poverty, hunger, and homelessness – those were typically Unitarian convictions in his time and in ours.

Dickens was born into a middle-class family, that took a downward turn. Dickens’ father was thrown in debtors' prison. Young Charles, age 12, had to go to work in a dirty and rat-infested shoe-blacking factory. He was sensitized to the lot of poor children for the rest of his life.

As the year 1843 began Dickens, at age 30, had already published The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. Martin Chuzzlewit was in the midst of being published in monthly installments over two years. Early in that year, 1843, Dickens toured the Cornish tin mines, where he saw child laborers working in appalling conditions. In February 1843, Parliament issued a Report of the Children's Employment Commission exposing the effects of the Industrial Revolution on working class children. Dickens read it, and the horror of what he read built upon the horror of what he’d seen, which built upon the horror of what he himself had endured as a child.

He planned to write a political pamphlet appealing to the people of England on behalf of poor children – but then he came to see that
“the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population with his social concerns about poverty and injustice was to write a deeply felt Christmas narrative rather than polemical pamphlets and essays.”
In October 1843, then, he started work on A Christmas Carol. Working at it feverishly, he finished it in six weeks. The final pages came in early December, and it was published on December 19. Dickens biographer, Michael Slater writes that A Christmas Carol:
“intended to open its readers' hearts towards those struggling to survive on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and to encourage practical benevolence, but also to warn of the terrible danger to society created by the toleration of widespread ignorance and actual want among the poor.”
The first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. Within a year, thirteen editions were released. “In 1849 he began public readings of the story, which proved so successful he undertook 127 further performances.”

In the process, Dickens's novella re-invented Christmas. It did not do so all by itself. Christmas had been morphing one direction then another for centuries. In the 16th and 17th century in England, Christmas celebrations were getting pretty wild. It was like Carnival – with role inversion, heavy drinking, and sexual liberties. The Puritans were horrified by this. They associated Christmas celebrations with paganism and idolatry, and they didn’t want any of that going on. In America, where Puritans were in control, Christmas festivities were taboo or outright illegal. Even in England, under Cromwell (during the 11-year Interregnum, 1649-1660), laws suppressed Christmas celebration. Those laws were repealed after the restoration of the monarchy.

As Dickens was penning “A Christmas Carol,” the pendulum was already swinging back toward Christmas merriment. Victorian England was in a period of re-evaluating its Christmas traditions. Christmas cards were just beginning to be a thing. The Christmas tree, a tradition from Germany, was popularized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Carol-singing, which declined in popularity through the 18th-century, was, by the early 19th-century, seeing a revival.

By 1843, the sense that Christmas was a time of “family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit” was beginning to catch on. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, gave that picture a significant boost. “The modern observance of Christmas in English-speaking countries is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday” ("A Christmas Carol," Wikipedia) – a revival substantially shaped by A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ novella was regarded as "a new gospel." Reviewers "noted that the book was unique in that it made people behave better" -- like, we might say, an angel, heard on high.

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