Holidays evolve — for better or worse. And while there is reason to bemoan the creep of commercialism into every niche of the holiday season, such disappointment is not necessarily as recent as one might think. Charles Dickens’ iconic work, A Christmas Carol: In Prose: Being a ghost story of Christmas arrived in America at a time when contemporaries were already concerned at the changes in their own times. Although Dickens was maligned for being critical of America in his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation, his Christmas Carol found a welcome audience in the United States. The famed nineteenth century New York diarist, Philip Hone, wrote glowingly in January 1844:
Dickens has been writing a little thing called “Christmas Carols”, which is published by the Harpers in a pamphlet price 6 cents, and in the Sun newspaper with plenty of other matter for 3 cents. For its intrinsic merit it is worth as many Dollars. It is a perfect jewel, an opal with light beaming from every part, one of those quaint, simple, affecting, humoursome things, which make you laugh and cry to your hearts content, and then wonder how you could laugh and cry so much over thirty pages of nothing at all.
Why did it strike such a resounding chord with Americans? In a December 1830 letter, S.A. Mappa of rural New York state praised her niece’s desire of “restoring this ancient and delightful custom” [i.e., Christmas], going on to quote from Washington Irving: ”The world has become more worldly. There is more of dissipation, and less of enjoyment. Pleasure has expanded into a broader, but a shallower stream; and has forsaken many of those deep and quiet channels where it flowed sweetly through the calm bosom of domestic life.”
Irving wrote those words concerning the declining state of Christmas in his serial, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, which appeared in 1819 and 1820. There is even a strong likelihood that Irving’s observations had been absorbed by the author of A Christmas Carol himself. The two had crossed paths, notably at an 1842 dinner, during which Dickens remarked “I do not go to bed two nights out of the seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm.”
In any event, Irving and his devotee were not alone. New York lawyer Henry Van Der Lyn summ0ned even more scathing words in a letter copied into his diary in January 1839. Rueing the decline of the celebration of holidays as they took place in “Dutch Settlements on the North River [Hudson River]“, he seethed at the “bargain driving Yankees… too intent on gain to open their hearts to the influences of sweet sounds, + to the extacies [sic] of merriment + song; their care worn countenances too clearly show that joy has fled from them, banished by the too eager pursuit of wealth + honour. The world has made us acquainted with much that is hateful, vicious + hypocritical.”
Taken in context, these laments were also part of a larger change in society. Not only was modernity eroding time-honored traditions, but the Industrial Revolution was causing monumental developments is virtually all facets of life. With it came the awful realities of urban poverty, as Dickens of all people was intensely aware. That A Christmas Carol should find such a positive response from nineteenth century Americans makes a great deal of sense; that its popularity should last for so many generations, and remain a cornerstone in the Christmas canon is just a further indication of how relevant its message continues to be, almost two centuries later.
from the Staff of
The Patricia D. Klingenstein Library
New-York Historical Society