The man who “invented” Christmas
The man who “invented” Christmas
“Flowers have fallen in my path wherever I have trod; and when they rained upon me at Cork I was more amazed than you ever saw me.” Charles Dickens
This year Charles Dickens comes to Fota House for The Magic of Santa, a Victorian Christmas Experience. Ebenezer Scrooge, from A Christmas Carol features largely in this seasonal event. But it’s not Mr Dickens’ first visit to Cork. He came here in 1858 to read from his novella at the Opera House or as it was called then, The Athenaeum. This trip was part of a tour of Ireland, taking in Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Limerick, where the author did readings from his work to huge, enthusiastic audiences.
The Athenaeum (Old Opera House), Cork City
Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. At the time he was in financial difficulties and this short book helped to alleviate these problems. It cost 5 shillings a copy (€25 today) and the first run of 6,000 sold out by Christmas Eve. However, the production costs were high as Dickens insisted that it be beautifully illustrated and bound. So, despite its many reprints and huge popularity, his profits were modest.
An Illustrated edition of A Christmas Carol
Part of the reason for its immediate popularity was its ability to catch the imagination of Victorians. It reflected the revival of the tradition of celebrating the Christmas holiday season. Although Christmas trees were introduced into England during the previous century, their use was widely popularised by Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert. There was also a renewed interest in Christmas carols, whose popularity had declined over the previous 100 years.
But most importantly, A Christmas Carol was a story of repentance and redemption. Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a profound change that allows him to enter into the spirit of Christmas by sharing his wealth and helping others. Dickens himself, probably because of his own childhood experience of poverty, was deeply interested in the plight of Victorian children. In 1843 he visited the Cornish tin mines and was horrified by what he saw there. He realised that the best way to highlight his social concerns was not through worthy, fund-raising speeches (which he undertook also) but to write a popular and moving story about poverty and hunger.
In the book he focused on the humanitarian aspect of the Christmas season, which still influences how we still view the holiday today – family gatherings, spending time with loved ones, visiting neighbours, exchanging gifts, sharing food and drink and giving to charity.
The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim is universally familiar, due to adaptations by Disney and the Muppets, as well as the many illustrated children’s versions found in bookshops and libraries. The book in its original version is rarely read nowadays. The publicly spoken word was powerful in Dickens’ day and he toured extensively all over the world, reading from his many books and earning a great deal of money.
Dickens came to Cork in August 1843 and did three readings at the Old Opera House. A description of the Christmas Carol reading was published in the Cork Constitution newspaper.
“His appearance is eminently prepossessing. His figure slight and graceful – his features regular and sharply chiselled, and his shaven cheeks, moustache and pointed beard, after the American fashion, render still more striking a face remarkable for character, energy and expression”
The piece continues – “Mr Dickens proceeded to read the Carol, the main interest of which, as all the world knows, turns upon the conversion, by a series of warning visions, of an old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, a ‘squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’ into a kind friend, a good master and a jovial, hearty, benevolent old man…It was an intellectual treat of the highest kind to hear Mr Dickens read. His voice though not very powerful, is rich and clear and capable…of expressing the most varied feelings…His mimetic powers are first rate…from the surly growl of Scrooge to the timid tones of Bob Cratchit to the weak treble of Tiny Tim or the cheerful, hearty accents of Scrooge’s nephew.”
This contemporary newspaper account records the huge crowds of Cork people attended the event, describing “everyone in the reserved portion of the building in full dress, the house looked very attractive.”
In his letters Dickens mentions his intention to visit Queenstown. We don’t know if he did or if he ever met the Smith-Barrys but it would be safe to assume that some of the inhabitants of Fota House attended one of his readings at The Athenaeum.
So, Charles Dickens’ spirit will be very much in attendance at the House this year; a spirit that will be invoked with characters vividly brought to life by RSVP (Red Sandstone Varied Productions).
Images of the author and book courtesy of Wikipedia.com
Image of The Athenaeum, Cork courtesy of Cork City Library (corkpastandpresent.ie)