Happy Anniversary to a Famously Humanist Take on Christmas

On this day in 1843, A Christmas Carol by English author Charles Dickens was first published (first edition pictured below), arguably influencing Christmas as we know it more than any pagan tradition. In fact, the phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized by the story!

Left-hand page shows Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing; the right-hand page shows the words "A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens. With illustrations by John Leech
Wikimedia Commons

Dickens was ambiguous about religion; while he was likely a Christian and admired Jesus, he openly disliked rigid orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and organized religion. (He once published a pamphlet opposing the banning of games on the Sabbath, arguing that people had a right to pleasure.)

To that end, a Christmas Carol placed less emphasis on faith and observance and instead focused on family, goodwill, compassion, and joy. Dickens sought to incorporate his more humanist approach to the holiday, constructing Christmas as a family-centered festival that promotes generosity, feasting, and social cohesion. Some scholars have even termed this “Carol Philosophy”.

So when religious and nonreligious folks alike think of loved ones and the “Christmas spirit”, they are basically channeling Dickens’ once-unique take on the holiday. (Though in his time, other British writers had begun to reimagine Christmas as a celebratory holiday, rather than a strictly religious occasion.)

Charles Dickens’ 200th Birthday

Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.

Few writers are as iconic and well-known as Charles Dickens, whose works have enriched tens of millions of childhoods. I can’t imagine having grown up without the enchantment of his fantastic stories, which combined masterful prose, unforgettable characters, stark realism, and comedic wit. Needless to say, none of his published writings have ever gone out of print.

Most notably for me, Dickens nearly always weaved social commentary into his narratives: he was a fierce critic of the widespread poverty, inequality, and social stratification that defined his Victorian Era England. Indeed, his readers were so shocked by his portrayal of crime and urban decay, particularly in Oliver Twist, that it motivated efforts to clear up the real-life slums that he featured. His sympathy for the unfortunates of society made him the moral conscience of the public.

On an interesting, his most famous piece, A Christmas Carol, almost single-handedly redefined Christmas into what we know today. Through it, Dickens spearheaded efforts to transform the holiday into a family-centered celebration of generosity, festivity, and games. That alone is quite a legacy itself.

"No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else."