1843 was an important year in the history of Christmas, and a new exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum is bringing them together for the first time.

Completely independently of each other, Charles Dickens was writing his Christmas Carol, while the civil servant, Henry Cole was working on what would become the first commercial Christmas Card. Of the thousand Christmas cards produced in that year, just 21 are known to exist, and one, on loan from the USA is now on show in the Charles Dickens Museum.

It’s part of an exhibition that looks at how books, and cards, were decorated for sale and as gifts.

Dickens is credited with creating the modern Christmas, but the season had long been one of merriment, if you could afford it. As mass production lowered costs, slowly more people could start to join in, and it was in part Dickens’s efforts to ensure his books were of good quality, but also affordable that helped to embed his legacy into the season of goodwill.

A Christmas Carol, written in just 6-weeks was was published as a small bound book with a gilded, salmon-brown cover and when it went on sale, it cost less than half the price of the Christmas annuals with which it shared bookshop shelves. That probably helps to explain its instant success, with 6,000 copies sold in the week between release and Christmas Day.

At the same time, unknown to Dickens, the first Christmas Card was also being produced. It features a family celebrating Christmas, flanked by images of Christmas charity, but unlike the book, it was a commercial failure, and no more Christmas cards were produced for another 5 years.

As befits an exhibition about the decorative side of Christmas, a selection of decoratively bound books are also in the display, supplied by Maggs Bros. Do look very carefully at the gilt edging which is of exceptional quality and not just gold, but decorated as well.

Dickens himself eventually tired of Christmas, as he spent the next couple of decades churning annual Christmas books which today are hardly known, yet at the time were still very popular. But he grew tired of writing for the season he is so closely associated with. He began to distance himself from the festival of gift books and stocking fillers, and passages in his own stories, such as Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, grew noticeably darker in tone and subject.

A number of these other Christmas books are included in the exhibition, which is dotted around the museum, and in the main display space.

The exhibition, Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas is open until April 2020 at Charles Dickens Museum.

Entry is £9.50 for the museum and exhibition.


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