An uncanny weather forecast
Insofar as Dickens could be said to have ‘created’ any part of Christmas, it would be that festival’s traditional association with snow. And this did not happen because of A Christmas Carol, but because of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. As we know, in the UK it rarely snows at Christmas, but it so happened that when Dickens was a boy there were several snowy Christmases – and, as a result, he came to see snow as an essential part of an ideal yule. It is not surprising, then, that some years later, in 1836, when he wrote the Christmas scenes of The Pickwick Papers, he inserted a snowfall into the story. This was when Mr Pickwick and his friends were gathered around the fire at Manor Farm, with Mr Wardle and others:
“How it snows,” said one of the men, in a low tone.
“Snows does it?” said Wardle.
“Rough, cold night,” replied the man, “and there’s a wind got up that drifts it across the fields in a thick white cloud.”
From that simple exchange, and the scenes in Pickwick that followed, we derive the traditional association of snow with Christmas – it is the ultimate source of millions of Christmas card pictures and the song White Christmas. How could one episode, in one book, be so powerful? Well, by an extraordinary coincidence, the Christmas of 1836 was the occasion for an extremely heavy snowfall. So heavy that mail coaches could not get through. But more importantly, the serial part of Pickwick containing that Manor Farm episode was published just a few days later – and so the readers of The Pickwick Papers found that Dickens’s fictional world was the perfect mirror of the real world of Christmas that year, and the author almost seemed to have the gift of prophecy. This created a powerful association between Christmas and snow which has never gone away.
Robert Seymour - the real Jacob Marley?
Here’s another Christmas insight coming from Pickwick. I am going to suggest that a key character in A Christmas Carol, namely the ghost of Jacob Marley, is a fictional representation of one of the most significant figures in Dickens’s career: namely, Dickens’s illustrator, Robert Seymour, who shot himself while working on The Pickwick Papers. To make the connection between Marley and Seymour you have to realise that, shortly before Seymour’s suicide, Dickens invited the artist for “a glass of grog” at his flat in Furnival’s Inn, in London. Seymour left that meeting in a state of extreme emotional distress, and when he got home he burnt all his papers and correspondence about The Pickwick Papers. Two years after that meeting – almost to the very day - Dickens wrote a little-known story, which he inserted into Nicholas Nickleby, called The Tale of the Baron of Grogzwig. Note that name – Grogzwig… sounds like ‘grog swig’ doesn’t it? And how on earth could Dickens write about grog without thinking of Seymour, especially as it was so close to the anniversary of the fateful “glass of grog”?