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Review: Les Standiford's 'Man Who Invented Christmas' salutes Dickens

Looking forward to a day off from work on Christmas? Planning to open gifts and share a big turkey dinner with your family?

Thank Charles Dickens.

If not for the beloved British author and his "little book," your Christmas might be much more like the Cratchits' — before Scrooge saw the light and bought them the biggest turkey in the poulterer's shop.

How Dickens' A Christmas Carol came to be — and it almost didn't — is the story told in Les Standiford's fascinating new book The Man Who Invented Christmas.

Standiford, a novelist and author of nonfiction books, is the director of the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami. He'll be talking about The Man Who Invented Christmas Monday night at an event presented by the Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa.

The museum's lushly ornate Victorian Christmas Stroll provides an apt frame for the event. The notions we hold of a traditional Christmas — piles of gifts, feasts and parties — were largely popularized by Dickens' fable, as Standiford makes clear. In Britain and the United States in the first half of the 19th century, Christmas was only a minor holiday.

Thank the Puritans for that. Oliver Cromwell and his crew made the celebration of Christmas, which they considered a corrupt practice based in pagan and Roman Catholic beliefs, illegal in England in 1645. In the Colonies, marking it with anything but somber prayer could have gotten you clapped in the stocks.

By Dickens' day a couple of centuries later, attitudes were less severe, but few people indulged in elaborate celebrations of the holiday — so Scrooge's humbug huffings weren't all that unusual.

Indeed, Dickens encountered something of the same humbug when he proposed the book to his longtime publisher in the fall of 1843. Dickens, then 31, was already an international success with bestsellers like The Pickwick Papers, The Adventures of Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop under his belt.

Those novels had been serialized, published in monthly installments as Dickens wrote them. His publishers wanted more of those blockbusters, not some lightweight thing about a minor holiday. But the idea for A Christmas Carol had come upon Dickens like a vision, and he was so passionate about it he wrote it in six weeks and financed its publication himself.

The book was an immediate success — its 6,000-copy first printing sold out in four days — and a long-term one, inspiring countless plays, movies, radio and TV versions, cartoons, comic books and more. Its reach extends much farther, though; it was also a major influence in creating the Christmas we celebrate today. Standiford even credits Dickens with hatching the turkey farming industry.

There are shelves full of thick biographies and volumes of literary criticism about Dickens, but Standiford writes engagingly for the general reader. He does a wonderful job of placing A Christmas Carol in its historical context and providing a concise biography of its author, whose childhood of poverty and humiliation led to a deep sympathy for the downtrodden that shaped all his work.

Standiford also makes insightful connections to the book's contemporary influence, and he makes a gratifying argument for reading A Christmas Carol — something millions of people familiar with the story, whether from George C. Scott or Bugs Bunny, haven't done.

He's right. Pick up A Christmas Carol, whether for the first or 40th time, for a delicious taste of Dickens' distinctive voice, and pick up The Man Who Invented Christmas to find out how the other book happened.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits

By Les Standiford; Crown, 241 pages, $19.95

Meet the author

Les Standiford, will talk about and sign his new book at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the Grand Salon of Plant Hall at the University of Tampa, 401 W Kennedy Blvd. Tickets for the Champagne and hors d'oeuvres reception, lecture and signing also include admission to the Henry B. Plant Museum's Victorian Christmas Stroll. Tickets are $25, or $20 for museum members. Call Gianna Russo at (813) 258-7304 for reservations.

Review: Les Standiford's 'Man Who Invented Christmas' salutes Dickens 12/06/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 6, 2008 3:31am]

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