December 10, 2011

The Backstories of Several Christmas Classics

Christmas is for stories. Here is the backstory about several classic favorites.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens—A Self-Published Success
Next to the Bible’s true story of Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is probably the most well-known story of the holiday season. David Purdue gives us the backstory on his wonderful “Charles Dickens Page."

“Dickens began writing his "little carol" in October, 1843 finishing it by the end of November in time to be published for Christmas with illustrations by John Leech. Feuding with his publishers, Dickens financed the publishing of the book himself, ordering lavish binding, gilt edging, and hand-colored illustrations and then setting the price at 5 shillings so that everyone could afford it. This combination resulted in disappointingly low profits despite high sales. In the first few days of its release the book sold six thousand copies and its popularity continued to grow. The first and best of his Christmas Books, A Christmas Carol has become a Christmas tradition and easily Dickens' best known book.” (copyright © 1997-2011 David A. Perdue)

Dickens went on to write four additional Christmas stories: “The Chimes,” “The Cricket on the Hearth,” “The Battle of Life,” and “The Haunted Man.”

The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry—Penned in a Tavern
O. Henry is the pen name used by American author, William Sydney Porter. According to The Literature Network, Porter spent several years in prison after being convicted of embezzling money. While in prison, he began writing short stories. His first, “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” was published in 1899, while Porter was still incarcerated. After his release, he published more than 600 short stories using the name O. Henry. “The Gift of the Magi” was published in 1905.

In his later years, Porter suffered from alcoholism. The story goes that he penned “The Gift of the Magi” in his favorite booth in Pete’s Tavern. Surprisingly, Pete’s still exists. It claims to be the oldest continuously operating tavern in New York City.

The Night Before Christmas, by—Author Unknown
The authorship of “The Night Before Christmas,” also known as “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” is clouded in ambiguity. One story is that Clement C. Moore wrote the poem on a snowy day, in a sleigh, while returning home from a shopping trip. A friend of Moore’s liked the poem and sent it anonymously to the Troy, New York, Sentinel. They published it on December 23, 1823, and it became instantly popular. Moore, a Baptist minister and professor of theology, wasn’t sure that he wanted to take credit for writing the well-liked rhyme. He thought it might be too secular. But finally, in 1844 after the poem had garnered great success, Moore included it in a book of his poems and claimed it as his own. But the backstory doesn’t end here. In 2000, Donald Foster, a Vassar College English professor and authority on literary identity, disputed Moore’s authorship. He suggested that a farmer/poet named Henry Livingston Jr. wrote the famous poem. In fact, next week, Livingston’s descendants will release a new edition of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” with Livingston credited as its author. You can read more about it here on The Boston Globe’s web page.

So, there you have it, three backstories about three famous Christmas tales. After these stories became popular in the 19th Century, many more Christmas books were written. Some have become classics and others are not so well known.

Do you have a favorite Christmas story? Have you read a recent Christmas book that you believe will stand the test of time?


Karen Lange said...

This is very interesting, Jean. Thanks for sharing it!

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Jean -

Wow! I didn't know O. Henry was a prisoner.

With the Internet and author interviews, there's not a whole lot of mystery concerning today's books.

Susan :)