Charles Dickens as copyright content influencer: how the turkey became the holiday bird of choice

It is worth remembering that copyright is as much about the distribution of contents as the conditions of their creation. A contemporary example of the distribution function, in an age of social media, is the influencer, whose written and oral words can impact, indeed forge, the thoughts and ideas of myriads of followers.

A recent podcast of the BBC's "In Our Times" program, well-timed for the holiday season, discussed the iconic novel by Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol." The podcast reminded the extent to which this novel, with its focus on London, served as a major influencer in refashioning the Christmas celebration, as England was being transformed from a rural into an urban society.

We will consider one aspect of Dickens-as-Christmas celebration influencer, namely, the rise of the turkey as the preferred center of the holiday feast. Before doing so, however, let us consider the circumstances surrounding the novel and its distribution.

The book sold approximately 6,000 copies upon its initial publication in 1843. Such sales figures might have provided Dickens with well-appreciated income, as his economic fortunes had been in decline since his initial success in the 1830's, and his family was expanding.

However, the publishers, Chapman and Hall, had embellished the text not only with lush illustrations but with an ornate cover, in addition to including physical niceties, such as gilt edges and expensive binding, driving up the costs and materially cutting into the book's profits (of which Dickens was entitled to a percentage). Subsequent print runs yielded only marginally additional income.

All of this was hardly a recipe for a content influencer with an eye to London's "common man". Enter the distribution function. Enterprising publishers, spotting an (illegal} opportunity, began to publish unauthorized additions at a far reduced price. A notable pirate was Parley's Illuminated Library, offering a condensed version costing only two pence. Dickens caused the publisher to sue for copyright infringement and prevailed at court. But the publisher itself went bankrupt, and Dickens was left to pay costs, further reducing the meagre profits being enjoyed from the publication of the book, here.

But Dickens was unable to prevent the publication of all pirated editions (on both sides of the Pond). As an influencer, however, piracy may have redounded to Dickens' benefit. The book, in various unauthorized forms, was reaching the broader audience that Dickens presumably intended. [Merpel asks: "What does this say about literacy levels"? This Kat responds: "That's the subject of another blog".] The rapid popularity quickly led theatrical versions being presented. According to the podcast, Dickens is reported to have personally attended at least one of them, to his great pleasure.

In any event, it does not appear that the development of the recognition of rights in adaptive works would have extended to protect such productions, here. But from his perch as an influencer, theatrical performances had the advantage of reaching a much wider audience, and without the limitation posed by literacy.

And now, back to the turkey. The story of the novel is well-known. Ebeneezer Scrooge is transformed from the ultimate miser to a generous-hearted type, following the visitation of three ghosts, Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future, resulting in Scrooge's introspection and own form of redemption. The central focus of this change is his attitude toward Bob Cratchit, his underpaid and overworked clerk, struggling to support his family on such a meagre income.

One indicium of Cratchit's struggles is his choice of meal for Christmas—the humble goose. A turkey, an expensive luxury for one in Cratchit's economic circumstances, was out of the question, here. Enter Dickens, per the original edition --
What’s to-day!” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.

“To-day!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!”

“Hallo!” returned the boy.

“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.

“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.

“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there?—Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”

“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.

“What a delightful boy!” said Scrooge. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!”

“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.

“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”

“Walk-er!” exclaimed the boy.

“No, no,” said Scrooge, “I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell ’em to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I’ll give you half-a-crown!”

The boy was off like a shot. He must have had a steady hand at a trigger who could have got a shot off half so fast.

“I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s!” whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. “He sha’n’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. Joe Miller never made such a joke as sending it to Bob’s will be!”

The hand in which he wrote the address was not a steady one, but write it he did, somehow, and went down-stairs to open the street door, ready for the coming of the poulterer’s man. As he stood there, waiting his arrival, the knocker caught his eye.

“I shall love it, as long as I live!” cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. “I scarcely ever looked at it before. What an honest expression it has in its face! It’s a wonderful knocker!—Here’s the Turkey! Hallo! Whoop! How are you! Merry Christmas!”
Common wisdom holds that this episode played a major in crowning the turkey as the new culinary queen of the Christmas dining room table, being Dicken's most lasting concrete influence in refashioning the Christmas tradition. In his time, the goose was the preferred, indeed, main accessible bird to adorn the holiday table, here. The more expensive turkey was the purview of the elite, and the bird was not connected with Christmas. Then came Dickens.

This can, of course, be overstated. For example, urban salary levels of the time meant that the turkey was still out of the range of a notable swathe of the population. But the trend in favor of the Christmas turkey in the English-speaking world was unassailable.

Interestingly, though, this Kat recently learned from a friend in Berlin that their tradition at the Christmas day meal remains the goose, the more geese, the merrier, depending upon the number of guests. This suggests that even Dickens, perhaps the ultimate Christmas influencer, had his limits.

A happy holiday season to all Kat readers.

Picture on left is scanned by Philip V. Allingham,, who grants permission.

Charles Dickens as copyright content influencer: how the turkey became the holiday bird of choice Charles Dickens as copyright content influencer: how the turkey became the holiday bird of choice Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Monday, December 27, 2021 Rating: 5

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