There have been Christmas Annuals in the UK since the turn of the 18th century, and they continue to be produced. Most take the form of Anthologies, in which visual material, fiction and nonfiction are mixed; some of the illustrations and fiction are of course fantasy (see Christmas). But the CB proper, as invented by Charles Dickens with A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (1843), is an independent story, bound as a book, published at the Christmas season, and usually of novella length (whether or not they are actually read aloud, CBs have almost invariably been designed to look as though they could be).
The few CBs of lasting importance are Fantasy or Supernatural Fiction, and are central to any understanding of the shaping of the form through the 19th century; they include tales such as Dickens's own The Chimes (dated 1845 but 1844) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848), John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River (1851 chap) and William Makepeace Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring (1855) as by M A Titmarsh. In texts of this sort, the CB variously homaged a Season and a consolatory rite, both of which served to surround and to put into a transcending, fantasy-like context the supernatural-fiction elements so commonly found in early-19th-century fiction. A Christmas Carol, the most important of all, demonstrates this clearly. It is technically a Ghost Story, but – because its Ghosts have been introduced into the tale to conduct Ebenezer Scrooge through a harrowing Night Journey into the dawn of transformed new life, and because the scenes that follow his Transformation are narrated in a manner both heightened and exemplary – the tale, in retrospect, feels as though it is defined by its comedic ending. (It is also left open to us to interpret the text as a fantasy of Perception.)
When the CB introduces an element of Revel – dangerous at any period, and particularly unlikely in Victorian times to be "permitted" to turn the world genuinely Topsy-Turvy – it does so as a prelude to restoration: this too is typical of the movement of the fantasy text. It is moreover the case that the plot of the classic CB almost invariably serves to restore to the world a just and ordered dispensation (see Theodicy).
This just and ordered life and landscape – because even in 1840 it was ineradicably nostalgic – helped the development of the mature fantasy vision through the 19th century: during that period of convulsive change, and ever since, fantasy has increasingly treated the ideal society and landscape as something that has been lost (see Belatedness).
The CB itself did not flourish as a form, because huge commercial pressures insisted that authors should generate a succession of sentimentalized visions of a world in which – in order to be a good person – it was simply necessary to wish to be one; but, whenever transformations are cheap, fantasy becomes rote, and so the CB declined. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, which effectively terminated the unison song of Christmas as a theodicy of Empire, special Christmas issues of continuing Magazines generally took over from the CB, though occasional examples of the form – several novels by Tom Gallon (1866-1914), including The Charity Ghost (1902), The Man Who Knew Better (1902) and Christmas at Poverty Castle (1907), and Marie Corelli's The Strange Visitation of Josiah McNason (1904 chap) – continued to appear, albeit without much success.
Towards the end of his greatest success as a producer of illustrated Christmas gift books – a series which capitalized on the spirit of the Christmas Book, though it significantly used only old stories – Arthur Rackham issued a version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1915). The strains of World War I – which proved terminal to so much theodicy – occasioned in Rackham a new, nostalgic sentimentality. It was not a good omen for Rackham – whose versions of The Chimes (1931 US) and Ruskin's The King of the Golden River (1932) were feeble – and an extremely bad one for the CB.
In recent years, however, it has become a reasonably frequent practice for publishers to issue what might be called special Christmas editions of existing seasonally relevant works. A Christmas Carol has been thus treated several times within the past decade, most recently in 1995; another example is A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. Moreover, works like Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas (graph 1973) and The Snowman (graph 1978) are genuinely CBs. However, the role of the CB has now almost entirely been taken over by the movies (see Cinema), and these days it is a rare Christmas that does not see the release of at least one high-budget, explicitly seasonally oriented movie, usually fantasy and quite often very cynical, as with Santa Claus: The Movie (1984). A recent example of the "Christmas Movie" is the remake Miracle on 34th Street (1994).
Further relevant titles include: Philip Van Doren Stern's The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale (1943 chap), which is the source of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946); Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen's The Sky Bed: A Norwegian Christmas (1944 chap); and Paul Theroux's A Christmas Card (1978 chap) and London Snow: A Christmas Story (1979 chap UK). [JC]