From “Bah! Humbug!” to “God bless us, every one,” Dickens’ holiday classic, its characters, and dialogue embodies the spirit of the 19th and 20th to the 21st century Christmas celebration.
A Christmas Carol has become such a part of modern American and British culture that it would be difficult to find anyone unfamiliar with its story or with the characters of Tiny Tim and Scrooge.
This story is practically a manual for Christmas, with its depictions of playing games, adorning rooms with festive decorations, and enjoying a turkey feast. Not only does the story describe certain traditions, it is also a tradition, in itself. Indeed, many people would not find their Christmas complete without watching a performance of it on stage, TV or on DVD.
Little did Dickens know when he finished A Christmas Carol after a mere six weeks of fevered writing that his brief story would become one of his most famous works – the work he is most recognized for by the general public.
Though the story was successful as soon as it was published on December 19, 1843, Dickens bolstered its renown further by choosing to perform it aloud when he began touring in 1853.
His name became synonymous with Christmas in England to the extent that, after his death in 1870, some feared the holiday would become culturally obsolete. But as we now know, Nothing could have been further from the truth — the story spawned a parade of adaptations and interpretations, from musicals to cartoons to comedies.
Indeed, it was the publication of the story itself that helped create the celebration of the modern Christmas.
Charles Dickens, 1812-1870
Charles Dickens, 1842 painted by Frances Alexander. Public Domain. Copyright law is life of author (the painter) plus 70 years.
Though his first piece was published in 1833, it was A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, that propelled him to stardom.
Charles Dickens is remembered for his efforts to draw attention to the plight of the poor. Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, two masterpieces of English literature, led to the coinage of a new word, Dickensian, to describe harsh, bleak, or wretched conditions of poverty. But as large as that literary legacy was, Dickens is most beloved for A Christmas Carol.
Charles Dickens was born the second child of John and Elizabeth Barrow Dickens in 1812, in Portsmouth, England.
When Dickens was five, the family moved to Chatham, where they would spend the next six years. A few years later, the Dickens family moved to London, and his father was imprisoned for debt, not long afterward, remaining incarcerated for three months.
During that time, Charles’s family lived in debtors’ prison with his father, leaving young Charles largely on his own. He worked at Warren’s Blacking factory, gluing labels to bottles of shoe polish, finding himself very poor and often very hungry.
Young Charles as tormented by the thought that his parents had abandoned him to this hard life. Dickens’s time as a child laborer left a permanent, traumatic impression on him, and one in which surfaced loudly in his writing.
His sympathetic portrayal of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol reveal his deep compassion for poor, abandoned, or neglected children.
Dickens attended school at the Wellington House Academy in London until he was fifteen. Before becoming a writer, Dickens worked as a law clerk, a shorthand reporter, and a news reporter; his fictional writing drew from these experiences.
His first published novel, The Pickwick Papers, a lighthearted and popular work, established the young writer’s reputation and raised readers’ expectations. He went on to serialize what would become some of his lengthier novels:Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge.
In 1842, he traveled with his wife, Catherine, to America, where he was immensely popular. He wrote a partially critical account of his observations on his trip, American Notes for General Circulation, which apparently offended many readers and critics, who became defensive about their country.
In 1842, a report described the horrible and exploitative child labor practices there. Dickens went to Cornwall and saw the environment that child workers in the mine endured. His wealthy friend, philanthropist Baroness Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts requested his opinion of her sponsoring the Ragged Schools of Field Lane, Holborn — free schools for the poor — so he visited them and wrote to her:
“I have very seldom seen…anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children.“
His sympathy for the poor and outrage at public indifference toward poor children inspired him to write A Christmas Carol in Prose, which he published at his own expense on December 19, 1843.
Dickens would next write his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield. With the publication of he entered what many call his “late period,” writing a series of darkly pessimistic novels such as Little Dorrit and what would become his most popular novel, Great Expectations.
In 1858, just as he was separating from Catherine, he began an extensive tour of public readings in London and would eventually travel to Paris, Scotland, Ireland, and America for appearances and readings. His health declined seriously in the next decade, partly as a result of his busy work schedule.
In 1870, he collapsed during a public reading in England, just after an American lecture tour. Dickens died from a stroke shortly thereafter. His last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was in serialization at the time and remained unfinished.
A Christmas Carol
Just a few decades before A Christmas Carol was written, the celebration of Christmas in England had become nearly obsolete. Christmas was once a lavishly celebrated holiday, with festivals that combined pagan customs and Christian symbolism in masques (a dramatic performance usually by actors in masks), plays, and other traditions.
After Puritans took control of England during the seventeenth century, celebrations of Christmas were outlawed.
The holiday was revived when the monarchy was restored in the eighteenth century, but it was not as elaborate as it had been in the past.
However, during the years leading up to the publication of A Christmas Carol the holiday was enjoying a renaissance in England. Ten years earlier, William Sandys published Selection of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, a collection of Christmas songs that would become extremely popular and incite a tradition of caroling in England.
Thomas K. Hervey published a scholarly history of Christmas in The Book of Christmas three years later. Britain’s young Queen Victoria married the German Prince Albert in 1840, who popularized many Christmas traditions of his native country, such as the Christmas tree, in his wife’s homeland.
In 1843, the same year A Christmas Carol was published, Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first Christmas card from John C. Horsley.
First Christmas Card
The card was a three-paneled drawing with a simple Christmas scene in which a family enjoys a dinner celebration in the center with the caption: A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You.
Dickens’ short novel would further promote and solidify these and other Christmas traditions in both English and American culture.
During the time that A Christmas Carol depicts, England was coming to terms with the Industrial Revolution. Technological innovations had shifted the basis of England’s economy from agriculture to industry; the development of steam power and a boom in the cotton textiles industry caused a population shift from rural to urban areas. Workers and laborers were at the mercy of their employers than ever before and conditions in factories, mines, and mills were brutal. Children and adults alike worked up to sixteen hours a day, six days a week, in dangerous conditions for very low wages. An economic depression in the early 1840s led to widespread unemployment and riots.
In 1834, the Poor Law Amendment Act overturned previous methods of aiding the poor that had been in place for over two centuries. Before the poor laws were amended, parishes were required to feed, clothe, or otherwise financially support the poor in what was called “outdoor relief.”
The poor laws replaced outdoor relief with mandatory rules that the poor who received aid must receive “indoor relief,” and to live in workhouses, or government-run shelters provided in exchange for work. The conditions in these workhouses were so grim and at times so unbearable that some preferred to starve on the streets.
Dickens, having spent a few months in a workhouse with his family when his father was sent to one, fiercely opposed the practice. His fiction, essays, and letters often reflect this view. Clearly Dickens’ critical attitudes about both the poor laws and the workhouse show transparently in the narrative, as does his belief that a person’s wealth is not a reflection of his character.
Frontispiece, A Christmas Carol, First Edition, 1843, public domain, illustrations by John Leech.
A Christmas Carol was instantly successful, and sold selling more than 6,000 copies in one week and, although originally written to enable Dickens to pay off a debt, the story has become one of the most popular and enduring Christmas stories of all time.
In the story, of course, miser Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes redemption during the course of one night. over the course of one evening. Scrooge is a financier and money-changer who has devoted his life to the accumulation of wealth, and holds everything except money in contempt.
Jacob Marley is Scrooge’s dead business partner, in the opening of the story. Scrooge and his clerk, Bob Cratchit are at work in the counting house, with Cratchit stationed in the poorly heated “tank”, a victim of his employer’s stinginess.
Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, enters to wish his uncle a “Merry Christmas” and to invite him to Christmas dinner the next day. He is dismissed with “Bah! Humbug!” among other unpleasantness, declaring Christmas time to be a fraud.
Two gentlemen, collecting charitable donations for the poor, come in afterwards, but Scrooge rebuffs them, too, who points out that the poor laws and workhouses are sufficient to care for the poor.
When Scrooge is told that many would rather die than go there, he mercilessly responds, “If they would rather die … they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
At the end of the day, Scrooge grudgingly allows Cratchit to take Christmas Day off, but to arrive to work, all the earlier the day after Christmas.
Scrooge leaves the counting-house, eats dinner and then and returns to home, an isolated townhouse formerly owned by his late business partner, Jacob Marley.
While he unlocks his door, Scrooge is startled to see the ghostly face of Marley instead of the familiar appearance of his door knocker. This is just the beginning of Scrooge’s harrowing night. As Scrooge climbs the staircase of his house he thinks he sees a locomotive hearse charging up the stairs before him in the dark.
As he gets to his room, puts on his dressing gown, and eats his gruel by the fireplace, he sees the carvings on his mantle piece transform into images of Marley’s face.
All the bells in the house begin to ring loudly. When they stop, he hears a clanking noise. His cellar door opens loudly and then the clanking on the stairs coming upstairs and approaches his room. Marley’s ghost passes through the door and appears before Scrooge.
Marley has come to warn Scrooge that his miserliness and contempt for others will subject him to the same fate Marley himself suffers in death: condemned to walk the earth in penitence since he had not done it in life in concern for mankind.
A prominent symbol of Marley’s torture is a heavy chain wound around his form that has attached to it symbolic objects from Marley’s life fashioned out of heavy metal: ledgers, money boxes, keys, and the like.
Marley explains that Scrooge’s fate might be worse than his because Scrooge’s chain was as long and as heavy as Marley’s seven Christmases ago when Marley died, and Scrooge has been adding to his with his selfish life.
Marley tells Scrooge that he has a chance to escape this fate through the visitation of three more spirits that will appear, one by one.
Scrooge is shaken but not entirely convinced that the foregoing was no hallucination, and goes to bed thinking that a good night’s sleep will make him feel better.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Scrooge wakes and the bells of the neighboring church strike twelve. The first spirit introduces himself as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
This spirit leads Scrooge on a journey into some of the happiest and saddest moments of Scrooge’s past, events that shaped the current Scrooge. These include the mistreatment of Scrooge by his uncaring father, the loss of a great love sacrificed for his devotion to business, and the death of his sister, the only other person who ever showed love and compassion for him.
Unable to stand these painful memories and his growing regret of them, Scrooge covers the spirit with the candle snuffer it carries, and Scrooge is returned to his room, where he falls asleep.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
Scrooge wakes at the stroke of one. After more than fifteen minutes, he rises and finds the second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, in an adjoining room. The spirit shows him the meagre Christmas celebrations of the Cratchit family, the sweet nature of their lame son Tiny Tim, and a possible early death for the child; this prospect is the immediate catalyst for his change of heart.
The family also shows the faith of Scrooge’s nephew in his uncle’s potential for change, a concept that slowly warms Scrooge to the idea that he can reinvent himself.
To further drive home the point, the Ghost reveals two pitiful children who huddle under his robes which personify the major causes of suffering in the world, “Ignorance” and “Want,” with a grim warning that the former is especially harmful.
Scrooge encounters Ignorance and Want
At the end of the visitation, the bell strikes twelve. The Ghost of Christmas Present vanishes and the third spirit appears to Scrooge.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come takes the form of a grim spectre, completely robed in black, who does not speak and whose body is entirely hidden except for one pointing hand.
This spirit frightens Scrooge more than the others, and harrows him with visions of the Cratchit family bereft of Tiny Tim, of Scrooge’s own lonely death and final torment, and the cold, avaricious reactions of the people around him after his passing. Without explicitly being said, Scrooge learns that he can avoid the future he has been shown, and alter the fate of Tiny Tim,but only if he changes.
In the end, Scrooge changes his life and reverts to the generous, kind-hearted soul he was in his youth before the death of his sister. He anonymously sends the Cratchits the biggest turkey the butcher has and spends Christmas Day with Fred and his wife. The next day after Christmas, Scrooge arrives at work early. Cratchit is late and Scrooge pretends at first to be his old selfish self, but then tells Cratchit that he is going to raise his salary. Cratchit is shocked and Scrooge wishes him a Merry Christmas.
“God Bless Us Every One. “
And the beginning of the Victorian celebration of Christmas began, and the American harkening back to its Victorian roots began some decades later.