For many people, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a bit of Charles Dickens. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that it was the popularity of his works (and the often sentimental descriptions of the festive season therein) that actually went a long way towards reinventing the festival and creating what we now see as a ‘traditional’ Christmas. But even if you’ve never read any of his novels, there is one of his stories that everyone knows because its characters and events have become an integral part of our culture of Christmas – and it is the story behind that particular story I’ll be looking at today, on this Christmas Eve…
Born in February 1812, Charles Dickens had a peripatetic childhood, his family frequently moving to where his father’s job as a pay clerk in the Royal Dockyards took them. In the 1820s, his spendthrift father was jailed for debt, and the young Charles went to work in a blacking factory making shoe polish to help the family’s often parlous finances. This experience of family disruption and what we would now call child labour must have left deep psychological scars on the young man at a formative time in his life – it was certainly something he drew on in his later writings, as the reader can see in his ‘Christmas Books’ amongst others.
All this upheaval during his youth meant that Dickens had little formal education (he was mostly self-taught having effectively left school by the time he was 15), but his childhood experiences had made him ambitious and determined to make a success of himself from an early age. Starting out in a solicitor’s office, he worked his way into journalism and was a parliamentary reporter by the early 1830s. But he was also writing fiction, and his first short story was published in 1833. Three years later, the initial installment of his still-popular novel The Pickwick Papers was published and he rapidly became a household name as a result of its immediate success.
In 1843, after a run of somewhat less acclaimed and relatively unsuccessful books, Dickens resurrected his career when he published what would quickly become his most famous and best-loved work – A Christmas Carol. Written in a mere six weeks in response to a family need for money and self-published due to a feud with his publishing company over editions of his previous novels, this classic seasonal tale set in a snowy, cold London was the first (and most popular) in what became a series of five ‘Christmas Books’.
It was an instant hit on its publication that December, with the initial printing selling out by Christmas Eve – despite the fact that Dickens actually made very little profit on this print run and that the demand for copies was such that it was pirated numerous times, resulting in at least one court case that also lost the author money. However, A Christmas Carol had real staying power. It has become one of those rare books that continues to be published in new editions well into the 21st century (I own at least three different versions) and has never actually been out of print since it first came out in 1843.
For those who have never read it, A Christmas Carol tells the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, a miserly and misanthropic old City businessman who does not believe in charity or Christmas. The opening description of Scrooge immediately tells us the kind of man we are dealing with:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
Here is a man who seems beyond redemption – until he receives an unexpected Christmas Eve visit from the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, that is. Marley’s spirit tells Scrooge that he must change his ways, and that he should expect three more ghostly visitors who will explain more. Being a cynical old rationalist, Scrooge dismisses all this as a figment of his imagination:
“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.
“I don’t,” said Scrooge.
“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
However, Marley’s ghost is shown to be right, and Scrooge is indeed soon woken by the first of his spirit guests, the Ghost of Christmas Past, who takes him back in time to remind him of who he was as a child and as a young man, and of how those experiences helped to create the unpleasant person he has become. The next spectral visitor to his miserable abode is the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows Scrooge how he is perceived by those around him and how those less well off than him (such as his clerk Bob Cratchit) celebrate Christmas even though they have very little:
They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting…
Finally, and most terrifyingly, Scrooge is visited by the silent and really rather frightening Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, who shows him what horrors will occur if he continues to be such a mean old “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone”, an eventuality which makes quite an impression on him. All these supernatural experiences are, quite naturally, overwhelming to a man like Scrooge, and they begin to awaken something in him. He rises on Christmas Day a changed man, and remains so for the rest of his life:
He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world […] and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.
On one level, A Christmas Carol clearly works well as a good old-fashioned festive morality tale seasoned with a hefty dose of Victorian sentimentality (as well as belonging, like most of his seasonal writing, to that oddly traditional Christmas literary form of the ghost story), but it also goes far deeper than that. Behind the popular sentiment of Dickens’s writing there is always a realism, often quite brutal, inspired by his knowledge and experience of the social conditions of the time and their (inevitably negative) impact on ordinary people like the Cratchit family.
These themes of poverty and class frequently feature in Dickens’s books – and no more so than in A Christmas Carol. In fact, it is entirely possible to read it as a very deliberate and scathing critique of Victorian industrial capitalism (which, I would argue, it almost certainly was), and its continuing appeal remains, in part, due to the fact that very little has actually changed in our society since 1843. Indeed, the pre-transformation Scrooge himself is still an easily recognisable character archetype in our modern neo-liberal capitalist system – Tories and the bankers, anyone?
However, there is another theme that is important to the story of A Christmas Carol: that of redemption and renewal. Scrooge’s experiences show us that anyone can change, that a new start, a rebirth, is always possible – something that is still relevent to this time of year even today, if you consider the annual commemoration of Jesus’s birth in the original Christmas story (or even the rebirth of the pre-Christian gods also once celebrated in the dying days of the year and reflected in the character of the Ghost of Christmas Present), and other seasonal traditions that we associate with the change of the year, such as making resolutions to change some aspect of our lives.
It is this hope of redemption – this possibility of positive change in a negative world during the darkest time of the year – that is crucial to the lasting success of this story. And it is this which makes A Christmas Carol such an enduring and comforting seasonal treat for so many. The fact that there have been countless popular film, TV, radio and stage adaptations of this now-classic text goes a long way to demonstrating its continuing appeal to a modern audience – something that I suspect would have surprised and delighted Dickens himself…
Merry Christmas to you all!