December 19, 1843, was when Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. The full title is A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
Dickens wrote the novella in a time when the British were re-evaluating past Christmas traditions such as carols. The holiday was becoming more secular and newer customs such as Christmas cards and Christmas trees were becoming part of what was being seen as a family holiday.
A year earlier, he had visited Cornwall to see for himself the horrible conditions of child workers in the mines there. He also visited the Field Lane Ragged School which was a place for London’s many homeless “street children.” It made him so angry that he decided to write a book exposing the terrible situation of children in poverty, and publish it at his own expense.
His previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit had been a flop, and he was strapped for cash. Since the last book had been satirical and pessimistic, he ultimately decided to go for a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme. The book didn’t cause great social change in England but it is actually quite dark for most of its pages. What it did change was the way the Christmas season would be celebrated.
The story skirts the edges of being a religious story in a number of ways. The treatment of the poor and the ability of a selfish man to redeem himself certainly touches on many religions. The reconsideration of carols (a religious folk song or popular hymn, particularly one associated with Christmas) probably played a part in the book’s title, but Dickens treats Scrooge’s transformation without religious connotations. The book has long been seen as both a secular story and a Christian allegory.
Many people know the story even if they never read the book from the many film and TV versions. Ebenezer Scrooge is an elderly miser who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and three spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. These experiences all take place on Christmas Eve and change him into a kinder, gentler man.
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
As a child, I saw the classic 1951 film version with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. I was still a Santa believer and I know the ghosts scared me in the same way that the witches scared me in The Wizard of Oz. Now, that film version and some of the more contemporary ones seem to me to be almost film noir. I find it interesting that many holiday films, even fluffy ones such as A Christmas Story, Elf or Home Alone, but also classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, have dark elements. As someone who has very mixed memories of Christmas seasons in my past both happy and sad, that seems right.
The final spirit to visit in this ghost story represents the future Yet to Come. It is silent and dark and the scariest of the spirits. Scrooge is concerned about whether or not the future is set or whether it can still be changed for the better. In Dickens’ version of this ghostly time travel, the future is not set.
“No space of regret can make amends
for one life’s opportunity misused”
The happiest spirit to visit represent Christmas Present. It’s ironic to Scrooge because he sees his employee Bob and his family, including the ill son Tim, being very happy on Christmas Eve even though he feels he has almost nothing to be happy about – and he knows he is partially responsible for their poverty.
“Reflect upon your present blessings
– of which every man has many –
not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”
As I said, when the book was originally published the way Christmas was represented was somewhat controversial. Puritans in England and America argued that Christmas was a holiday from the days when pagans celebrated the winter solstice and many Christians felt that the extravagance of Christmas was an insult to the story of Christ.
But A Christmas Carol won out and was a huge best-seller in both England and the United States. It certainly set a different tone for modern Christmas that has numerous nods to a Dickens Christmas with figgy pudding.
I am not against seasonal generosity, gifting, feasting, and merriment but it does seem that something important has been lost in the holiday and our celebration. As I wrote last weekend about the Santa aspect of the holiday, the holiday seems much changed even from the Christmas I remember in the 1950s.
“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.
May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”