It is a remarkable truth that what many would agree is our most beloved Christmas story is a ghost story—more appropriate to Halloween than to the cozy season of Christmas. I am referring, of course, to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1812-1870), with the original title of A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Published on 19 December 1843, the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve and has never been out of print. By February, 1844, eight rival theatrical productions were playing in London. The Internet Movie Database lists more than 100 versions of A Christmas Carol; the 1984 film starring George C. Scott as Scrooge is especially well done, adhering closely to the text as well as to the original illustrations by John Leech. There is even a current TV ad showing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leading Ebenezer Scrooge to view the newest Mercedes Benz!
A Christmas Carol is at base a magical, mystical psychodrama, which I surmise influenced J. K. Rowling and may well have itself been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)—whose Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque had been published just three years earlier. I expect you’ve seen the movie, or one of the myriad stage productions of this iconic tale—but when was the last time you read the book? When I reread it recently after many years, I was blown away by its brilliance. A wonder of concision—in a mere 100 pages, Dickens offers a fully developed psychological portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge, from childhood to death, plus several additional multi-dimensional characters—all vividly brought to life in elegant prose. What led young Dickens, at only 31 years old—long before his more mature novels such as Bleak House (1853) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859)—to write his most enduring masterpiece in this form? Why did he call it this? And why has it become the most iconic and oft-performed work of Christmas literature in English? Is it perhaps the very originality of couching a Christmas message in a ghost story?
Set in London during the Victorian Age—when income disparity was at its worst—it is a brilliant moral tale dramatizing the true meaning of Christmas and the necessity for charity and compassion toward oneself and others. According to Michael Slater, Dickens’ biographer, the book was completed in only six weeks, under financial pressure due to flagging sales of Martin Chuzzlewit (1842) and with Dickens’ fifth child on the way. He was deeply concerned with the plight of poor children, having experienced extreme poverty himself, forced to leave school at the age of 12 when his father was sent to debtor’s prison. He had recently visited both the Cornish tin mines and a “ragged school,” set up for the education of London’s half-starved, illiterate street children. A parliamentary report exposing the effects of the Industrial Revolution upon working class children had just been released. Appalled at what he read and saw, he at first planned to write a political pamphlet in response, but soon realized that the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population was to write a deeply felt Christmas narrative rather than a polemical essay. A Christmas Carol was written as a work of social commentary, intended to “help open the hearts of the prosperous and powerful towards the poor and powerless….” as well as to warn of the danger to society posed by widespread ignorance (Slater). Clearly, Dickens was inspired by a stroke of genius. Written from the heart, the work gains its power and luminosity from his passion for justice and equity shining through. The set of ideas embodied in Scrooge’s redemption came to be known as Dickens’ “Carol philosophy.”
Why did Dickens call his novella A Christmas Carol? Perhaps he wished to impart a mood of gaiety and lightheartedness to his title, and to convey an air of the sacred to his message. It has five stanzas, which he called staves (the plural of staff in musical notation), like a carol. A revival of Christmas traditions was underway during the Victorian era, including the increasingly popular traditions of Christmas trees, Christmas carols, and festive family gatherings. In fact, Dickens’ vision reaffirmed these traditions and helped to establish how Christmas would be celebrated from then on. As Scrooge’s nephew Fred points out, “I have always thought of Christmas time… as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut up hearts freely.”
I doubt you need reminding that A Christmas Carol tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” to become “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” This reclamation is brought about by visits from four Spirits, sent to revise Scrooge’s “Bah! Humbug!” response to every mention of Christmas. These are not threatening ghosts, but rather manifestations of moral conscience. Although Scrooge is scared at first and filled with wonder when they lead him through walls, time, and space, he eventually comes to look forward to the vital lessons the spirits are teaching.
The first sentence of the book hints at what’s to come: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.” But not for long: on this cold and foggy Christmas Eve, the ghost of Jacob Marley—Scrooge’s former business partner, who died on this very night seven years previous—appears, dragging a heavy chain of purses, cash-boxes, and ledgers. “I wear the chain I forged in life,” he moans. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard.” When Scrooge argues that he was a good man of business, Marley replies, “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.” Marley’s ghost explains that, if he does not change, after death Scrooge will be condemned, like Marley, to walk eternally tortured by dragging chains. He announces that Scrooge will be visited by three additional spirits who can save Scrooge from this terrible fate. Thus, Marley’s visit is itself an act of charity to his former partner.
In a lightening review of Scrooge’s life, we are shown his loveless, neglected childhood at boarding school by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the suffering of the poor contrasted with the rich’s abundance by the Ghost of Christmas Present, and his own desolate and unmourned death by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. His visit to his former fiance, now happily married with children, illuminates what Scrooge lost by choosing the pursuit of wealth over romantic love. When Scrooge sees the actual plight of “the children of Man”—introduced as the allegorical figures Ignorance and Want—he begins to see the error of his ways. And when he sees Tiny Tim Cratchit sharing joyful blessings—in spite of his poverty, illness, and disability—compassion finally dawns in Scrooge’s heart.
The lessons he learns from these visitations are not simple. He reconnects and feels sympathy for his child self—foreshadowing the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and others. He learns what love looks and feels like, and how precious is the gift of family. His long-buried yearnings for love and human communion are finally released. In short, he returns to a state of innocence and love for humanity. And what makes this enduring classic so delightful is that, as we accompany him through this spiritual journey, we too rediscover our humanity and the joy of living.
The book is highly symmetrical until the last stave, “The End of It.” While each previous chapter runs about 25 pages, this one is too short at only ten. We would enjoy seeing more of the redeemed Scrooge, who sends the largest turkey available to Bob Cratchit, donates generously to the charity for the poor, and joins his nephew’s family for a joyful Christmas dinner. He becomes a second father to Tiny Tim, whom he saves from the death the ghost had predicted. Now he is a man of whom “it was always said … that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
Whatever the version, this classic tale never fails to reconfirm our faith in redemption. As for me, I plan to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol with my grandchildren this season. I hope we will all take its lessons of kindness, generosity, compassion, and love for one another to heart—lessons that are needed now more than ever.