In 1843, Charles Dickens was in financial trouble. After the initial success of his first four books, his last two were not selling well. His wife had just announced they were expecting their fifth child, and he was still supporting his parents, whose extravagant spending had put the family in debtor's prison when he was a child. He needed to make money fast.
In just six weeks, Dickens wrote what was to become his legacy, funding the project himself, as his publishers were no longer willing to take financial risk on his work. The book appeared in stores just in time for Christmas. The story of a miser whose hard heart is transformed after being haunted by four spirits has become one of the staples of the holiday season.
Since its publication, A Christmas Carol has been adapted into countless plays, films, and television productions. But many scholars believe it also fundamentally changed the way we view the holiday season. In a few short pages, Dickens managed to create a vision of old-fashioned good cheer and secular morality. But what's most remarkable about the story is what it leaves out.
In 1843, Christmas was considered a minor holiday. If the holiday was observed at all, it was with little interruption of daily life. There were no Christmas cards and no Santa. Christmas trees were rare, as were Christmas gifts and holiday parties. There were no widespread decorations, no nativity scenes. And it's important to note that all these things are also missing from Dickens's tale.
Christmas, which was established on December 25th by Pope Julius I in the 4th century to counteract the bawdy and socially disruptive Roman festival of Saturnalia, had fallen out of favor in England during Cromwell's Puritan revolution. Even after the Restoration of the monarchy, it was still regarded by many people in Anglican England as being both a pagan and papal holiday. (The diaries of Samuel Pepys note Christmas spent working with little more than an extra church service to mark the day.) At various points in history, there have even been movements to outlaw its celebration. Here in the United States, not only was its celebration discouraged by the Puritan establishment, the colony of Massachusetts outright banned Christmas between the years of 1650 and 1681.
The resurgence of Christmas during Dickens's lifetime was due to a number of factors. Queen Victoria's marriage to the German Prince Albert popularized many German traditions, like the Christmas tree. Here in the United States, a blend of immigrants brought their holiday traditions with them. Visions of a bucolic Christmas were also an antidote to rapid industrialization, and the 19th-century obsession with the past meant that Christmas traditions were reclaimed (or reinvented) for widespread use. It is widely believed that A Christmas Carol owes many of its scenes of good cheer to Washington Irving's The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon --- which also included Irving's best known tales: Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow --- with its visions of healthy, hearty, Christmas past.
Despite the absence of many of the signifiers of the season, A Christmas Carol made a powerful case for the celebration of the holiday and for its associations with charity. And Dickens does so in a secular vein. Instead of St. Nicholas or Father Christmas, he includes the robust and green-robbed Ghost of Christmas Present. Instead of the Christ child, he has the sweet-natured and sympathetic Tiny Tim. Scrooge's resurrection happens not in the next life, but in this one, where he wakes after his brush with mortality to find he has a second chance to be the kind of person whose presence is celebrated and whose passing is mourned. The book still has lots of supernatural elements, but it also marks a new way of looking at the season unconnected with religious ritual.
Today, most people are familiar with A Christmas Carol through its many adaptations, rather than having read the book itself. Written as a stand-alone title --- rather than a serial, like his other works --- the book still stands out from Dickens’s other books in its shortness and simplicity. He would go on to write four more Christmas books, hoping to repeat the success of his first Christmas carol, but none of them would have the enduring popularity or power to move readers and audiences as his first Christmas fable.
While my family still makes jokes about grade school productions of A Christmas Carol and the Crachit family’s obsession with Christmas goose, every year I revisit Dickens’s most famous tale. Its repetitions have not lost the power to move me, though I will admit that as I get older, my sympathy lies less with the pathetic Tiny Tim than it with does Scrooge himself. The neglect and loss that have hardened Scrooge’s heart have also hardened mine. Like Scrooge, I often feel I am standing outside celebrations yearning to be included and overhearing conversations I wish I had not. At the holidays, along with Scrooge, we confront the disappointments of our past and our broken hopes for the future. Each year we face the specter of our own mortality. And each year, we are given the chance to try, again, to wake up Christmas morning and make things right, not just with the lives we wish we had but with the lives we actually live. Even if we’re old, unloved, or wounded, A Christmas Carol gives us another reason to try: if it could happen to a miserly old man, it could happen for us, too.
To me, it is this message that keeps A Christmas Carol fresh and evergreen. At the end of the story, Scrooge vows, “I will honour Christmas In my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall Strive within me.” I affirm with him that I will not let the year go wasted or unsung. My Christmas wish for you this season, regardless of your background or faith, is that this is the year you too can find the place where you can open your heart to love.
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