It would be a rare person indeed who hasn’t read, seen, or even listened to, a version of Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Christmas Carol, which has remained wildly popular ever since its publication on 19 December, 1943, and which shows no sign of slipping off the zeitgeist radar any time soon.
It’s enduring popularity can no doubt be attributed to a great many appealing factors – love of family, redemption, the shared celebration of an important event – but perhaps the most potent is that Dickens essentially redefined what Christmas means in a modern context.
The ghost of Christmas long gone
At the time of the novel’s publication, Britain had essentially stopped celebrating Christmas.
At least in the traditional sense.
Prior to the Cromwellian Revolt of the mid-seventeenth century, festive celebrations had taken place over a 12 day period called Yule, which mirrored the old pagan rituals of the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
But Cromwell, an intensely religious man, had put a stop to all this (and the monarchy, at least temporarily) and by the mid-nineteenth century many of the old Christmas practices, though vaguely remembered, weren’t observed any longer.
Christmas had become a drab and sombre affair with none of the flourishes we associate with modern observances, and despite the attempts of some writers to reacquaint people with the old traditions (The Book of Christmas by T. H. Hervey, 1837, and The Keeping of Christmas at Brucebridge Hall by Washington Irving, 1820), they failed to take hold anew.
The ghost of Christmas present
This was largely due to the fact that society had changed a great deal since Cromwell’s days.
The Industrial Revolution meant that many people had moved away from their extended families and church parishes, around which Christmas celebrations had been centred, to live in nuclear families in the big industrial centres like Manchester and Liverpool.
As far as these people were concerned, you couldn’t celebrate Christmas away from your home village, which dampened the appetite for festive observances of any kind.
But in A Christmas Carol, which featured the poor but spirited family of Bob Cratchit celebrating with no one but themselves, Dickens demonstrated that you could deviate from the old ways and still enter fully into the spirit of Christmas, something Bill Petro noted in his article in A History of A Christmas Carol: A ghost story of Christmas:
“Dickens was one of the first to show his readers a new way of celebrating the old holiday in their modern lives. His Christmas celebrations of the Carol adapted the twelve-day manorial (Yule) feast to a one-day party any family could hold in their own urban home.”
Dickens was assisted in restoring a fulsome celebration of Christmas to British society by two main things.
Firstly a revival of carol singing – Wikipedia cites sources which note the publication of Davies Gilbert’s Some Ancient Christmas Carols (1822) and William B. Sandy’s Selection of Christmas Carols (among others) as being major influences in that regard – which re-introduced much of the festive musical canon back to people who had long forgotten it.
And secondly Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Germany, who had brought with him the northern European tradition of the Christmas tree which quickly became a must-have for Britain’s upper classes.
The ghost of Dickens past
But it was Dickens’ Christmas stories, notes Richard Michael Kelly in his book A Christmas Carol (2003) – as well as the book that introduced Scrooge to the world, he also wrote four other Christmas books including The Chimes (1844) and The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) – that “resurrected ancient traditions and celebrated anew the earthy appetites that define human life.”
The book, which tells the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, an astoundingly rich but miserable man who treats everyone he knows, especially his clerk Bob Cratchit, with contempt until he is visited by three ghosts on Christmas eve who force him to re-evaluate what matters to him in life, was informed by much of Dickens impoverished childhood.
He greatly resented being forced to leave school at the age of 12 to work in a factory after his father encountered financial difficulties and ended up in debtor’s prison, and it’s this resentment which fuelled much of the implied criticism of rampant commercialism and its social ill-effects that suffuses the book.
But it wasn’t just traumatic life influences that influenced Dickens.
He was also a firm believer in ghosts, fairies and the like, and participated in the revival of spiritualism which was all the rage on both of the Atlantic when he was writing the book.
This too made its way into A Christmas Carol and gave it the mystical otherworldly quality that still attracts people today.
The ghost of Christmas future (and our present)
in the end though I doubt even Dickens could have foreseen the impact his book, which was written in a hurry to make some much-needed money after his previous novel Martin Chuzzlewit had not done as well as expected, would have on people right around the world.
Nor the many and varied ways they would re-tell his story, beginning almost immediately after publication.
In his book The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits (2008), Les Standiford details the fact that three stage productions had opened by 5 February 1844, one of which, sanctioned by Dickens himself, ran for more than 40 nights.
These theatrical productions were quickly followed by many others throughout the rest of the century, while the book was also eagerly embraced by the emerging motion picture industry with the earliest surviving film Scrooge; or Marley’s Ghost (1901) being made by the British themselves.
And the pace has barely slowed since.
There have been countless television versions of the tale, an opera, a stage production which has been running in Raleigh, North Carolina’s Memorial Auditorium since 1974, radio plays and in a sign that you have truly captured the public’s imagination, parodies including Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988) starring Rowan Atkinson.
The ghost of everlasting impact
All of these many re-tellings of A Christmas Carol across multiple media platforms speaks to the fact the message of Charles Dicken’s most famous book is a profoundly impactful one that continues to speak to successive generations.
People are drawn to the idea of redemption and a second chance and the idea that basic human values such as love and concern for your fellow man don’t have to be sacrificed in a ceaseless rush to modernity.
As Bill Petro notes in his article:
“Dickens demonstrates that even in poverty, the winter holiday can inspire good will and generosity toward one’s neighbors. He shows that the spirit of Christmas was not lost in the race to industrialize, but can live on in our modern world.”
It’s a powerful mesage and one I suspect we will hearing for quite some time to come.
Oh, and “God Bless Us, Every One!”