What is it about Christmas that seems to be so endearing to us? Why is it that this holiday, perhaps more so than any other, has the power to rekindle our fraternal bonds and unite us in communal celebration, altruism, and generosity? Quite honestly, before these questions can be answered, it should be observed that Christmas also has a dark side. While some people are brought together in the spirit of charity and mutual conviviality, others become bitter, selfish, and greedy. As a rule, holidays are often divisive in the responses that they provoke in people. Easter has little religious meaning to a non-Christian and St. Valentine's Day, which has over time become a day of romance, seems almost cruel and mocking to those who cannot take part in a loving relationship. Yet, Christmas is even more divisive, in part because its appeal is more expansive, but also because of all holidays Christmas has become the most commercially exploited. However, capitalist greed and materialism aren't the only reason that Christmas has put a bad taste in some people's mouths. Christmas-time is regarded as time for family gatherings and social jubilation, but for those who are secluded or isolated from others, Christmas can feel like a cold, ironic joke as seemingly all the world is united in festivities while the social outcasts remain alone. That the reason, or more aptly the cause, for Christmas being so beloved and reviled should be encompassed in one literary work of fiction may come as a surprise or it may not when one considers the author...
When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carolin 1843, he explored the cherished Christian holiday from two contrary viewpoints: that of a person who rejects Christmas and its selfless message of goodwill and that of the people who embrace it for the benevolent camaraderie that it encourages in society. Interestingly, Dickens' curmudgeonly mouthpiece of anti-Christmas sentiments has become one of the greatest testaments to the holiday and its redemptive powers. For if a cold, miserly, old man like Ebenezer Scrooge can learn the value of empathy and philanthropy, then maybe there is hope that we can all come together and hold Christmas in our hearts as a joyous day of peace and charity.
Charles Dickens was born February 7, 1812 to John Dickens and Elizabeth Dickens, who were of moderate wealth and social standing at the time. Charles early years were relatively peaceable and idyllic, however, any traces of innocence or naïveté would be lost at a young age. Charles' father was man of poor judgment when it came to financial matters and as Charles and his siblings grew up, his family would move from one home to another as their financial prospects shrunk in one terrible downward spiral of debt. Soon John Dickens fell into such extreme debt that he was sent to a debtor's prison and all of this when Charles was only twelve. Charles' family joined his father in the prison while Charles was forced to work in a somber blacking factory, bottling and labeling shoe polish, in order to support his family. This period was very traumatic and would greatly inform his outlook on life. From this time on, Charles was deeply sympathetic to the plight of children, the poor, and the oppressed. Many of his early experiences would find their way into his writings later on. Dickens attended the Wellington House Academy School in London until he was fifteen, but had primarily educated himself through the books that he would read at the library in the British Museum. Dickens had a great hunger for knowledge and a passion for all forms of literature, which gave him a talent with words and this lead to him taking an early job as a clerk in a law firm when he was fifteen and then later as a freelance reporter. One thing lead to another and before long Dickens began writing fiction. His earliest works were short stories and novellas, but he later moved on to writing serialized novels in 1936 with the publication of The Pickwick Papers. However, his greatest works were yet to come and of these perhaps no story he wrote was ever so popular as A Christmas Carol, which was published December 19, 1843.
To understand why A Christmas Carol was so special to readers when it was first published, one must understand where England was culturally at the time. First of all, Christmas had been on the wane since 1647, when the Puritans banned any form of Christmas festivities despite that they were made legal again in 1660. Between that time and the 19th century, Christmas started to seem obsolete to most. Yet that began to change during the Industrial Revolution, as the world changed into a cold, mechanical place of production and finance. There was a terrible rise in poverty and in crime. People needed warmth and comfort, faith and humanism. As a result, Christians began to practice their old cherished rituals and celebrate holidays that had been almost abandoned as a way to remind people that amidst all the gloom of this stark new modernity, that God was still there and there will always be hope for a better world. New traditions were born and old ones were re-established. People began to decorate their homes by hanging wreathes or placing candles in their windows. Then the English people even adopted the German tradition of placing an evergreen tree inside their houses, something that hadn't been common in England until 1840 when German Prince Albert popularized the tradition. And in 1843, the Christmas card was invented. One could argue that this is where Christmas began to become materialistic and superficial, but it helped a struggling country to keep hope in a time when all was in doubt and morale was low. So, when A Christmas Carol came out and addressed many of the problems that the poor were facing every day, the book's readers immediately considered it a classic.
Ebenezer Scrooge was a cold, bitter, greedy, old moneylender unaccustomed to acts of charity or displays of conviviality. He had once been a tender, caring person in his youth, but the pains of life had taught him that to survive one must be selfish and hard. However, his world and his view of it would change forever on one Christmas Eve. After a long day at his firm (during which Scrooge mocked his nephew Fred's love of the holidays, scolded his clerk Bob Cratchit for wanting Christmas Day off, and refused to give money to charity to feed and comfort the poor during the holidays), he went home with the intent of sitting down by his fireplace and having a nice snack. But upon arriving at his doorstep, old Scrooge had a nasty surprise, for the face of his partner Jacob Marley appeared before him where his doorknocker had been and then disappeared in an instant. Marley had died on Christmas Eve seven years earlier and Scrooge knew that he must have imagined the face. He entered his home, which was unlit for Scrooge wasn't one to waste money on candles or wood fires, and sat himself down for a small meal. It was not to be, for not long after Scrooge's clocks and doorbells began to ring, though his maid was not there. No one was there other than Scrooge and yet they rang all the same. Then to his great shock, through the doors of his bedroom walked Jacob Marley dragging behind him chains and cash-boxes. The ghost of Jacob Marley comes with a grim warning for Scrooge, telling him that since his death he has been doomed to walk the Earth for all eternity as a punishment for his avarice and greed during life and that Scrooge shall share a similar fate if he does not learn to aid mankind and ease its suffering. Scrooge will be visited by three ghosts, says Marley, who shall teach him the importance of Christmas and show him the only chance for his salvation. Then, after one final warning, the ghost of Jacob Marley descends from the window of Scrooge's bedroom and accompanies a host of other lost souls as they mourn their own fates while trying in vain to redeem themselves. As their horrid moaning dies away, Scrooge is determined to believe that this supernatural occurrence was all in his mind.
Yet, when the next night Scrooge is woken abruptly, he sees that Marley spoke the truth. Scrooge is again visited by a ghost, this one known as The Ghost of Christmas Past. The ghost is a strange apparition as it seems to have certain features of a child, including that is in stature much like a child, yet its eyes carry with it the burden of years of knowledge and its long hair is grey. The ghost explains to old Scrooge that it has been sent to show him his past so that he may better understand the present and the future. First the ghost takes him to his old schoolhouse, where Scrooge witnesses a scene from his youth, when he was alone at Christmas-time studying while his friends went home to join their families in celebration. Then, the ghost shows Scrooge a time when his beloved sister Fan came to take him home for Christmas after having talked Scrooge's embittered father into allowing him to return. Next, Scrooge revisits his time as an apprentice to the jovial Mr. Fezziwig, who was a good businessman and yet willing to spend money to celebrate Christmas with his employees and family alike. Scrooge is reminded how these times were of great relief to all that were there and that even he had enjoyed them. Scrooge also witnesses his first meeting with Belle, the woman who became the love of his life. Belle also proved to be his greatest heartbreak since the death of his sister, Fan, who had died in childbirth when Fred was born. When Scrooge is forced to relive the moment that he and Belle went their separate ways, because of Scrooge having become obsessed with money and lacking compassion for her, Scrooge begs the ghost to spare him any more torment. Lastly, Scrooge is shown the happiness that Belle went on to have with another man as they were married and had children. Scrooge begins to understand his hatred of Christmas, for much of his troubles in life seemed to happen at that time when most others were joyously oblivious to his own pain.
The next night, Scrooge is again startled awake by the sound of someone rustling in the next room over. When Scrooge confronts this new ghost, he is struck by just how unusual he is. Looking much like the image of Father Christmas, this jovial apparition introduces himself as the Ghost of Christmas Present and explains that he has come to show Scrooge how people celebrate Christmas. The spirit first shows Scrooge scenes of merriment and joy in the city, but then reveals to him scenes of such heartbreaking intensity, that Scrooge is moved beyond measure. When Scrooge sees how Bob Cratchit and his family live in squalor, he is shamed to see Cratchit toast him during their holiday feast and furthermore shamed when he realizes that Cratchit's youngest son, Tiny Tim, is an ill boy who can only move about on a crutch. Yet, it is Tiny Tim who most affects Scrooge, for Scrooge has never seen such a wise and selfless child. He observes the young boy give his blessing to all mankind, though his own fate has been less than fortunate. Then, the spirit shows Scrooge a horrendous sight. He takes him to one of the places where the poorest people dwell and there he witnesses desperation and deprivation unlike any he could have imagined. There, the spirit unveils two monstrous and pathetic children hiding beneath his robe and explains to Scrooge that they are the forgotten children of humanity, Want and Ignorance, and that they shall plague mankind so long as they go unnoticed by society. After this, the spirit disappears and leaves Scrooge to face the final ghost.
When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears, Scrooges confesses that this spirit more than the others truly fills him with dread, for the future may contain any number of horrors. The silent ghost, robed and hooded, merely beckons Scrooge to accompany him as he shows Scrooge what his future may hold. First, the dark spirit shows Scrooge three gentlemen of wealth as they mockingly remark about a deceased man and how they would unlikely attend his funeral. Next, the spirit shows Scrooge how thieves, desperate to exploit the man’s death, are pawning the dead man’s stolen bed sheets, clothes, and curtains. Scrooge recognizes some of the items as being like his own. After that, he is taken to the home of a family, where the inhabitants celebrate the death of their debtor. Despairing over the cruelty that he has been witness to, Scrooge pleads that the spirit show him some tenderness associated with death and the spirit silently complies. They arrive at the Cratchit home, where to Scrooge's great horror, he discovers that Tiny Tim has passed away because Bob Cratchit could not afford to feed his family as well as he might have were Scrooge to pay him more. Seeing how gracefully the Cratchits deal with their grief and how they manage to hold together in their terrible sadness, Scrooge begins to understand again the importance of familial bonds. Lastly, Scrooge is taken to a decrepit old graveyard, where the spirit ominously beckons to a gravestone. When Scrooge apprehensively approaches it, his worst fears are confirmed, and he realizes that he is the dead man whose death is so welcome to the poor and wealthy alike. Scrooge falls to his knees and begs the spirit to comfort him and tell him that he may change the course of events and repent, yet the spirit says nothing. As Scrooge claws at the spirit's robe, he awakens in his own room with his bedpost in his hands.
The next day, Scrooge awakes and finds that it is only Christmas day and that he has not died and all the horrible events he saw could still be averted. He spends the day with his nephew Fred's family and even anonymously sends the largest Christmas goose in the nearby meat shop to the Cratchit home. After a day full of repentance and celebration Scrooge returns home. When Bob Cratchit returns to work the following, Scrooge even plays a practical joke on him, at first threateningly scolding him for not coming to work on Christmas and for showing up late before telling him that he will give him a raise and help to ensure his family's wellbeing. At last, Scrooge embraces Christmas and learns to appreciate the needs of the poor and destitute. He finds his redemption through the love that he is given and the love that he gives in return.
Although most readers fell in love with Dickens' tale almost instantaneously, some critics complained that the book was too sentimental or that the story was absurdly convenient in its happy conclusion. Today, most literary historians and book critics will admit to these "flaws", but still eagerly praise the story for its colloquial charm, iconic characters, and clever plot. The story also holds up extraordinarily well when analyzed. There have been many critics, literary scholars and historians who have viewed the story as an allegory for religious conversion. It's not difficult to see why. Scrooge is clearly a symbol for the cynical, jaded non-believer, a secular man who places all his love into personal gains rather than charity. Some readers have assumed that Scrooge is Jewish, in part because the name Ebenezer has a Hebraic ring to it, but also because he fits the stereotypical model for a Jewish character in Victorian literature. This is where the book has caused some controversy. It's well-known that Charles Dickens had been accused of anti-Semitism after the publication of Oliver Twist, where he had portrayed Fagin, the leader of the pickpocket gang as a shallow, greedy, and manipulative Jewish character. Later, he publicly apologized for this and made an attempt to atone for the character by creating an idealized Jewish character in his last completed work, Our Mutual Friend, published between 1864-1865. So some people believe that Scrooge is a Shylock-like Jewish moneylender who converts to Christianity after being taught the importance of Christmas. This theory, however, seems improbable because much of Scrooge's story mirrors Dickens' own. Dickens had witnessed firsthand the horrors of the severely impoverished and neglected children and it was necessary for him to expose these issues to English society in the hopes that their welfare would be better looked after. It's also greatly important to acknowledge the fact that Dickens based his fictional character of Scrooge's sister Fan on his own sister. In this regard, Scrooge could be viewed as a parallel version of Dickens himself had his eyes not been opened to the plight of the under-privileged and the poor. Dickens also likely based the Scrooge character on a political economist by the name of Thomas Malthus and yet another noted inspiration was the eccentric politician John Elwes, who was nicknamed "the miser". Still, there is much more to be examined in this story, despite its short page count. Most notably, the novella is a critique of greed and industrial capitalism and how it failed to serve the interests of the common man. When Dickens first set out about writing A Christmas Carol, he had already abandoned a dissertation on the need for law reforms since the number of the poor and homeless was rising, as was crime. The injustice of the Poor Laws were a constant reminder of why reform was needed and how the rich had exploited the law in order to remain wealthy while the majority of the population fell into poverty and despair. Dickens was a strong proponent of social change and he very much wanted to see English society show a kinder face toward children, since his own childhood was tainted by memories of financial deprivation and social injustice. Many of those who fell into debt were sent to prisons and workhouses or forced to work the tread wheel until the point of exhaustion. Many people chose homelessness and death rather than go to the workhouses or factories. The main message of A Christmas Carol is rooted in the Christian beliefs in redemption and charity. Scrooge's conversion is not one of religion necessarily, so much as a transformation of the soul. He sees the error of his way and the harsh consequences of his greed, and with the aid of the three Spirits of Christmas, he changes both in his views as well as his actions. His psyche is released from its icy prison of finance and class and thawed by the warmth of compassion.
In my own opinion, A Christmas Carol remains one of the best things that Dickens ever wrote. Not only because he created a classic morality tale for a cynical age, but also because his story allows people who may not share the beliefs of the Christian faith to participate in the spirit of giving to the less fortunate and in doing so attempt to make the world a nicer, more hospitable and caring place. As an atheist, this is one of the components of the Christian religion that I have always admired and one that many people, both religious and secular, could learn so much from. Life can't be perfect, but if we learn to suffer together, love together, share together and support each other then this Earth would be a beautiful place for all people, regardless of race, gender, or religion.
A Christmas Carol has become part of the popular culture and its presence can be found anywhere from stage adaptations to films, from cartoons to television shows. Phrases like "Merry Christmas" "Bah! Humbug!", "dead as a door-nail", and "God bless us, everyone," have been absorbed into the lexicon of popular sayings. Everyone knows what someone means when a person is referred to being a "Scrooge". Many people even credit it with saving Christmas from falling out of fashion in the next century. But the novella's true legacy is that it reminded people of the importance that a holiday can play in our daily lives and of the extraordinary power of redemption. Perhaps, it doesn't matter what your religious beliefs are or whether you have any at all; maybe what matters is that you are capable of giving love and compassion to those that need it most in whatever way possible. A Christmas Carol and the holiday it was written about stand for more than gifts, ceremonies, or particular religious beliefs. They are about redemption, forgiveness, and understanding of one another as human beings. That is why the story is timeless and why Christmas will likely never go out of fashion.
A non-Christian ghost story that is more about the true meaning of Christmas than most Christian texts. Drawing from the yule mythologies far older than the time of Jesus, Dickens creates the true meaning and purpose of the yule spirit. Reread it each year; you'll find something a little different each time.
This is a classic. Great story. I love how he is taken through his life from his past all the way to his future and made to see how awfully greedy he's been, which makes him realize that he's better off being nice.