A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1843

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by Charles Dickens, 1843

A Christmas Carol was the first and much the best of the long series of Christmas books (1843-48) and stories (1850-67) by Charles Dickens. The story had suddenly occurred to him in early October 1843, when he was visiting Manchester to speak at a fund-raising occasion. Though busy producing his monthly serial installments of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), he furiously went to work on the story and completed it in time for the Christmas market. It was immediately recognized as a classic celebration of Christmas, most eloquently by his future rival Thackeray, who called it "a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness." Already Thackeray could assume that it was as superfluous to recapitulate the story of Scrooge as to remind the reader of the plot of Robinson Crusoe, another definitively mythic story.

Before becoming a novelist, Dickens had proclaimed in "Christmas Festivities" and "The New Year," published in the 1835-36 Yuletide period and collected in his Sketches by Boz, his strong and sincere devotion to the sentiment and celebrations of the season, and his first novel, Pickwick Papers, had included a "goodhumoured Christmas Chapter" followed by a story, closely anticipating A Christmas Carol, about a misanthropic old bachelor who, after certain supernatural events and visions on Christmas Eve, becomes "an altered man," repentant, reformed, and wiser. When Dickens died in 1870, a Cockney costermonger's girl was heard to say, "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?" With his many returns to the subject, Dickens had identified himself with the Christmas spirit even for the illiterate, who became familiar with his works through their numerous stage versions. A Christmas Carol has always been, and remains, notably popular in stage, radio, film, and television adaptations, and Dickens's own solo rendering of it from 1853 onwards was the central item in his public readings repertoire.

As often in his fiction, Dickens suggests his positives through a negative—Scrooge (finely named for his function), whose automatic response to Christmas jollity and benevolence is "Bah! Humbug!" In the opening "stave" he is seen rejecting the seasonal claims of family and of charitable giving and being penny-pinchingly mean to his clerk Bob Cratchit; in the final stave these denials are all rectified by the overnight-reformed Scrooge, who thenceforward "became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew." His conversion is mythical and magical, not a psychological process (Dickens called his method here "a whimsical kind of masque which the good humour of the season justified"). By supernatural means Scrooge revisits his past and sees what he has lost by sacrificing love to money lust, and he glimpses the bleak future that he and those dependent on him risk unless he mends his ways. In the "Christmas Present" episodes Dickens celebrates Christmas positively, with animated descriptions of the streets and shops on Christmas Eve, a superbly inclusive presentation of the Cratchit family's Christmas dinner (it has every appropriate anticipation, worry, triumph, congratulation, and sentiment, with due attention to the children for whom Christmas is so special an event), and an account of the fun and jollity in Scrooge's nephew's household. There is a sharp final reminder, too, of those excluded from the feast, symbolized by the two allegorical children Ignorance and Want, "wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable." A typically Dickensian note of pathos is introduced by the crippled Tiny Tim, and the story appropriately ends with Scrooge's becoming "a second father" to him, "who did NOT die" (as he had done in Scrooge's vision of the future: Dickens thus eats his cake—the pathos of the Cratchits' grief over their bereavement—but has it complete when Tim survives.)

"He went to church," we hear of the reformed Scrooge on Christmas Day, but that is almost the only reference to religion. It is a secular winter solstice festival that Dickens celebrates. The weather is appropriately "cold, bleak, biting … foggy withal" on Christmas Eve, though there is no fog on Scrooge's joyful Christmas morning, but rather "clear, bright, jovial, stirring cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to," cold that offsets by contrast the physical and emotional warmth of the festive hearth and home. The stress is on benevolence, generous sentiment, family togetherness, and simple enjoyment by young and old and rich and poor—"a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time," as Scrooge's nephew says on Dickens's behalf, "the only time … when men and women seem by common consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow travellers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys." Scrooge's early unseasonable misanthropy does not threaten the ambient benevolence and high spirits. He is a thoroughly enjoyable miserly mugwump. As G. K. Chesterton remarked, "There is a heartiness in his inhospitable sentiments that is akin to humour and therefore to humanity; he is only a crusty old bachelor, and had (I strongly suspect) given away turkeys secretly all his life."

Dickens's annual Christmas items continued, almost uninterrupted, for 20 years and became a national institution, and he returned to the subject in his novels too, but he never again achieved such a perfect and (save in its religious dimension) comprehensive evocation of the Christmas spirit. Nor has any British writer before or since rivaled him in creating so potent a myth of this annual festival, experienced by many but surprisingly underrepresented in our literature. Henceforth, wrote a reviewer on 23 December 1843, anyone who wants to "understand what the real enjoyment of Christmas is … will have to read" this story—a pardonable exaggeration and an extraordinary prophetic accolade for a book then four days old.

—Philip Collins

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1843

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1843