An immortal “Christmas Carol”
Last updated 12/14/2021 at Noon
Charles Dickens was working under pressure.
He had a deadline and a hole in his purse where his money drained out. His recent stories had not sold well, and his wife was pregnant with their fifth child. Dickens needed a hit, and he thought he had one — if he could get it finished in time for the 1843 Christmas season. It was already October; he didn’t have much time.
The story he had in mind wasn’t just a potential money-maker; it might have an impact on a society that was in the throes of massive change — and grotesque inequities. In September, he had been invited by a reformer to tour a London school for children called the Field Lane Ragged School. Ragged Schools were charity schools designed to provide education to very poor children.
The intentions with these schools were good, but they were working in a sea of misery. In a letter, Dickens wrote:
“I have very seldom seen, in all the strange and dreadful things I have seen in London and elsewhere, anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children.”
This misery and dire neglect was a consequence of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution in Britain. Hordes of people were moving from the countryside into urban centers, where there was a voracious appetite for cheap labor — the cheapest labor being that of children. There were few if any protections for workers, and Dickens witnessed a growing culture of greed, social isolation, and miserliness that he embodied in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Dickens scribbled furiously, and in six weeks he had conjured immortal characters: the miser and self-isolated outcast Ebenezer Scrooge, whose soul has shriveled to the point where only the joyless acquisition and hoarding of money matters; the everyman Bob Cratchit, trying, despite little hope, to make ends meet for his family, including the disabled Tiny Tim; Scrooge’s nephew, who cares more about family and warmth than counting coin; and vivid spectral spirits who guide Scrooge on a path that opens up his soul.
He titled the book “A Christmas Carol.”
It’s a tale of redemption that has, for the past 178 years, entertained and instructed folks during the Christmas season, in the form of Dickens’ book, stage plays, and film adaptations featuring everyone from George C. Scott to The Muppets.
Dickens’ tale hit just as Victorian England was rediscovering and reinventing the Christmas holiday, establishing traditions that persist to this day.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who was German) would, in just a few years, establish the decoration of Christmas trees as a centerpiece of the holiday. Christmas caroling was enjoying a new vogue, and the Christmas Card was “invented” in the very same year.
There is a reason why our image of a “traditional” Christmas often wears a Victorian top hat and frock coat and a hoopskirt. In fact, “traditional” is almost interchangeable with “Victorian” in many people’s image of the Christmas season.
But “A Christmas Carol” endures not because it reminds us of a romanticized Victorian Christmas, but because it strums fundamental chords in the human soul. It reminds us that relationships matter more than material gain, and that, no matter how far we fall from grace, there is always the hope that we can come back, and be better. It’s a cold soul indeed who cannot be moved by Scrooge’s waking on Christmas morning to the realization that he is not too late.
“A Christmas Carol” had real impact. British factory owners were moved to close on Christmas. It encouraged charitable giving to help the poor — especially children.
It would take more than a story, of course, to pass child labor laws and worker protections; there was a titanic struggle to mitigate and reform the terrible excesses of the Industrial Revolution that created the world in which we live.
But “A Christmas Carol” gave us a language and a moral and ethical frame of reference that lives on. Nobody wants to be a Scrooge — at least not the one we meet before the spirits set him straight. And surely we hope for the fellowship invoked in the final words of the novel: “God bless us, Every one!”