A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
Cold-hearted, penny-pinching Scrooge sits in his unheated money-counting office one frigid Christmas Eve, unbothered that bookkeeper Bob Cratchit is shivering and missing his family because the mean-spirited, miserly and cheerless Scrooge refuses to pay for heating, much less a day off for gift-giving.
And so in 1843, Charles Dickens begins A Christmas Carol.
And he changes the world. Try to imagine no “Bah, humbug!” no “Ghost of Christmas Past,” no “Merry Christmas” and certainly no term to describe the worst boss imaginable – “Scrooge!”
Of course, “Merry Christmas” had been around at least since at least 1565, when it appeared in The Hereford Municipal Manuscript: “And thus I comytt you to god, who send you a mery Christmas & many.” However, Dickens successfully promoted the greeting into popular usage.
But A Christmas Carol’s effect was far, far more. While Shakespeare gave us Romeo and Juliet’s tolerance of diversity, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin defied slavery and Mein Kampf ushered in the nightmare of the Nazi holocaust, Dickens little parable transformed our celebration of Christ’s birth.
Before A Christmas Carol, the observance of Christmas had dwindled, according to historian Ronald Hutton. The Puritans had branded it a pagan holiday and sought to have it banned. The Anabaptists ignored it, calling it “Papist.” But after Dickens, it spread – becoming popular today even in countries such as China and Japan, where Christians are in the minority.
Some scholars have claimed that in publishing A Christmas Carol, Dickens single-handedly invented the modern form of the holiday. Within months of A Christmas Carol’s publication, Gentleman’s Magazine credited it with the sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain. The Queen of Norway sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love,” Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, credited A Christmas Carol for his own seasonal generosity, and in the United States, a factory owner attending a Boston reading on Christmas Eve was so moved that he closed his shops on Christmas Day and gave every employee a turkey, a practice which quickly spread.
And who hasn’t found themselves caught up in the fun as Scrooge is forced to accompany the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future – and experience the consequences of his greed? Who hasn’t quietly cheered as, overwhelmed with joy by the chance to redeem himself, Scrooge rushes out onto the street to share his newfound Christmas spirit, treats Tiny Tim as if he were his own child, provides lavish gifts for the poor, and treats everyone with kindness, generosity and warmth?
The London literary magazine the Athenaeum declared A Christmas Carol, “A tale to make the reader laugh and cry – to open his hands, and open his heart to charity even toward the uncharitable ... a dainty dish to set before a king.”
Poet and editor Thomas Hood wrote, “If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were ever in danger of decay, this is the book that would give it a new lease. The very name of the author predisposes one to kindlier feelings.”
Great British philosopher G.K. Chesterton observed that with A Christmas Carol Dickens transformed Christmas from a sacred festival, an elaborate, 12-day Yuletide village celebration into a family feast that Industrial Revolution city dwellers could enjoy. He brought Christmas to everyone’s home, accessible to ordinary people rather than merely witnessing its performance in church.
Author William Makepeace Thackeray in the February 1844 Fraser’s Magazine pronounced the book, “a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it.” Thackeray wrote of Tiny Tim, “There is not a reader in England but that little creature will be a bond of union between the author and him; and he will say of Charles Dickens, ‘GOD BLESS HIM!’”
Many of our ideas of Christmas today come from the Dickens period in Victorian history. Queen Victoria had just married Prince Albert, who brought several of his family’s customs to Buckingham Castle, including the Christmas tree, caroling and gift exchanges.
The book was also controversial; its lack of Infants in swaddling clothes, wise men, a Holy Family, or shepherds inspired a multitude of sermons and pamphlets – even though it does contain references to Christ “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see” and to the Almighty through Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, every one!”
Over the last 150 years, the tale’s been told and retold many times. It was adapted for the stage almost immediately and played for 44 straight sold-out performances. By the close of February 1844, eight rival theatrical productions were on stage in London. That same year in New York City, hundreds of street kids were treated to a musical version, but fistfights broke out, which news reports said were “only quelled when offenders were led off by police” – to spend Christmas behind bars, not exactly what Dickens had in mind.
The book has been adapted to outdoor pageants, radio productions, Broadway musicals, numerous TV renditions and at least 28 films, including seven silent movies. The earliest on film is 1901’s silent Scrooge or Marley’s Ghost. Another was filmed in 1910 by Thomas Edison.
The first “talkie” version came out in 1928. Albert Finney won a Golden Globe in 1970’s musical version, Scrooge. Rivaling it, however is the 1934 radio play starring Lionel Barrymore.
Among the many not-so-memorable TV and movie versions are Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol (1979), A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994), An All Dogs Christmas Carol (1998), Rich Little’s Christmas Carol (1974) and The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol (2011). Classic variations on the theme include Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Dr. Seuss’s 1957 “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Among the best portrayals of Scrooge is Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart, who did a one-man version at the Old Vic Theatre in London. His Shakespearian soliloquy gets straight to the heart of the original – making it crystal clear that we’re meant to cheer for Scrooge. After all, it is Scrooge who is the hero, not Tiny Tim. Through crusty old Ebenezer, Dickens shows us it’s heroic to rescue yourself as opposed to saving Lois Lane, Fay Wray or the Holy Grail.
On film, perhaps the best version is Scrooged (1988) starring Bill Murray, Bobcat Goldthwait, John Forsythe, Carol Kane, John Houseman and Robert Mitchum. It offers a captivating, hilarious and heartwarming take with Murray as a television mogul rehearsing a live broadcast of A Christmas Carol complete with leggy dancers and pitiful orphans – but with only ratings in mind, not the reason for the season.
Don’t be put off by Ms. Piggy and Kermit the Frog’s 1992 The Muppets Christmas Carol starring Michael Caine as Scrooge and Kermit as Cratchit. This is probably the most kid-friendly version with Gonzo providing the narration.
However, 1951’s A Christmas Carol starring Allister Sim is considered by critics to be the best adaptation. It sticks closest to Dickens. However, not to be overlooked is 1984’s A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott, who gives a riveting performance. You can feel Scrooge’s misery and regret as you are reminded of our need to love our fellow man.
That’s why Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. He claimed he wasn’t promoting Christmas– but empathy for the poor. In 1843, he had been deeply touched by the miserable lives of poor children after touring tin mines in Cornwall where he saw kids working in dangerous conditions and denied educations. His feelings about their suffering was reinforced by a visit to a school for London’s half-starved street children.
He wrote in May 1843 a political pamphlet headlined, “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child” and warned politician Dr. Southwood Smith, “you will certainly feel that a sledge hammer has come down” once it was published. But shortly before its scheduled release, Dickens spoke publicly urging workers and employers to join together to bring about education reform. When his pleas fell on deaf ears, he realized the most effective way to reach the broadest audience would be to write a deeply-felt story, not a political sermon.
And so his pamphlet grew into A Christmas Carol.