Marley's Ghost by John Leech, A Christmas Carol 1843

How ‘A Christmas Carol’ became a holiday classic

December 18, 2019

Winter has long been a season of giving, but there was a time when the charitable spirit of the holidays seemed a pastoral relic on the brink of becoming displaced by the drudgery of life in the city.

Enter Charles Dickens, who, with the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843, helped to usher in a new understanding of the Christmas holiday. Jody Thomas, MA, CU Denver instructor of English, explains why Dickens’ holiday classic has continued to delight new audiences, including her students, each year for close to two centuries.

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How did A Christmas Carol come to be the classic we know and love?

“Many people have not actually read A Christmas Carol, yet they know it so well because it completely permeates our concept of the Christmas holiday, which is heavily influenced by the Victorians, and Dickens’ novel was a big part of establishing that history.”

“When Dickens was writing A Christmas Carol, English society was rapidly changing in response to the Industrial Revolution. England was changing from an agricultural society to one where many people were moving to the cities and working in factories. The earlier tradition among the Georgians was for nobility to host feasts in their manors, some lasting up to twelve days, for their tenant farmers, but that practice had begun to fall out of favor during the Victorian era as a result of industrialization and urbanization. And there was an uncertainty about how to celebrate Christmas in the cities.”

A Christmas Carol was very influential in demonstrating to the Victorians that they could uphold the generosity of the Georgians’ way of celebrating Christmas, the idea that the wealthy needed to provide for the poor, and move it into the city and into the private home. Instead of a being a communal feast or party, the celebrations became smaller, more intimate, and focused on families and children. Amid their changing world, A Christmas Carol showed the Victorians wonderful images of warm family celebrations and of people sharing their good fortune.”

What other holiday traditions were changing at that time?

“Interestingly, there’s not a Christmas tree anywhere in A Christmas Carol, though Christmas trees were being popularized in England around the same time with the help of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, who brought the tradition with him from his native Germany. In 1840s England, a Christmas tree was sort of the Elf on the Shelf of its day, just the latest holiday trend. Rather than a tree, the English had traditionally had a Yule log, which was a specially selected log to be burned on Christmas day.”

What was the public’s initial response to the book?

“When it was first published, the book was a runaway success, so much so that it was widely plagiarized in print. Dickens didn’t make anywhere near the money that he should have from it. Additionally, it was almost immediately adapted into unauthorized stage productions, for which Dickens did not receive royalties, either. He ended up in a lengthy legal battle trying to stop the plagiarism.”

Why did Dickens decide to tell a ghost story at Christmas?

“Ghost stories have been a Christmas tradition in England for a long time. A lot of the spookier things that modern Americans may associate with Halloween the Victorians also enjoyed at Christmas, as it was the darkest time of year, the longest night of the year.”

How has A Christmas Carol influenced other creative works?

“Beyond the many direct adaptations, there are many other Christmas stories that similarly tap into the themes of A Christmas Carol or reference the characters in some way. Like ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas,’ where a grouchy creature isolated from society has a change of heart after his interaction with Cindy Lou Who, who is sort of a Tiny Tim character. Or in the movie Home Alone, where the elderly neighbor, Old Man Marley, acts as sort of a Scrooge figure and even shares his last name with Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley. Like Scrooge, Old Man Marley is isolated from his family, has a profound interaction with a young boy in mortal peril, and in the end reunites with his family in the same way Scrooge gets reunites with his nephew, Fred. A Christmas Carol is so important in the American imagination of Christmas that we end up sneaking elements of it into lots of our other Christmas stories.”

What is the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol?

“I love the adaptation that the Denver Center Theatre Company performs. I normally take my class each year.” [Due to ongoing renovations of The Stage Theatre, this particular production of A Christmas Carol will resume in 2020.]

'Ignorance and Want' by John Leech, 1843
An illustration by John Leech for the first edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Is there anything audiences might not understand if they’ve never read the book?

“Many adaptations downplay the social commentary in the book. Dickens was very, very concerned with child welfare; in fact, that seems to be the main reason he wrote the book. He wanted to say something about the harsh treatment of children in Victorian England. Depending on the adaptation, sometimes that perspective remains, but often it does not.”

“In the first edition there were excellent illustrations by John Leech, and in one the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two wretched, miserable children named Ignorance and Want. In the Victorian sense, ‘want’ served as a synonym for ‘poverty.’ To Dickens, these are society’s two main ills, ignorance and want, personified in these children, and so the Ghost tells Scrooge he should fear them both, but to be particularly afraid of Ignorance. And that message had a powerful influence at the time.”

“Shortly after the publication of A Christmas Carol, Parliament passed a reform to limit children between the ages of 9 and 13 who worked in factories to only nine hours per day, six days a week, which was still appalling. Returning to Leech’s illustration, it includes unmistakable factory smokestacks in the background behind Ignorance and Want, which tells us something about the suffering of the children inside those workhouses.”

“Tiny Tim, whose injury or ailment is never fully explained, clearly suffers from something brought about by poverty, because Tiny Tim dies in the vision of Christmas that Scrooge is shown by the Ghost of Yet to Come. Yet once Scrooge has his epiphany and begins helping the Cratchit family, Tiny Tim lives. For anyone who reads the book, there’s this very powerful sense that the wealthy are neglecting their duty to the poor, in particular the poor children, and regrettably that doesn’t always come through in modern adaptations.”

What is yet to come for this nearly 180-year old Christmas classic?

“One of the reasons A Christmas Carol became so seminal was that it appeared at a time of great social change and helped solve a growing problem in the lives of the English populace. It showed them what the Victorian, urban, industrial version of Christmas could be, and that version is still very much how we celebrate the holiday today. But Christmas has gone through many iterations: If you accept the idea of late-stage capitalism, which asserts that everything is about to change again, then we might be ripe for a new Christmas story that will take us into the next period, whatever that’s going to be.”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.