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How Charles Dickens revived Christmas


‘A Christmas Carol” is the best known work of Charles Dickens. This is no small irony when considering the brevity of the 1843 novella compared to the length of the great Victorian author’s other works.

Yet despite its brevity, “A Christmas Carol” touches on a number of profound subjects. Though the tale is one for children, it commands just as much affection from adults, and it is a compelling literary force.

The tale deals head on with the psychological issue of painful and repressed memories. Ebenezer Scrooge, the elderly miser haunted into holiday cheer and generosity, is forced by the Ghost of Christmas Past to confront himself as a lonely boy abandoned to boarding school over the holiday. Then Scrooge is forced to confront himself as a young man whose fiancee breaks their engagement due to his avarice.

“A Christmas Carol” is also pertinent in terms of sociology. Scrooge is forced by the Ghost of Christmas Present to see the wretched children beneath the spirit’s robe who personify Ignorance (the boy) and Want (the girl). As Scrooge is repulsed by the sight, the spirit admonishes him to beware them both.

Debtors prison was an appalling reality of Victorian England. And this reality is not forsaken in “A Christmas Carol.” Though the film versions contain scenes of Scrooge practicing usury which are not found in the written tale, Scrooge is made out by Dickens to be a money lender. And when Scrooge urges the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to show him someone with emotion in response to the dead man in the bed (whom we know to be Scrooge himself), the spirit leads Scrooge to one of the latter’s debtors relieved at the news of his death.

Then there is “A Christmas Carol” in historical terms. It is no exaggeration to say Dickens played a huge role in establishing the modern Christmas holiday, reviving it with “A Christmas Carol.” Christmas had been outlawed in England under Oliver Cromwell in the 17th Century. And by the time of the Victorian era, the holiday had made it back only as a rural and neglected tradition.

“A Christmas Carol” changed that. Indeed, the huge celebration of Christmas throughout Europe and the Americas is traceable this potent tale.

One irony to Dickens reviving Christmas is that he also admired Cromwell. Another irony is that prior to “A Christmas Carol,” the holiday was explicitly Catholic as well as rural. And Dickens harbored ill-feelings toward Catholics. Then again, he harbored ill feelings as well toward Jews, Puritans, and people of color.

It is worth pondering how Dickens would have viewed today’s reception of “A Christmas Carol.” He loved commercializing his work and he would have loved seeing versions of “A Christmas Carol” on the screen.

But Dickens would have regretted that the classic tale was limited to annual enjoyment. He delivered readings of the tale throughout the year and in no way thought it exclusive to the Christmas season.

“A Christmas Carol” is by far the author’s greatest work in homage to the season. And Dickens would have found it most rewarding that he and his classic tale are today synonymous with Christmas.

John O’Neill is a writer based in Allen Park.