Opinion: 'A Christmas Carol' anything but secular

John O'Neill

Whereas most of the works by Charles Dickens are thick books ranging between 700 and 800 pages, the great Victorian author's most successful tale, "A Christmas Carol," is a short novella. Yet this is only one of several ironies to define "A Christmas Carol" and the Dickens Christmas itself.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that whereas "A Christmas Carol" was (and is) the great Victorian author's most successful critical and commercial work, while Dickens was working on the tale in 1843, he was also mired in the serials of "Martin Chuzzlewit", his least successful work in both critical and commercial terms. Indeed, part of the problem with "Martin Chuzzlewit" is that Dickens had been contemplating "A Christmas Carol" before he sat down to write it in October of 1843 and it detracted from his effort in "Martin Chuzzlewit."

The most galling irony of A Christmas Carol is how the critics have branded the story a secular tale and that the Dickens Christmas is a secular concept.

But the most galling irony of "A Christmas Carol" is how the critics have branded the story a secular tale and that the Dickens Christmas is a secular concept. Truth be told, there is nothing secular about either "A Christmas Carol" or the Dickens Christmas itself. As the late Eleanor Farjeon wrote in a 1954 introduction to "The Christmas Books," the first and greatest of which is "A Christmas Carol," "To separate the feast of Dickens from the festival of Christ would do Boz poor justice."  (Boz was the pen-name used by Dickens in his early works.)

Yet the critics who advance the spurious notion that the Dickens Christmas is secular can be forgiven insofar as most of the author's deliberate Christmas works make no mention at all about Christmas. Of the five Christmas books which Dickens wrote between 1843 and 1849, only "A Christmas Carol" makes mention of Christmas. The only other work in "The Christmas Books" that comes close to a mention of Christmas is The Chimes (which is centered on the New Year's holiday rather than Christmas). And of the several Christmas stories written by Dickens in the 1850s, only "A Christmas Tree" and "What Christmas is As We Get Older" make Christmas explicit.

And this too is one of the ironies to define the Dickens Christmas. Just as Christmas to Dickens was a celebration of the entire biblical saga of Christ and not merely a celebration from Nativity to Epiphany, his Christmas theme included all the seasons. Indeed, it is no accident that the periodical founded by Dickens was called "All the Year Round."

This irony also leads us to what Dickens would have regarded as the most regrettable irony. And in this case, the irony is not that of the author but of the public (including the reading public). Dickens enjoyed giving public readings of "A Christmas Carol" throughout the year. That one would enjoy the tale only in December would have infuriated Dickens.

What Dickens would also have resented is how today we tend to see Christmas as over after Dec. 25. Dickens was emphatic that Christmas comprises twelve days. Rather than view Dec. 26  as the day after Christmas, Dickens would have corrected the public that it is the second day of Christmas.

Dickens was (and is) the most important force in literature since Shakespeare. And Christmas is the most important aspect of the great Victorian author's many sides. As for "A Christmas Carol," whether it is regarded as a secular or solemn work, it is for good reason the most enduring and endearing work in all of English literature.

John O'Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer.