A Christmas Carol

In which I review A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ beloved 1843 Christmas story about the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve, urging him to change his ways.

What it’s about: London, Christmas Eve, the 1840s: Ebenezer Scrooge, a wealthy but misanthropic moneylender, refuses to celebrate Christmas, rejecting his nephew’s invitation to attend Christmas dinner, dismissing those collecting for the poor, and only grudgingly allowing his clerk Bob Cratchit to take the day off work. As he prepares for bed, he is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, a miserable spectre encased in chains. Marley warns Scrooge that a similar fate awaits him if he doesn’t change his miserly ways, and announces that he will be visited by three spirits. The Ghost of Christmas Past appears first, in the form of a ghostly child, showing Scrooge episodes from his youth, including a merry Christmas feast hosted by his old employer Mr Fezziwig. The Ghost of Christmas Present, a Bacchus-like Giant with a holly wreath on his head, takes Scrooge on a tour of his nephew’s Christmas party (where the guests make jokes about Scrooge’s unpleasantness) and the Cratchit family’s humble but loving Christmas supper. Tiny Tim, the youngest Cratchit child, is sickly and a cripple, but joins in the celebrations cheerily, saying “God bless us everyone”. The Ghost of Christmas Future, a silent spectre in a hooded cloak, shows Scrooge a preview of his own death: former colleagues joke that they will only attend his funeral if lunch is provided, rag-and-bone men sort through his clothing and possessions, and his creditors congratulate themselves on being spared his harsh business terms. Scrooge and the Spirit also return to the Cratchit family, who are mourning the recent death of Tiny Tim. A terrified Scrooge begs the Spirit for a chance to redeem himself. He wakes up to find himself back in his bedroom on Christmas morning. He calls to a boy in the street to buy a giant turkey and take it to the Cratchits, and goes into the street greeting people with a smile and ‘Merry Christmas’ and donates money to the poor. The next morning, he feigns anger at Bob’s late arrival at work, but then promises to raise his salary and help his struggling family. The tale ends with Scrooge becoming good and kind man who “knew how to keep Christmas well” and a second father to Tiny Tim who we are told does NOT die.

Why it’s a classic: A Christmas Carol is second only to the Nativity as the most famous Christmas story in the world. Dickens wrote it in 1843, in between monthly installments of Martin Chuzzlewit, following an established tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time. (Christmas coincides with the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice, a period of short days and long cold nights when spirits were thought to walk amongst the living). The story was published on 17 December as a Christmas gift book, with illustrations by Punch caricaturist John Leech. By Christmas Eve, it had sold 5,000 copies, was quickly reprinted and has never been out of print since. Phrases like “Bah Humbug!” and “God Bless Us Everyone” have entered the English vernacular, and “a Scrooge” is defined in the dictionary as someone ungenerous who hates spending money.

Dickens’ public readings of A Christmas Carol were phenomenally popular, and it was quickly dramatised for the stage. To date, there have been at least 30 film versions, the most famous of which is probably the 1951 film Scrooge starring Alastair Sim as arguably the definitive Scrooge. Less orthodox interpretations include A Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine as Scrooge, Kermit as Bob Cratchit and Gonzo as a bizarrely-cast but rather wonderful Charles Dickens, and Scrooged, a raucous Hollywood comedy starring Bill Murray as a soulless TV executive who wants to “own” Christmas viewer ratings.

Beyond its popularity as a story, A Christmas Carol is now viewed as a seminal cultural text. With this and his other Christmas stories, Dickens was widely credited with popularising Christmas as a Victorian family tradition, focusing less on religious rituals and more on secular rituals of feasting, gift-giving and charity to the poor. The plight of the Cratchits and Tiny Tim, in particular, focused Dickens’ readers on the economic inequalities of capitalist society, felt most keenly during the freezing English midwinter, and the importance of generosity and philanthropy. For better or for worse, Britain hasn’t really changed much since Dickens’ day: the Royal Exchange, wooden shop fronts and red bricked buildings of Victorian London are still standing, the Christmas Day meal of goose, turkey, fruit, chestnuts and mulled wine still gives millions of Britons indigestion on Boxing Day, and the Tories are still in power and mercilessly starving the poor.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A giant bouquet, in the form of the monstrous turkey Scrooge buys for the Cratchits. I’ve slightly cheated by choosing A Christmas Carol for this blog project, since it’s a classic I’ve read and returned to since I was a child. When I was 12, I played Scrooge in a school play, and was, of course, a hit – I still have the nightgown and nightcap my mother made for me, copied from John Leech’s drawings.

Even now in middle age, I still genuflect in front of A Christmas Carol as one of the most perfect stories ever written. From the beginning, Dickens’ narration is informal and intimate, creating the sense that he’s in the same room as his reader (“[he] found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor… as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow“), our chairs pulled up before the fire as an old friend tells us a ghost story. This consciousness of being told a story makes it as appealing to children as to adults, and Dickens’ distance from his characters allows him to make some great jokes at their expense. Only this kind of narrator can get away with calling his protagonist “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” and still keep us interested in his journey. “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it,” Dickens tells us, which makes me rather like him.

There’s something irresistible about tales of sinners and misanthropes being redeemed – a theme that runs through a number of other popular Christmas films like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s A Wonderful Life. What makes Scrooge so memorable is that Dickens allows him some intelligence and wit, and some crackingly good lines. “If I could work my will,” Scrooge says, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas,’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!” He’s a misanthrope, rather than a cardboard-cutout villain, and the supernatural element of the story, while thrilling on its own terms, gives us insight into what him that way.

Before Freud and Jung invented psychoanalysis, Dickens was acutely aware of the impact of early childhood trauma on adult development, and in Scrooge he gives us a thumbnail sketch of a once kind and loving man who became twisted by disappointment and his ambition for money. Dickens’ handling of Scrooge’s Christmas morning redemption is equally as witty, which saves the story from toppling into sentiment. It’s hilarious to think of the dour, hunched old man laughing and “frisking” (dancing?) around his fireplace, “light as a feather” and “merry as a school-boy” – merrier in fact than the lonely schoolboy we saw in the Christmas Past scenes. There’s still something of the old Scrooge that reminds us he knows how to strike a bargain: “Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling,” he tells the boy out the window; “Come back with him in less than five minutes, and I’ll give you half-a-crown!” Dickens is also generous enough to allow Scrooge the last laugh, giving him (and the readers) the great fun of watching Scrooge feign anger at Bob Cratchit before surprising him with an act of kindness.

As I re-read the story last week, during an extraordinarily grim Christmas season in locked down COVID-infected London, I’m struck most of all by Scrooge’s determination “to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge“. It’s that knowledge of Scrooge’s, hard-won through a night of ghostly apparitions and visions of how dreadful the rest of his life could have been, that makes all his Christmas morning good cheer more meaningful. He chooses, just as Fezziwig once did, to value kindness and good cheer and acts of charity. “[W]hile there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour,” Dickens tells us, which somehow still resonates in our ironic and cynical age. As Michael Slater writes in his Introduction to my Penguin Classics edition, the theme of dealing with painful memories and learning from them is the key to the power of A Christmas Carol and of much of Dickens’ other writing. “In this sketch“, Slater writes, “Dickens exhorts his readers not to suppress all painful memories as Scrooge will do, nor seek to expunge them… but simply to put them to one side and instead to count their blessings and rejoice in them.”

In Dickens’ world, and indeed in our own, happiness is never unconditional or guaranteed, and an appreciation of sorrow is one of the greatest motivators we have to be joyful. It’s with an appreciation of that grim undertow that Dickens truly revels in the joy of Christmas. His descriptions of the characters’ various Christmas celebrations, and particularly of the food, are simply wonderful. He spends the best part of a page describing the displays in the fruiterers’ shops: “There were great round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe…. There were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed“. Only a writer who’d suffered and starved as a child, as Dickens did when his father was in debtors’ prison, could write about this abundance of food with such pornographic glee,

But it’s the Cratchits’ more humble Christmas supper that’s most memorable: Mrs Cratchit’s pudding, “singing in the copper” and then turned out “like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top“. Mrs Cratchit, like many hard-working cooks scraping together a family meal on a limited budget, said that “now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour.” It’s details like this that make me adore Dickens. In our post-MeToo world, it’s not very woke to like Dickens – most contemporary commentary focuses on his relegation of women to the domestic sphere, and his shameful treatment of his wife and mistress. These are fair allegations to make, but they won’t stop me revering him as one of our great liberal humanists, who used literature as a machine for creating empathy.

Quotable Quote: “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

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