When I was little, one of my grandfather’s favorite holiday traditions on Christmas Eve was to read out loud Charles Dickens’ famous novel, “A Christmas Carol.” Well, actually, I don’t know if we ever got all the way through it or not. As captivated as I was by his inflexions, pauses and accents, being fairly little at the time, we usually just made it to the second or third ghost before I was sound asleep.
I do, however, remember at the time thinking it was all just a bit scary, what with dead men rattling chains, and three ghosts visiting this poor old miser. But there was one thing that wasn’t lost on me, and that was the message of the story. And it is a message that hasn’t changed much since it was first published 176 years ago.
Sadly, that tradition of reading aloud “A Christmas Carol” on Christmas Eve went on hiatus for about 45 years. Recently, I have taken to reading it aloud to all who will listen on Christmas Eve. To my surprise, my little performance, kind of impromptu the first time I did it, was quite popular at my mom’s nursing home in Alexandria.
But there is more to a Christmas Carol than just a cute story about a bitter old man and the Christmas spirit. In many ways, Dickens’ story, first published in 1843, helped revive the holiday, and in so doing, set the tone for the way we celebrate Christmas today. It could even be argued that Charles Dickens saved Christmas with “A Christmas Carol.” Or at the very least, inspired the public to embrace a resurgence in its celebration.
The early 19th century, both in England and America, was the beginning of the industrial revolution, and the impact of this upheaval on society, relationships and the culture as a whole was devastating.
Families that had lived in villages for centuries were taking grim industrial jobs in the big city. No longer working on estates, or their own small farms, they worked for pay. The traditional bonds and relationships formed over centuries had gone, and with it, so had many of the celebrations of the past. Christmas, in the harsh, somewhat soulless world of early industrial society seemed ready to fall by the wayside.
In1843, for both Britain in the United States, Christmas was not an official holiday. It was celebrated, but its original, more lively festivities, popular in the countryside and in medieval times, had become subdued and some ways, even discouraged. It was in this environment that “A Christmas Carol” captured the imagination of the public and encouraged many to revive the celebration of the holiday and indeed to establish the tradition that we still follow today.
It is just 66 pages long, but on both sides of the Atlantic, this story, serialized in newspapers, as well as in book form, was immediately popular with the public. More popular than its author ever imagined possible. He had tapped a longing in his readers that most people didn’t even know was there. It was a desire to reestablish a tie to another time, to find some of the connection to the past, and some of the joy of the Christmas season that had faded away.
The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is great storytelling. It moves quickly, has wonderful matter of fact description and memorable dialog. It had ghosts and spirits, which appealed to folks not too far removed from a peasant world, and at the same time, stressed in compelling terms the value of family and the power of redemption. And that takes in a lot of the true meaning of Christmas.
There was poor Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s beleaguered accounting clerk, trying to keep his family together, even as one daughter worked in a sweatshop, and his son, Tiny Tim, was dying. Cratchit, fighting to keep his head above water was someone that everyone can relate to. As for Scrooge, he was a man without a soul. Or so it seemed. That was perhaps the strongest message of a Christmas Carol. Scrooge did have a soul, and as cold and calloused as he had become, he was still capable of warmth, and like the promise of Christmas itself, was a symbol that we could all find redemption through the Christmas spirit.
The story has been told over and over again. In stage plays, musicals, adaptations and even cartoons. However, the message, as it was told in 1843, hasn’t changed much. Dickens, whether he knew it or not, was touching the very essence of the meaning of Christmas. Namely, that Christmas is about the promise of redemption for mankind and at the heart of its celebration is the warmth of our spirit and the strength of our ties to our families and our fellow man.
“A Christmas Carol,” more than any other popular story before or since — and there have been many good ones — set the stage for revival of Christmas as we know it today.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.