It’s hard to imagine a Christmas season without Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol making an appearance. Though I’ve watched and listened to numerous versions of his novella, Christmas Carol lingers on my ‘books to read’ list.
Dickens opened his smash hit novella with this:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to rise the Ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their house pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Their faithful Friend and Servant.
The Man Who Invented the Modern Christmas?
I wonder what Dickens would think if he could see how his efforts to “rise a Ghost of an idea” inspired numerous versions of his story in theatres, movies, spin-off books, and festivals. According to Paul Millward’s Literary Traveler 2017 article, we can thank Dickens for the popular, and lately, controversial, “Merry Christmas” greeting. Dickens used the phrase in Christmas Carol and it went viral. I suspect Dickens would be shocked to learn today people argue with strangers on social media about the appropriate use – or failure to use – the phrase in the public arena.
Dickens set out to write something that would resolve his desperate financial straits, not revolutionize how we celebrate Christmas. Our modern Christmas traditions are relatively new. Dickens was born in the English Victorian era where Christmas as a festival had begun to decline. There were still remnants of earlier pagan-inspired Christmas traditions, but it took Dickens story to rekindle the kind of Christmas fever we observe today. He introduced readers to a version of the season based on joy, compassion, fellowship, and family – the ideals on which modern western cultures mark the season.
Some go so far as to credit Dickens for inventing the modern Christmas season. Though he makes only veiled references to the Biblical birth-of-Christ narrative, he does champion charity and good will toward all, just like the angels in the Biblical accounts. He hits hard on theme that the key to happiness and fulfillment in life is giving to others. Ebenezer Scrooge is the antithesis of that. It takes four spirits – the ghost of his partner Jacob Marley and the Christmases past, present and future – before Scrooge comes to his senses and turns his life around.
Though that central message is often lost in the piles of presents and platters of pastries, it remains the primary reason for the season. Dickens’ story launched an avalanche of sentimental journeys through the bleak winter season.
Desperation Fuels Inspiration
When Dickens wrote Christmas Carol in the fall of 1843, he desperately needed a successful story. His wife Catherine was about to give birth to the fifth of their ten children. He was deeply in debt and his two previous writing efforts had flopped. He had huge debts of his own, plus those he inherited from his father. Desperation as much as inspiration prompted Dickens to write Christmas Carol.
Whatever motivated him, he wrote a ghost story that hit the mark then – and continues to do so today. Christmas Carol sold 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve and has been in print ever since, in several languages. Any modern author would be thrilled to have their books do as well as this novella did.
Write About What You Know
Authors often advise “write about what you know.” Dickens knew about poverty, starting in his childhood. At times during his life Dickens could easily relate to the plight of Bob Cratchit. Born in 1812, as the second of eight children, his parents were poor, but provided a happy enough childhood for him and his siblings – just like Bob Cratchit does for his family.
When Dickens was ten, the family moved to a poor section of London where the family’s financial struggles degenerated from difficult to desperate. When Dickens was twelve his father was sent to debtor’s prison. Dickens dropped out of school and took a job at a boot-blacking factory to help support the family. The family’s fate improved when his father inherited enough money to pay off his debts and young Dickens returned to school for a few years.
When he was fifteen, he dropped out again to take a position as office boy. That was the start of his literary career. He started freelance reporting in the London courts, which in turn gave him the skills to report for two major London newspapers. At age twenty-one he started submitting his work to various magazines and newspapers under the pseudonym “Boz.” He went on to publish fifteen novels.
From Print to Film and Far Beyond
The first U.S. adaptation of Dickens’ story to screen was rushed into production in 1938. The movie differed from the novel in a variety of ways, such as the timing of the arrival of the three Christmas ghosts. Several parts of the book didn’t make it to the first screen version; including Scrooge’s fiancée leaving him for being so stingy and the two poor starving children “Want” and “Ignorance.”
I suppose everyone has a favorite version of Christmas Carol. I have three.
- The 1984 movie version starring George C, Scott
- The 1992 The Muppet Christmas Carol
- The 1956 musical The Stingiest Man in Town, starring Vic Damon and the Four Lads among others.
I can still picture my folks playing that record every year while we decked our family halls. What’s your favorite version of Christmas Carol?
May the spirit of Christmas haunt your home pleasantly.
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.
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