I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise 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 houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. — Charles Dickens (December, 1843).
Little did Charles Dickens suspect in 1843, when he sat down to write “A Christmas Carol” in the hope of earning enough royalty income to pay off a debt, that his story would become the most popular piece of fiction in the English language. Generations that ceased to read it have seen it performed on stage and on screen, both large and small. I doubt that any other work of literature has been transferred from the printed page to the silver and digital screens with such artistic faithfulness to the original. In the case of Alastair Sim’s 1951 portrayal of Scrooge, the movie version is better than the original.
The book sold out the entire edition of 6,000 copies in its first week: the week before Christmas.
It was in 1843 that the phrase “Merry Christmas and a happy New Year” first became popular, due to Dickens’s story and the first Christmas card.
Dickens was obsessed with debt. His father had been imprisoned for debt, and Dickens was taken out of school and put to work to support his family. He made Scrooge a money-lender.
REDEMPTION THROUGH FEASTING
The story of Scrooge is the story of a redemption — the buying back of a lost soul. G. K. Chesterton was correct when he observed that Scrooge’s redemption was like the redemption of a sinner at a Salvation Army meeting, with this exception: The Salvation Army’s redeemed man was likely redeemed from the punchbowl, whereas Scrooge was redeemed to it.
Dickens saw Christmas as a festival: a celebration marked by feasting. All around Scrooge on the day before Christmas, there were preparations for a feast. From rich to poor, men were preparing for a great meal.
Scrooge makes no such preparations. Indeed, his rejection of an invitation to a feast is at the heart of his stiff-necked ways. When his nephew Fred, a poor man compared to Scrooge, invites him to Christmas meal, Scrooge resists to the point of rudeness, and not mere rudeness: a satanic affirmation. Dickens’s language is subtle but profound.
“Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.”
Scrooge said that he would see him — yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.
For Scrooge, food reveals his lifestyle. It is his silent affirmation.
Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker’s-book, went home to bed.
In Sim’s version of the story, Scrooge asks for extra bread. That will cost half penny extra, the waiter tells him. “No more bread,” answers Scrooge. The screenwriter got Scrooge exactly right, even though Scrooge would have known about the extra charge by then and would not have made the request.
Just before bedtime meal, he takes a bowl of gruel. He even explains Marley’s apparition in terms of food.
“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
In contrast to Scrooge was the society around him. Men prepared for the annual feast. No matter how poor, men spent their hard-earned money on the makings of a memorable meal.
Dickens sketched a compelling contrast between London’s coal-blackened physical environment in 1843 and London’s residents at Christmas.
The house fronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of carts and waggons; furrows that crossed and re-crossed each other hundreds of times where the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content.
But Christmas stood as a public challenge to this hostile environment.
There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.
The people were happy.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)