How Dickens and Scrooge Saved Christmas

The Industrial Revolution and Victorian practically erased the holiday in England. A Christmas Carol revived and reinvented it around the gift of giving.

This is not a person you would wish to meet in the street at any time, let alone at a time of festive good feelings:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone. Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice….”

This is how we meet Ebenezer Scrooge, five paragraphs into Charles Dickens’s timeless morality tale, A Christmas Carol.

Scrooge is still with us, not just in print but embodied in the cold hearts and selfish calculations of misanthropes everywhere. In the secular carnival led by Santa Claus, Scrooge is firmly ensconced as the second most recurrent character, rebuffing all entreaties to melt by barking “Bah, humbug!” as “he carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

When A Christmas Carol was published just in time for the Christmas of 1843, the holiday had been in a long decline in England. The habit of celebrating Christmas had flourished there in medieval times as a wanton combination of marking Christ’s birth, the Roman orgy of Saturnalia, and the German winter festival, Yule.

Although the Anglican Church still held considerable power over the customs of Victorian England the observation of Christmas was, by then, more doctrinal than hedonistic. The folk memory of medieval community life had been wiped out by the industrial revolution. Large swathes of the countryside were depopulated. Rural churches were deserted, and the connection between the land and the bounty of harvests was gone.

In the large cities the urbanized working class were slaves to a plutocracy. Dickens grew up in a London where child labor was ruthlessly exploited. In 1839 nearly half the funerals in London were for children under the age of 10. What would later become familiar as Dickensian London was one vast, grinding machine that simultaneously generated enormous wealth and widespread public squalor, replete with public hangings, thieving lawyers, and a merciless judiciary.

Imagine, then, in the fall of 1843, the author going about his work, gathering material from life, in his own words: “He wept and laughed and wept again, walked about the black streets of London fifteen or twenty miles a night when all other folks had gone to bed.”

A Christmas Carol is a compact parable. It’s very far from being Dickens’s most devastating portrait of his world and times. Unlike his big novels, which were published in installments so that they could reach the many people who could not afford to buy a fat book, this was a one-off volume, and slim.

Nevertheless its effects were profound and it remains by far Dickens’s most popular work. That is partly because it can be said that this is the book that saved Christmas. Dickens gathers up the traces of a Christmas that has virtually disappeared in the folk memory and brings it back to vivid and congenial life – in the same way that Dickens wants us to hope that life can be brought back into the ailing body of the story’s emotional center, Tiny Tim.

The book is broken into what Dickens calls staves, not chapters. He’s using a musical term to support his title, which acknowledges that in England carols, a form of hymn specific to Christmas, originated in Austria and Germany, are catching on – thanks, in part, to their popularity with Queen Victoria, whose husband and tastes are German.

More important, A Christmas Carol can truly be said to have become the foundation myth for the business model for a version of Christmas that is now a retail juggernaut in the consumer societies of the world, generating a sizeable chunk of annual profits. Dickens himself would surely not appreciate that this is probably one of the greatest examples of unintended consequences in the history of literature.

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The story’s subliminal narrative is all about the creation and management of appetites. And what is the great lure toward which all efforts are ultimately directed? A table creaking under the weight of a Christmas banquet, a classic celebration of binge eating and drinking. But it’s more than that as the ritual has a social significance. Dickens’s observation is acute to the moment: in a society that spends most of its days in bleak deprivation there is always a latent and irrepressible desire to have a communal fling.

It’s the economic theory of temporary alleviation in action. (Holidays are another.) People will always scratch and save if a sudden burst of unrestrained pleasure can be purchased. Bob Cratchit, the clerk who is the father of Tiny Tim and who meekly serves Scrooge, is paid fifteen shillings a week. It would take a whole week’s wages to buy the basic Christmas feast Cratchit dreams of, seven shillings for the goose, five for the pudding, three for the onions, sage, and oranges.

That pleasure is designed as exquisitely as Dickens intended it, and Dickens fills the streets with many other temptations:

“The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. 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….”

The shop windows of a Dickensian Christmas, each small pane rimmed with ice and snow, drew Tiny Tim to wonder at the baubles beyond his experience.

Never mind that some of the atmospherics are shaky, like the white Christmas, for example. In Victorian London, snow in December was a rarity. Soot was far more likely to be falling. But, of course, as symbolism, covering the soot in a layer of white was as refreshing as enrobing Santa Claus, otherwise a grossly obese huckster, in red velvet with fluffy white cuffs, and giving him a jolly laugh, suggesting the ribald bonhomie of Shakespeare’s carouser Falstaff.

But it is to Scrooge we must return. He is the dark matter to the constellation of twinkling stars on the Christmas tree. And his pitiless beliefs would be no stranger to the political discourse of today.

Early in the story, as Dickens stretches out the agony of Bob Cratchit who is anxious to escape his seriously underheated place of employment on Christmas Eve, he sets up a scene that anticipates today’s rant of the haves against the have-nots.

Scrooge receives two gentlemen in his office. They appeal for donations to charity – “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute,” one of them suggests.

Scrooge resorts to irony:

“Are there no prisons?”

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid from what you said at first that something had occurred to stop them in their usual course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

The gentlemen attempt to break through this wall of pitiless mockery, but Scrooge will have nothing of it: “I can’t afford to make idle people merry.”

That’s a sentiment all too familiar today, from the curled lips of a golfer waddling across a course in Florida to the Wall Street funny-money wizard in his chopper on the way to the Hamptons.

And so the philanthropists leave Scrooge’s premises empty-handed.

Consider the names of the characters, too. Dickens’s felicity with onomatopoeic names suggests by the sound of “scroo” as in screwing the last drop of blood from the stone. Fezziwig, “old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance,” suggests the opposite of Scrooge, an old man orchestrating joy–a wig displaced by the vigor of life.

But ultimately this is a story of redemption. Scrooge will be transformed. First, though, he has to be shocked into recognizing the barren waste of his spiritual life – by spirits. First, the ghost of his departed partner, Jacob Marley, comes calling, his face emerging from the doorknob. Marley conjures forth the mistakes of his own life and then summons, in turn, the three spirits that will complete Scrooge’s journey from miser to benefactor – the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.

One of the most harrowing moments comes when Scrooge is forced to witness a future that is unmediated by his change of heart and Tiny Tim dies. In 1867 Dickens did a reading of the story in Boston and the passing of Tiny Tim, it was reported, “brought out so many pocket handkerchiefs that it looked as if a snow storm had somehow gotten into the hall without tickets.”

Dickens was a master of heart-wrenching pathos because he felt every pain as he wrote. I remember being appalled that he killed off Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. It seemed gratuitous and counter-intuitive in a story that had already inflicted more than enough suffering. But he wanted no easy ending and it was hard on him. He said, “I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it.” (Nell was modeled on an old love, his wife’s younger sister, Mary Hogarth, who died in her youth.)

He was hard up when he wrote A Christmas Carol. Royalties on earlier work were slow coming in, his stories were being pirated because the copyright laws were rarely enforceable, he had had a row with his publisher and supervised the publication of this story himself, spending so much that the margins were thin.

But the final lines were to prove uplifting for him and many millions of readers, as we bid farewell to Ebenezer Scrooge: “….and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

During the Christmas of 1843 and well after it, letters poured in from readers who said the book had been read aloud to whole families and took a special place on their shelves. They recognized that although Scrooge was an old man the message was equally instructive for the young – a warning not to slip into self-imposed and self-centered isolation.

And so, as we approach Christmas of 2014, we should consider who might most benefit from being reacquainted with such a tale of miserliness and conversion?

My choice is that it should be required reading by those who run the city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They already know what their sin is. It has been seen on videos that went viral. A 91-year-old World War II vet, Arnold Abbott, founder of Love Thy Neighbor Foundation, was arrested several times this fall for feeding homeless people on the city’s beach.

Fort Lauderdale has worked hard to shake off its past as a favorite spot for spring vacation bacchanalia. The city protests that a beach is not a suitable place to feed the hungry. The problem is, that is where they are. This month a judge intervened and granted a 30-day temporary stay on police action against Abbott. The whole thing is a public relations disaster for the city’s leadership, and I suggest that they follow Tiny Tim’s advice, go to the beach, join hands and sing God Bless Us, Every One.

Finally, a score or so of films have been made of the story, some called A Christmas Carol and others, simply, Scrooge. My favorite is the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. It was perfect casting. Alastair Sim had jowls like melting candle wax, a snarl like a cornered cat and eyes cold with contempt. And yet, as the dead return to chastise and shame him, this visage undergoes a remarkable softening so that by the end he is a dancing, entrancing life and soul of the party.

Although a hit in Britain, the movie flopped after opening at Radio City in New York. Gradually, though, over the years it has become judged by critics as the best evocation of the story, on equal footing for a filmed Dickens story with David Lean’s version of Great Expectations. Both would make for great Christmas viewing. God Bless Us, Every One.