by Joy Neighbors
It is one of the most enduring holiday classics in the world. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was written unintentionally, in 1843. In it, the main character Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser with his time, money, and emotions, is visited by his former business partner, Jacob Marley, a kindred spirit who paves the way for visitations from three ghosts: Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come. After hearing each ghost’s proclamations, Scrooge is transformed into a man with a heart who makes “mankind” his business.
Originally titled An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child, Dickens set out to write about the brutal conditions of child labor. Children as young as five worked 16 hours a day, six days a week in some of the most horrific and appalling jobs available. Since children worked for next to nothing – sometimes only room and board – this was what was available to them.
Of course, Dickens understood what their lives were like. He had to go to work at the age of twelve when his father was sent to London’s Debtors Prison. To help make ends meet, Dickens worked at a boot-blacking factory. This gave him "deep personal and social outrage,” which influenced his life, and his writing.
Children, and the poor in general, were not treated as human beings but more as a necessary resource utilized to do the work no one else would. Humane treatment was not considered mandatory in order to elicit the work demanded. The poor lived in squalid conditions, half-starved, with no chance to change their circumstances. They were happy to get what they could to keep their family alive and together.
After several attempts to write the treatise, Dickens realized that instead of lecturing, what he needed was a good story to catch people’s interest. In less than six weeks, he had written a tale that he intended to act as “a Sledge hammer (that) has come down with twenty times the force—twenty thousand times the force” causing readers to consider more modern ideas about industry, and the worker. Dickens wanted employers to acknowledge workers as fellow human beings with the same rights as their employer; food, shelter, an education, and a chance to lift themselves up out of poverty.
But Dickens also wanted to highlight societal changes that were taking place with the holiday and show that even the poor had a right to enjoy the season with family and friends.
The new way to celebrate the old festival was with Christmas carols sung by carolers going from house to house in exchange for a warm drink and food.
The Christmas tree was becoming a new tradition; something for the family to cut, decorate and gather around. The Christmas holiday began to focus on family companionship, dancing and games along with seasonal food and drink. By the mid-1800's, this was the accepted way to celebrate Christmastide.
Even ghost stories were becoming part of the tradition. Dickens included ghosts in several of his writings due to his interest in the unknown and spiritualism. Since his teenage years, Dickens had read penny magazines about murders and ghosts. He said that he delighted in scaring himself and hoped the three ghosts in A Christmas Carol would succeed in doing the same to the reader, bringing about a transformation that would haunt his readers “pleasantly.”
| Ghost of Christmas Past|
From the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past when Scrooge is transported back to his teenage years and first love, the reader begins to identify with the miser in ways not expected.
The Ghost of Christmas Present introduces feelings of generosity, happiness and well-being, showing Scrooge how he has morally failed mankind, and shaming him into grief at what he has said and done.
|Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be|
By suggesting that Scrooge has the power to change the unknown, he is given hope, and the possibility of forgiveness if he is willing to change.
According to British philosopher Gilbert Keith Chesterton, in writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens managed to transform Christmas from a sacred holiday into a family feast. Dickens hoped to influence changes in the lives of the rich and poor by encouraging “practical benevolence” throughout Victorian society.
A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas was first published on December 19, 1843, and all copies had been sold by Christmas Eve. By the end of 1844, thirteen editions of the novella had been printed and sold. Dickens had hit on a topic that Victorians were ready to confront.
It was reported that after Dickens did a reading of his novella (one of 127 performances) on Christmas Eve 1867, a factory owner decided to close his business for Christmas Day so his workers could be at home with their families. And just like Scrooge, each worker’s family received a turkey for their dinner.
A Christmas Carol has never been out of print for the past 177 years. It is the second most read book, next to the Bible. Although, the tale tells of life during the Victorian era, the story continues to touch our hearts with the hope of peace, prosperity and goodwill toward our fellow men and women. And continuing, generation after generation.