It was written during a six-week period in 1843, while Charles Dickens was working on installments of Martin Chuzzlewit, which was not a success with readers. It was different that the author’s other works; it was considerably shorter, and it was not to be read in installments but published as a complete work. Dickens must have felt the pressure of the tepid response to Chuzzlewit, given the successes of The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. Was he losing his magic touch with readers?
He was not. A Christmas Carol was a huge success. It didn’t make Dickens much money (he produced a rather elaborately illustrated and bound edition) but it solidified his reputation.
And more than that, in its own way it codified what we might call “cultural Christmas” for generations to come. It was adapted for countless plays, musicals, movies and television programs, and “Scrooge” passed into the English lexicon as a synonym for meanness and miserliness.
Rereading it today, one finds it’s lost none of its charm. The writing is vivid and expressive, almost breathless at times. The characters, even with the familiarity of a story that’s more than 170 years old, come alive in Dickens’ hands. Even having the plot of the visits by the ghost of the dead business partner and the three spirits of Christmas virtually imprinted in our cultural DNA doesn’t prevent the story from seeming fresh and new.
What Dickens could do with language and descriptions still inspires a kind of awe. Here is how the reader comes face-to-face with Ebenezer Scrooge himself:
“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. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about him; he iced his coffee in the dog days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”
The spirits, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Scrooge’s nephew, and the other characters all receive this kind of description. And even though Dickens violates the modern writing dictate of “show, don’t tell,” it doesn’t matter here, because he writes such a rousing good story that we don’t care about dictates.
Does A Christmas Carol replace the nativity story? Of course not. That was not Dickens’ intention, not it is how we read and understand the story today. But it established itself as a Christmas classic when it was published, and it remains a classic today. It is, however, a story of self-recognition, redemption and change. And a wonderful tale in the bargain.
Illustration: Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball by John Leech, from the first edition of A Christmas Carol in 1843.