Here’s an experiment for this holiday season: Try counting how many “Bah humbug!”s and references to Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, or benevolent ghosts you spot in TV ads, store displays, and greeting cards during the annual commercial frenzy leading up to Christmas Day.
“You’ll see Scrooge and A Christmas Carol everywhere,” says NYU liberal studies dean Fred Schwarzbach, author of Dickens and the City, editor of Dickens's American Notes and president of the American Friends of the Charles Dickens Museum. “If you’re looking for proof that this is still an important part of our culture, that would be it.”
Dickens, already a wildly popular journalist and author of the novels The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, published the novella A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas on December 19, 1843. The story was an instant hit, and Dickens would continue writing stories for Christmas and publishing a holiday-themed edition of his magazine All the Year Round each year until his death in 1870—helping to solidify the popular traditions (including family dinners, gifts, and charitable giving) that define the season today.
The novella has since been adapted for stage and screen countless times, with everyone from James Earl Jones and Kelsey Grammer to Jim Backus (as Mr. Magoo) and Michael Caine (with Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit) tackling the crotchety leading role. Its tale of kindness and redemption has become the modern template—arguably more so than any religious text—for telling the story of the “meaning” of Christmas. And the holiday-themed episodes we’ve come to expect from favorite TV shows are also, perhaps, a legacy of Dickens’s commitment to publishing new Christmas material annually.
NYU Stories sat down with Schwarzbach to talk about Dickens’s popularity, A Christmas Carol’s enduring appeal, and why we tend to hold out hope that the Scrooges in our own life can be reformed.
Why has A Christmas Carol become such a fixture of the season?
I think part of the answer is that when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in the 1840s many of the traditions and practices that we associate with Christmas and the holiday season hadn't yet developed. So to a certain extent Dickens helped to create that Christmas culture of gift-giving, good cheer, and family reunions through A Christmas Carol. But I also think it’s one of those stories that is impossible not to love. It’s about someone who's battered and bruised by life and turned into a complete misanthrope—but then whose heart is opened up to kindness and feeling. Scrooge turns into a good person, and we'd all like the believe that's possible.
Where did all those ghosts come from? Were visits from spirits a part of Christmas lore at the time, or did Dickens invent that?
Dickens at some point in his adult life wrote a little bit about his childhood—he was planning an autobiography that he never got around to. There’s a little essay where he mentions that when he was quite young, somewhere between a toddler and school age, he had a nurse—meaning a servant who took care of the children—who told them really scary ghost stories. That stuck with him. In terms of the association of ghosts with Christmas, I think that’s all Dickens—I don’t think there’s anything like that before him. There was an existing tradition in England of something called “annuals” or “keepsakes,” and in the holiday season it would be a big fat book with lots of new short stories and poems by leading authors. Some of them sold in very impressive numbers—10,000 or 15,000 copies, which was a lot for a print run in those days. So Dickens was tapping into that existing market of people who were looking for things to buy during the holiday season, but his subject matter was an original contribution.
What other holiday traditions were popular at the time?
One tradition that came about during the time of Dickens’s Christmas stories in the 1840s and ’50s was Christmas trees. Before then, they had not been part of the scene in either Britain or the U.S., but Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, who was German, supposedly brought one with him as a family custom from Germany. It caught on and before long everyone had to have a Christmas tree.
How was A Christmas Carol received when it was first published?
It was wildly popular, though ironically one of the reasons Dickens wrote it was that he was having a rocky patch in his career. He was still quite young at that point, and his popularity had skyrocketed so rapidly that he believed—and was probably right—that if he signed a contract with a publisher he’d regret it because he could’ve gotten better terms a year or two later.
Now, he was not an easy writer for publishers to get along with, and he was convinced that they were, if not cheating him, then getting a lot more out of his work than he was. So he made the decision to publish A Christmas Carol himself. It was basically a self-published book. And because he had a sense that the production standards should be very, very high, it turned out to be an expensive book to produce. So even though it sold huge numbers of copies, he probably made far less money out of it than he would have had he stayed with a publisher. As near as anybody can tell, it’s been in print continuously since it first came out.
Do you have favorite (or least favorite) stage or screen adaptations?
Oh, where to start! I wonder if someone has catalogued all the screen versions—I’d be amazed if there weren’t hundreds. There’s a classic English one from 1951 starring Alastair Sim which I kind of like because its reasonably authentic. I've also seen a couple of stage productions—directors love doing it because you have ghosts and spirits and all these rapid scene changes. You can do a really nice job on the stage. And I have a secret fondness for the Blackadder TV version. Blackadder is a British comedy starring Rowan Atkinson, who plays a notoriously surly and curmudgeonly character in all the episodes. But in the Blackadder Christmas Carol he starts out being kind and generous and warm, but then it turns out that his family and Tiny Tim are all out to cheat him. By the end he’s turned into the Scrooge we know. It’s hysterically funny.
Do Dickens scholars hate A Christmas Carol because it’s so popular? Would they rather talk about something else?
Traditionally, going back to when I was a student, the general view of scholars was that Dickens’s novels fall into the category of serious work worthy of a great deal of scholarship and study, and that all his his other writings—which included things like the Christmas stories and his journalism and plays—were less important and less worth considering. More recently literary scholars have become more interested why are things so popular and the source of their appeal. I think there's a little bit less of that critical snobbery in Dickens studies than there used to be.
What would you recommend to someone who loves A Christmas Carol but hasn’t yet read any other Dickens?
I’ve always thought that the most accessible of Dickens’s novels is Great Expectations, and its theme of redemption is in some way similar to that of A Christmas Carol. What’s different, of course, is that it’s told in the first person, and that the character who is being redeemed has to go through a lot of pain and suffering to come out the other side. Most Dickens novels circle around some version of people changing in the course of their experience, and generally it’s a change for the better. I think one reason for Dickens’s enduring popularity is that he speaks to some very deep need we have to believe that, at bottom, people really are good.