Halloween? Bah, humbug! December is prime time for ectoplasmic wonders. You can’t swing a sack of chestnuts during this, the most wonderful time of the year, without hitting a ghost. Specifically, one of the four created by Charles Dickens 179 years ago in A Christmas Carol.
Dickens didn’t set out to write a feel-good story when he penned A Christmas Carol In Prose. Being A Ghost Story of Christmas. And given the relatively meager compensation he got for it, he’d probably be shocked at the ubiquity of his tale. Since its publication in 1843, A Christmas Carol has never been out of print. There are at least 100 film versions of the story and countless stage adaptations.
It’s easy to see why the story endures. The characters are indelible, the Christmastime setting is catnip to those looking to get into a holiday mood, and the plot is timeless, despite its 19th-century setting.
The bones of the story are simple. Ebenezer Scrooge has got more money than he’ll ever need. He’s also a curdled misanthrope who believes that “every idiot who goes about with a ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
Scrooge finds redemption through the intervention of Christmas Ghosts Past, Present, and Future — with an assist from the specter of Scrooge’s former business partner, the eternally tormented Jacob Marley. On Scrooge’s time-traveling journey, we see his lonely, impoverished childhood and the grim oblivion which will be his future if he doesn’t learn to have compassion for his “fellow passengers to the grave.” Yet for all its otherworldly characters, A Christmas Carol isn’t generally regarded as a ghost story so much as a heart-warming celebration of the season.
Dickens was a best-selling author in 1843, but he was also deeply in debt, with four children and a fifth on the way. He needed another moneymaker, like his earlier hits, Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers. He figured he could make 1000 pounds (about $113,000 in today’s dollars) by publishing a tale for the holiday season.
As a child, Dickens experienced poverty first-hand, when his father was carted off to debtors’ prison and he, at 12, was put to work in a shoe polish factory. The conditions were horrific, or — as they would come to be known through novels like Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities — Dickensian. So were conditions at the so-called “ragged schools” established for England’s impoverished children.
Dickens visited such a school before writing A Christmas Carol. He left raging. London, he asserted, was a “vast hopeless nursery of ignorance, misery and vice,” fomented by the “frightful neglect by the State of those … whom it might, as easily and less expensively, instruct and save.”
In the wake of that visit, Dickens decided to write an impassioned pamphlet and take it to Parliament. But then he had a realization. Delivering “An Appeal of the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child” to Parliament wouldn’t pack nearly the punch of a story the whole public could read.
It took Dickens six weeks to write A Christmas Carol. He reportedly devised the plot and characters on late night strolls through London, his own financial pressures birthing a tale that would not only be a Christmas story, but also an unignorable call to action.
A Christmas Carol was an instant success. The initial 6,000 print run sold out in a week. But it was hardly the financial windfall Dickens hoped for. The author insisted on an embossed, red leather binding for the book, and he lost money, which would have horrified a pre-redemption Scrooge. And almost immediately after its appearance, others began publishing knockoffs and Dickens found himself in a prolonged copyright battle.
Despite these complications, Dickens’ creativity continued unabated. He went on to produce such classics as David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, and Little Dorrit. Ignorance and want are actual characters in A Christmas Carol, but they inform almost all of Dicken’ writing as he explored the human costs of industrialization, child labor, debtors’ prisons, and the British court system.
In 2012, the BBC reported the Dickens brand generated more than $316 million for the British economy. Dickens himself was worth $2 million in today’s dollars when he died in June of 1870 at age 58. In Scrooge’s world, that would bring one heaping helping of holiday cheer.