This Day In Writing History - December 19 - A Christmas Carol
Updated: Apr 10
One of the most famous Christmas stories ever written, Charles Dickens' novella "A Christmas Carol" was first published on December 19, 1843. It features the iconic miser Ebenezer Scrooge experiencing a touching redemption of character thanks to the efforts of ghostly visitors who lead Scrooge to re-examine his life on Christmas Eve. The release was especially well-timed, as Dickens' native Great Britain was in the midst of a resurgence in Christmas celebrations, notably trees and carols. Dickens had already touched on the subject of Christmas in several earlier stories but found himself motivated to craft a new tale uniquely focused on the holiday.
This motivation arose from the dual factors of economics and social concern. Though a well-known author, Dickens faced financial difficulties as sales of his novel "Martin Chuzzlewit" ebbed significantly while his family continued to grow. At the same time, Dickens gained a stronger cognizance of the plight of Britain's poor through visits to mines in the southwest of England and a charity-funded school for street children in London. Along with the release of a Parliamentary report on the harsh working conditions routinely experienced by working-class children, Dickens was inspired to tangible action. He opted to address these issues through an emotional Christmas story capable of gaining a wide readership, after first considering a campaign of political pamphlets and essays.
Dickens was especially qualified to examine the ills of British society in such a way, as he had experienced multiple reversals of fortune throughout his life that saw him move between social strata. In his youth, Dickens was forced to leave school and find work at a shoe-polish factory after his father was committed to debtors' prison. The misery surrounding the experience left Dickens with the ability to vividly detail the plight of the working classes, a hallmark of the author's work on full display in "A Christmas Carol". Dickens also used long walks around London as inspiration, wishing to imbue his fantastic narrative with affecting verisimilitude. The effect of this approach is clear when reading the story, as London often comes off as a character onto itself alongside Scrooge and his put-upon employee Bob Cratchit.
The result was a clear success, though it proved less remunerative to Dickens than he had hoped. After overcoming publication problems related to the quality of the printings that Dickens insisted on, "A Christmas Carol" performed very well, with the initial release sold out in a matter of days. The success led a separate publishing company to produce an abridged version without Dickens' permission and the author sued to stop it, though he found himself faced with sizable legal fees in the process. These frustrations would factor into Dickens' decision to switch publishers.
"A Christmas Carol" proved to have staying power and grew to become the story with which Dickens was arguably most easily associated. After the publication of several more Christmas stories in the next few years failed to reach the same level of success, Dickens hit upon the idea of performing public readings of his famous tale, which would serve to both maintain the story's popularity and to drive home its intrinsic message of social responsibility. The performances were well-received, and Dickens completed them regularly up until his death in 1870.
"A Christmas Carol" has never been out of print and has received countless adaptations to stage and screen, the latest being a new BBC miniseries produced by Ridley Scott and Tom Hardy, with Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge, coming to audiences this year. As holiday celebrations begin in full force, it's worth remembering the role Charles Dickens played in shaping these traditions, from hearty expressions of "Merry Christmas" to festive meals and family gatherings, by including them in his vibrant and affecting narrative.