A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens has become part of the fabric of Western Christmas tradition. You can easily find Christmas cards with Tiny Tim’s invocation “God bless us every one,” or ornaments of Marley frightening Scrooge or the Cratchit family holding hands around a dinner table. Growing up, I remember my parents popping in their VHS of the 1984 version of Dickens’ beloved story starring George C. Scott and Susannah York every Christmas season. In fact, I can’t remember a December when my family and I didn’t watch Scrooge’s reclamation, as the Ghost of Christmas Past would put it.
The Hollywood Reporter ran an article this year about “16 movie and TV show versions of Charles Dickens’ classic tale.” And that’s just the beginning. There are well over a hundred adaptations in all, “starring, among others, Bill Murray, Ryan Reynolds and the Muppets.” Spirited, with Reynolds and Will Ferrell, is the most recent twist on the story; this Dickensian musical comedy hit movie theaters November 11, 2022, and has achieved a 70% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes—further proof that even over a hundred years after its publication, A Christmas Carol remains part of our modern cultural consciousness.
However, I believe few of us moderns know the origins of Dickens’ contagious Christmas Spirit, the joyful and perhaps mythic spring from which he created A Christmas Carol—his own Christmas myth. We would do well to journey back (perhaps with the Ghost of Christmas Past) to these origins, because here we find why Dickens was able to create a story that has captured the imagination of Western culture.
In 1837, Dickens published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. It was a brilliant success; “few first novels,” the 2003 Penguin edition observes, “have created as much popular excitement as The Pickwick Papers—a comic masterpiece that catapulted its twenty-four year-old author to immediate fame.” Fernando Pessoa, renowned 20th-century Portuguese poet, found Dickens’ novel to be one of the finest works of art. “One of my life’s greatest tragedies is to have already read Pickwick Papers—I can’t go back and read it for the first time,” Pessoa said.
Roughly halfway through the serialized novel, Dickens takes his characters, the enigmatic Pickwick and his bumbling friends, on a jolly romp through December; they attend a Christmas wedding in the rustic Dingley Dell, where they hear the locals tell a goblin story about the redemption of a wicked sexton one Christmas season many years ago. The story of the gravedigger Mr. Gabriel Grub is an obvious parallel to Ebenezer Scrooge. The envious Mr. Grubb, like Ebenezer, hates Christmas and other people. However, when goblins visit him in a church graveyard on Christmas Eve, and haul him off to a cavern where they (harshly) show him the error of his ways, Gabriel repents of his sins and returns to the overworld a new man.
But there’s more to the Christmas festivities in Pickwick than just this one eerie tale. Dickens also includes in the novel an old gentleman who sings a song titled “A Christmas Carol,” which defines why Christmas should be honored by all people, and why this festive season possesses an indomitable joy.
Dickens’ Christmas poem is a series of personifications. Each season of the year is given a face and evaluated for its merits. Spring, the first season Dickens describes, is a “fickle” elf who “knows not himself.” This “treacherous” fairy will “smile in your face, and, with wry grimace / He’ll wither your youngest flower.” Spring is untrustworthy and though he gives sustenance to grass and flowers, he just as quickly snuffs out their young lives. Little better is Summer, the father of Cupid, “his darling child” who “is the madness wild / That sports in fierce fever’s train.” Cupid is the true ruler of Summer; he makes great boasts and pierces many hearts with eros that “is too strong” and “don’t last long / As many have found to their pain.” And though Autumn first appears more stable, its “tranquil light / Of the modest and gentle moon,” is shrouded by death: “[E]very leaf awakens my grief / As it lieth beneath the tree.” Tranquility begets melancholy, and the peace that Dickens has been searching the year for has eluded him.
In the final two stanzas of the poem Dickens boldly declares that the coldest season of the year far surpasses the others. It seems a strange choice, for winter in the Northern Hemisphere is unmercifully frigid; the poor suffer acutely because they lack sufficient means to buy warm clothes and heat for their homes. And yet Dickens sings,
But my song I troll out, for Christmas stout,
The hearty, the true, and the bold;
A bumper I drain, and with might and main
Give three cheers for this Christmas old.
This is why the coldest season proves a true companion, because Christmas is its master. Old Father Christmas knows what it’s like to want; he is no stranger to suffering: “in his fine honest pride, he scorns to hide / One jot of his hard-weather scars.” He goes to the woman who is in anguish, the man who is near death, the child who is afraid, and tells them to take heart. Though our world is marked by evil, hope remains, and from this hope gushes forth indomitable joy! Father Christmas brings “fellowship good” with him, what the other seasons seemed to promise through feigned innocence, eros, or reflection but failed to bring. The disappointments and tragedies of the previous year are more bearable; mutability so characteristic of the previous months cannot overthrow the soul gladdened by the hope of Christmas. Christmas, then, according to Dickens, should be honored because it helps us remember our true nature; as Gabriel Grubb learned from the goblins, and Scrooge learned through ghostly visitations, a person is most himself when he makes, as Marley told Scrooge, “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence . . . [his] business.”
In Saint John of Chrysostom’s Divine Liturgy, the priest, while preparing for the Eucharist, recites the Apolytikion for the Forefeast of the Nativity.
Make ready, O Bethlehem; for Eden has been opened to all. Prepare yourself, O Ephratah; for the tree of life has blossomed from the Virgin in the cave. For her womb is shown to be a spiritual paradise, in which is the divine plant: eating of this, we shall live, and not die like Adam. Christ is born, to raise up the image which before was fallen.
This prayer eloquently reminds Christians that Christmas offers eternal hope and joy because God became flesh. We can freely laugh, and we can freely feast along with Father Christmas—“the stout old wight”—and be fully human because Christ has become our high priest who will nourish us with himself; he is “the divine plant” which rescues us from death. As Saint Paul wrote to the Hebrews, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.” Through faith Christ calls all mankind to enter back into the mystery of trinitarian love.
Even though Dickens does not mention the birth of Christ in his Christmas poem or in his story of Gabriel Grubb, his belief that love, and good, honest, human pleasures are attributes of Christmas, underscore Christian belief. His Christmas literature teaches Christians and nonbelievers alike how to celebrate in a world that is gradually being made new through the incarnation. Whether Dickens fully recognized the importance of Christ’s birth in an orthodox sense is a moot point; veins of Christianity had fed England for ten centuries, enabling even liberal Victorians to still see Christmas as sacred and humanity redeemable. Dickens was able to create a Christmas myth that still resonates with our secular culture because he knew what all of us intuitively know: that we are sinful—broken and in need of a love that is “hearty, true and bold,” just like that of old Father Christmas.