A Week to Remember: A Christmas Carol

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of the Ghost of Christmas Present and Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens' 1st Edition book, A Christmas Carol and the 1999 movie

Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol was published on December 19, 1843. It's a ghost story in which the miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come; their revelations shake Scrooge out of his heartless ways and transform him into a kinder, more generous man.

Dickens' reasons for writing the story were both practical and altruistic. His latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, had begun publication as a monthly serial in December 1842. Sales were lower than usual, and Dickens was facing some financial problems as a result.

He was also genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor in England, especially of poor children. In early 1843, Parliament released a report on the effects of the Industrial Revolution on working class children. Dickens had seen those effects firsthand that year, having toured the tin mines of Cornwall and visited a London school for homeless children. He considered publishing a short political tract on the subject, but decided that given his reputation as a writer of fiction, a story would probably have more impact. The fact that it would also be more profitable was surely also a consideration.

Dickens began work on A Christmas Carol in October 1843, and finished the story in only six weeks. He was making last-minute edits and changes right up until publication; the line at the very end of the story informing the reader that Tiny Tim did not die was a last-minute addition.

first edition Charles Dickens a Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. Title page

A Christmas Carol wasn't Dickens' first Christmas story, or his last. Celebrations of the holiday were becoming more popular in 19th-century England. Queen Victoria had popularized the Christmas tree, a tradition imported from Germany; and there had been a recent revival of interest in traditional Christmas carols, which had gone out of fashion. A Christmas Carol contributed to the Christmas revival.

It also contributed to the language. The phrase "Merry Christmas" wasn't new, but it became more popular after Dickens' book was published. "Bah humbug" also became part of the language as a dismissal, often tongue-in-cheek, of overly sentimental holiday celebrations. The word "Scrooge" took on a life of its own, and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1982 as a synonym for "miser."

The critics were generally pleased with A Christmas Carol. Most thought it was among Dickens' best work. There was some grumbling from those who thought it took the religion out of Christmas; John Ruskin complained that it reduced the holiday to "mistletoe and pudding." And some suggested that the relatively high price of the book – about $26 in today's money, for a slim book – was hypocritical, given its emphasis on the plight of the poor.

Expensive though it may have been, the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve, and Dickens' publisher released two more printings by the end of the year. The book continued to see briskly for more than a year, though because Dickens had insisted on higher quality paper and production, he didn't see much profit from the book. Those profits were reduced further when other publishers released unlicensed editions of the book at a much lower price, the equivalent of $1 today.

Adaptations of the story arrived almost immediately. By the end of February 1844, 8 different theatrical productions of A Christmas Carol were running in London. Dickens first did a public reading of the story in 1849, and it was so well received that he prepared a condensed version specifically for public performance, and continued to do such readings until his death in 1870. Such public readings continue today; some actors have made it a specialty that they perform annually, including Gerald Charles Dickens, the great-great-grandson of the author.

Dozens of film versions of the story have been made, the earliest of them in 1901. Some versions are more faithful than others, but our DVDs offer you the choice of Scrooge as played by Reginald Owen (1938), Alistair Sim (1951; this DVD includes as an extra the 1935 version starring Seymour Hicks), Albert Finney (1970), Bill Murray (1988), Patrick Stewart (1999), or Michael Caine (2005, as the lone human in an all-Muppet version). Scrooge has also been played by fictional characters Mr. Magoo (1951), Scrooge McDuck (of course!, in 1983), and Oscar the Grouch (2006).

Lawrence Olivier plays the role in a 1953 radio adaptation; Walter Charles stars in a 1994 musical version by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens, and Simon Callow narrates the story in Bryan Kelly's 20-minute adaptation for orchestra and narrator.

two book covers about Scrooge

The reader in search of Scrooge-iana can begin, of course, with Dickens' original (e-book | e-audio | print), before moving on to his other Christmas stories (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). Samantha Silva's Mr. Dickens and His Carol (e-book | e-audio | print), Rick McConnell's Shadowing Dickens (e-book), and Patricia K. Davis' A Midnight Carol (e-book | print) take some liberties in presenting fictionalized versions of how the story came to be. Les Standiford's The Man Who Invented Christmas (e-book | print) and Carlo DeVito's Inventing Scrooge (e-book) are more straightforward biographical versions of those origins.

2 book covers about a Christmas Carol

Charlie Lovett imagines The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge (e-book | e-audio) and L. J. Oliver makes him a detective in The Humbug Murders (e-book). Tiny Tim is at the center of two sequels, Jim Piecuch's Tim Cratchit's Christmas Carol (e-book) and Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy (e-book | e-audio | print), and Carol Ann Duffy's sequel in poetry focuses on Mrs. Scrooge (print).

Tony Bertauski offers a science fictional update in Humbug (e-book); Adam Roberts adds zombies to I Am Scrooge (print), and Brett Wright re-tells the tale as a series of texts in Scrooge #worstgiftever (e-book | print). Alec Pruchnicki replaces Scrooge with Donald Trump in A Really Huge Christmas Carol, Believe Me (e-book). The story's even been adapted as a science lesson by Robert Gilmore; in Scrooge's Cryptic Carol (print), the spirits of Science Past, Present, and Future, explain thermodynamics, quantum physics, and other concepts to Scrooge.

Paul B. Davis's The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge (print) explores the many adaptations and interpretations of Dickens' story, looking at how each is a reflection of its own historical and cultural moment.

Also This Week

December 20, 1838

Edwin Abbott Abbott was born. Abbott was an English theologian who is best remembered today for his novella Flatland (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), a mathematical fantasy about two-dimensional beings struggling to grasp the concept of the third dimension. Abbott intended the book as a satire about the hierarchies of Victorian society, but it is now read primarily as an introduction to the concept of dimensions.

December 17, 1892

The first issue of Vogue was published. Vogue was created as a weekly newspaper, switching to bi-monthly in 1909; it didn't become a monthly until 1973. Fashion, beauty, and style have always been the primary focus of the magazine, which now has more than twenty international editions. Current issues of Vogue are available at RBDigital and the entire back catalog is available through our Vogue Archive. The 2009 documentary The September Issue follows the magazine's staff as they produce the September 2007 issue of the magazine, which was at the time the largest magazine issue ever published, at 840 pages and more than 5 pounds.

December 18, 1968

Rachel Griffiths was born. Griffiths is an Australian actress who was a regular on American television for a decade, spending five seasons each on Six Feet Under and Brothers and Sisters. In two of her earliest film successes, she co-starred with other actresses – Toni Collette in Muriel's Wedding (streaming | DVD) and Emily Watson in Hilary and Jackie (streaming).

December 19, 1974

Nelson Rockefeller was sworn in as Vice President of the United States, having been nominated by President Gerald Ford. This was the first time that neither the President nor the Vice President had been elected to those offices. Ford had become Vice President after the 1973 resignation of Sprio Agnew, and ascended to the Presidency in August 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned. Rockefeller served as Vice President for two years, and chose not to run with Ford for re-election in 1976; he was replaced on the ticket by Bob Dole. Richard Norton Smith's On His Own Terms (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) is a comprehensive biography of Rockefeller.