‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’As opening lines go, this has to be one of my favourites. Last Christmas a thirteen-year-old I work with remarked that she didn’t understand why movie adaptations of ‘A Christmas Carol’ were considered appropriate fare for children, when the story is actually pretty creepy. I told her she was absolutely right: ‘A Christmas Carol’ is not a story for children.
Disney has done its best to wave its sparkly, saccharine wand over Dickens’ grim depictions of human meanness and mortality but even they have failed to do away with the plight of Tiny Tim, or Scrooge’s moment of horrified realisation as he stands beside the yawning mouth of his own grave. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is creepy, morbid, and decidedly disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful and uplifting – and that was exactly what Dickens intended.
First published in 1843, ‘A Christmas Carol’ has never yet been out of print. The Victorian era saw a range of new Christmas traditions emerge in England, including the sending of Christmas cards, the decorating of Christmas trees, and what we think of today as the ‘traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings’. Others, such as carol singing, received a new lease on life. But not everyone had the means to be a part of such celebrations. In the mines and the workhouses and on the streets of every city ragged children and their families lived lives of poverty and hardship. Even when people could get work, it was often poorly-paid, with long hours and harsh conditions.
In Dickens’ mind, the joyous celebrations and pious observation of the coming of the Christ Child meant little if they were not combined with a compassion for the poor and needy amongst whom He was born. Convinced that the engaging medium of a story was a more effective means of arousing that compassion than hectoring tracts and lectures, he wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ in about six weeks, ensuring it was published just before Christmas.
It received immediate critical acclaim for both its artistic merit and its message of compassion and redemption, and popularised the phrases ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Bah, humbug!’ as well as giving the English language a new word for miser: Scrooge.
For anyone who feels that the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas is being lost among the hustle and bustle of the ‘holiday season’ it’s a must-read.