top of page

a 2020 christmas carol

One hundred and seventy-seven years ago this month, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published in London. According to Wikipedia, it was released on December 19th, 1843, and the 6,000 copies printed sold out in five days. Two more editions were released before the end of that year. During the next year, 11 more editions were published.

Why was this story so tremendously popular? This was Victorian England, grappling with the dirty reality of the industrial revolution, which had arrived in England the century before: for those who didn’t get to participate in the unrestrained capitalism and the wealth it bestowed, there was child labor, the workhouse, and debtor’s prison. Dickens himself as a child was forced to work in a boot blacking factory when his father and other family members were put in prison for debts the family couldn’t pay. He wrote from personal experience—all of his books have characters on the wrong side of the booming economy who were struggling to survive.

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens created the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean, insufferable miser who runs a counting house somewhere in London. On Christmas Eve, after chastising his clerk for wanting the whole of Christmas Day off, he is visited by three ghosts. Well four, really, when you count Marley’s ghost, the first to appear on the bitterly cold night. These apparitions take him to visit his past, present, and future lives, and during this journey, Scrooge is shown the inevitable end—death, with no one to mourn him, and a miserable afterlife—if he doesn’t change his ways.

This experience transforms Scrooge into a kinder, nicer soul wishing to make up for years of indifference to others: this was Dickens’ “ghost of an idea,” an appeal to the nation to open their hearts and their purses to relieve the suffering around them. After the book was released he received many letters from readers who were joyous over the story’s message. Many of these readers wanted him to know that they had read the book aloud to their families and that it had become a treasured addition to family libraries.

This story has been retold many times since then, and it has never been out of print. Wikipedia lists the many adaptations of this story, including stage, film, TV, radio, opera, and ballet productions. After that list comes another long one of derivative works. I recently read that on December 21st of this year, released a new version of The Christmas Carol, read by Hugh Grant. His version will join the over 200 versions and derivative works of this title that they offer.

Every year as I wade through the season’s numerous offerings of the story, I look for the gem, the one that will reveal the original story without a lot of extras and add-ons. I suppose I do this, because when I was a kid, on Christmas Eve, my Dad would read A Christmas Carol aloud to the family, and amid the growing excitement over gifts to be discovered and opened and devoured the next morning, this reading became the touchstone that kept me grounded. My Mom and my sister and I would seat ourselves around him, and his sure, stentorian voice would usher Dickens’ rich, earthy language into our living room. I remember struggling to make sense of the old tale in this modern room, bright with lamps and overhead lights, warm air coming up through the heating vents, and a tree bedecked with tinsel and shiny, colorful bulbs, the newest ones from a recent shopping trip to Elder-Beerman’s department store in downtown Fairborn, OH.

This year’s gem was my friend Katie L. reading an abridged version of the story on zoom. Katie is an English professor; the 18th century is her area of expertise, including the “long 18th century,” which includes events that actually took place in the early 19th century. Given that the industrial revolution and several notable wars and conflicts did not conveniently end in 1799, it makes sense to consider the 18th century in this extended way. This places Dickens and his Christmas Carol within her range.

Seated, with a faux, cozy holiday backdrop of a fireplace ablaze and snow falling beyond decorative windows, Katie introduced us to the story and pointed out some fascinating details. At the time this story was published, Christmas carols were becoming popular in Victorian England (some accounts I have read attribute this to Prince Albert, who celebrated Christmas with customs he had grown up with in Saxony). Dickens had wanted to write a treatise on poverty and bring awareness to the plight of young, destitute children, but he couldn’t decide on the best vehicle for getting the word out. He landed on the idea of spinning such a story as a “carol” in the hopes that people would be curious about the novelty and read it. Katie explained that this is why the story is written in “staves,” the British term for “staff,” the set of lines on which musical notes are written. The version she read is Dickens’ own abridgement that he used when giving public readings, which she took from

My Dad probably read from Volume 5 of The Young Folks’ Shelf of Books, a collection of classic stories that my parents had bought my sister and me some years earlier. Volume 5, entitled “Stories That Never Grow Old,” in addition to A Christmas Carol, had some of my favorites, like Alice in Wonderland, Don Quixote (a “retelling”), Rip Van Winkle, and an excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels.

I’ve compared this version of A Christmas Carol to the editions on Project Gutenberg, and it matches exactly the 1st edition version on their site. Project Gutenberg’s electronic version includes images of both the cover and title page. The title page reads: A Christmas Carol, In Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. A link is provided to each of the five staves. There is a link to a version with images of the original manuscript pages, and there are later versions here, as well. Internet Archive has digitized a reproduction of a first edition, and I see in the front matter that Bradbury and Evans, of Whitefriars, London, were the printers (they later became Dickens’ publisher).

My Dad has been gone now for 12 years, and sadly we won’t be seeing my Mom this year because of covid. But I will be thinking of my family on this Christmas Eve, and the gifts my parents gave us each year. My Dad generally left the shopping and wrapping to my Mom. I think of the tremendous effort my Mom put into making each Christmas shiny and wondrous and bright for my sister and me, from the magical gifts under the tree to the sumptuous Christmas dinner and holiday treats (including whiskey cake and pfeffernusse), all of which undoubtedly took weeks of planning and doing. My Dad’s gift lay in the telling and sharing of a story with the message that we must all watch out for each other, and when we are able, we must help out someone less fortunate and make their plight known. This Christmas, with the devastating effects of covid impacting so many families around the world, including those fleeing war, hunger, poverty, and abuse, Dickens’ message is eerily on target.

My sister, reveling in the warmth of Christmases long ago, commented one year, “Each Christmas is the best.” We will make the best of things this year, and we will be thankful for loved ones we connect with over the glow of our laptops, for the abundant food we have on our Christmas table, for our warm and comfortable home.

But I’m trying to prise more from the many cataclysmic events of this devastating year—covid, the #blacklivesmatter movement, the election debacle, a president who continues to commit atrocious abuses of power. And as I struggle to peer through the darkness to find a way out, I come back to Dickens’ message, written 177 years ago, and I realize that what I need to do, what I need to do every year no matter the circumstances, is to reach out to those who are in need.

This holiday season, may the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future awaken the humanity in each of us. May we recognize that each life matters, that each life is precious and meaningful and deserves access to food, housing, education, gainful employment, and health care. May we recognize that each life deserves to be free from violence and persecution. May we recognize that each person deserves to be joyful and to love and be loved. May we recognize that each person deserves to be the person they want to be and to reach for the life they want to live. This year, every year, everyone.

Image is from 1843 first edition, illustration by John Leech (Project Gutenberg)


bottom of page