In 1843, with his fifth child on the way, Charles Dickens needed to publish a new bestseller to support his growing family, so he began writing a ghost story – one that would become one of his best-loved tales, the exemplar of the Dickensian Christmas: A Christmas Carol.
Written in just six weeks, Dickens financed the book’s publication himself due to a dispute with his publishers. The price was set at five shillings, so virtually everyone could afford it, and it proved so popular that around 6,000 copies were sold in a matter of days. An immediate smash with the public, it quickly spawned a range of ‘pirated’ copies forcing Dickens into a number of legal actions to protect his creation.
The writer and social critic’s motives were wider than simply telling a good story and the obvious financial benefits. Dickens had recently returned from a tour of northern England, where he had witnessed the struggles of everyday life for Britain’s poor. He had also been moved by his visits to ‘ragged schools’ – free charity schools that educated destitute children. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens found a subtle way of highlighting the plight of the poor.
It’s the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly moneylender who hates Christmas and cares for nobody except himself. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him that if he continues down his path of greed and selfishness, he will spend eternity in torment like Marley. Scrooge is then visited by three spirits of Christmas – past, present and future. He witnesses the hardships suffered by the family of Bob Cratchit (his underpaid clerk) and is shown what the Cratchits’ future might be without Scrooge’s help – poverty and the untimely death of the sickly Tiny Tim.
Horrified at seeing his own, unmourned death, and the fates of those around him due to his carelessness, Scrooge eventually repents. He gives money to charity, spends Christmas with his family, sends a turkey to the Cratchit family and gives Bob a pay rise. The new Scrooge is described as a good man who embodies the true spirit of Christmas. It’s believed that parts of the novel were inspired by Dickens’s own life: as a 12-year-old, around the time that his father was in debtors’ prison, he’d been forced into work, while Tiny Tim is thought to have been based on Dickens’s own nephew – who did not survive childhood.
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What is a Dickensian Christmas?
“Dickens, it may truly be said, is Christmas,” said the literature scholar VH Allemandy in 1921. However, important though he undoubtedly was, Dickens did not create Christmas. Rather, he reflected a general early 19th‑century interest in the season and was part of a widespread, particularly middle-class, desire to reinvigorate its ancient customs.
By the time of its publication, Christmas had become a sedate one-day affair – a far cry from the medieval Christmases that involved days of feasting and merriment.
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Dickens’s festive novel encouraged a reinvigoration of the holiday season. The tale conjures up the image of a perfect and nostalgic Victorian Christmas, full of turkey, mistletoe and goodwill; it remains so ingrained in popular culture that, even today, people who are stingy or miserly are often given the nickname of Scrooge.
At the time Dickens was writing his now world-famous story, he could have consulted an ever-burgeoning number of popular histories of Christmas such as TK Hervey’s Book of Christmas (1836), and his A History of the Christmas Festival, the New Year and their Peculiar Customs (1843), as well as Thomas Wright’s Specimens of Old Carols (1841). Dickens, being perfectly in-tune with Britain, therefore published his story at precisely the right moment. He was a massive player in a revival that was already under way, but he was not the sole instigator of it.
This article was originally published in 2012, written by Mark Connelly, professor of modern British history at the University of Kent, and updated in December 2019 with content that first appeared in BBC History Revealed