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Martin Johnes, ‘A Christmas Carol: A Tale for All Times’

2016 December 13
by lucinda matthews-jones

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University and is the author of Christmas and the British: A Modern History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

The Ghost of Christmas Present, from the original 1843 edition of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4582990 (public domain).

The Ghost of Christmas Present, from the original 1843 edition of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4582990 (public domain).

In 1943 the centenary of the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol appears to have passed with little comment. However, one man did write to The Times to remind people of the occasion, calling it ‘this most delightful of all Christmas ghost stories’. He thought this worth doing because ‘of the influence which Dickens has had on all English-speaking people with regard to Christmas’.[1]

Dickens’ story did become an important part of Christmas culture but it did not invent the modern festival as sometimes supposed. As other historians have argued, the popularity of A Christmas Carol was rooted in how it represented a picture of Christmas that already existed.[2]

Perhaps more importantly, it resonated with wider aspects of contemporary Victorian culture. It spoke to a popular sentimentality, especially for childhood, and reflected a growing concern for the poor, even if that was not always acted upon. It was run through with a sense of Christian redemption that appealed to Victorian piety and some scholars have seen it, first and foremost, as a religious story.[3]

The appeal of A Christmas Carol far outlasted the Victorian context in which it was written and first gained popularity. The importance and obviousness of its Christian message has faded with growing secularism but its popularity is sustained by other themes within the story that are at the heart of later ideas of what Christmas is.

A time for giving

The first is charity. Dickens intended A Christmas Carol to stir moral consciences. Demonstrating a direct link between it and the widespread Victorian festive charity that took place is not easy but, in 1934, an actor, who claimed to have played Scrooge more than 2,000 times, did say he had received thousands of letters from people saying that the character had inspired them ‘to some sort of act of charity which they would not otherwise have done’.[4]

In the subsequent welfare state age, there is less severe need but we continue to regard Christmas as a time of generosity. This may not inspire large-scale giving to causes but it does underpin the giving of presents and even small gestures such as sending cards or wishing strangers a Merry Christmas. Scrooge’s generosity has appealed to generation after generation’s sense that they too were doing something for other people.

Bah, humbug

Of course, there is a degree of social obligation in present giving and Scrooge’s character before redemption is just as important to the story’s long-term popularity as his later generosity. Indeed, the character’s very name became a synonym for the lack of festive spirit that is quite widespread.

The organization, expense and family politics that Christmas can involve mean that a minority people do not like the festival at all, while others find at least the build up rather stressful. This is not new: as the Daily Mail claimed in 1935, the effort of Christmas could bring out elements of Scrooge in most people.[5] Indeed, moaning about Christmas became a staple of newspaper and magazine features and being a Scrooge seemed something of a badge of honour to some people.

A measure of time

The Victorian revival or refurbishment of Christmas owed something to a sense of history. It was an attempt to regain something that contemporaries felt was lost, a rural England, a time of goodwill, benevolence and social harmony, something to contrast with the poverty and tensions of the modern world. The Victorian Christmas was thus a celebration of what used to be and might still be.[6]

This infused Dickens’s story, with its ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, and it continues to appeal because of an enduring sense of the festival being caught up with conceptions of time and history.

From the food we eat to the customs we follow, Christmas is different to every other time of the year. This, together with the strong emotions associated with family gatherings and receiving presents, mean the festival creates powerful memories.

It is thus an occasion to look backwards, not just within our own lives but sometimes to the very beginnings of Christmas and the birth of Christ. The festival can be a nostalgic source of comfort and continuity amidst the uncertainty of modern developments but it can also be a time of regret and sorrow, a reminder that happier times have passed by and finished.

It also comes around every year and there is always the hope that things might be better by next Christmas. We do not need to be visited by ghosts to contemplate the march of time but we can all use Christmas to measure it in our lives.[7]

Changing and competing tastes

Like Christmas itself, the enduring success of A Christmas Carol is also rooted in how easily its basic story can be adapted and adopted to suit changing and competing tastes.

This was evident amidst the social and political tensions between the wars. Some commentators on the left thought Scrooge represented modern capitalism and Cratchit the whole working class. Others, in contrast, preferred to dwell upon the story as a reminder of the disappearance of Victorian poverty and the existence of a new social conscience. Those less certain of modern times saw it as a nostalgic link to the past, an escape from contemporary horrors such as the depression and memory of war.[8]

Stills from the 1935 film 'Scrooge'

Stills from the 1935 film ‘Scrooge’ showing rich and poor singing ‘God save the Queen’.

A 1935 British film adaption sidestepped some of Dickens’ social critique and added new scenes, such as the rich and poor both singing ‘God Save the Queen’, that stressed British social cohesion.[9]

An enduring custom

After listening to A Christmas Carol on the radio in 1937 one factory worker recorded in his Mass Observation return that he wished modern Scrooges could be visited by ghosts.[10]

From its first publication to the modern day, Dickens’ tale has struck a chord with people and been told and retold again and again, offering an antidote to the commercialism that has marked Christmas that since the late nineteenth century.

Some of the retellings abandoned Dickens’ plot completely and instead simply adopted his idea of someone who hated Christmas coming round to appreciate it, each time hitting home the idea that the festival could be a time of redemption which enabled individuals to realise the importance of family and charity over materialism or personal pride.[11]

Dickens’s story of redemption may have lost its Christian connotations but its influence has lived on. It has become a tradition in itself and, like other enduring Christmas customs, its success lies in how it can be altered, interpreted or even ignored according to taste.

References

[1] The Times, 18 December 1943.

[2] Neil Armstrong, Christmas in Nineteenth-century England (Manchester, 2010), p. 51. Mark Connelly, Christmas: A Social History (London, 1999), p. 3.

[3] Geoffrey Rowell, ‘Dickens and the Construction of Christmas’, History Today, 43, 12 (1993), 17-24.

[4] Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette, 8 December 1934.

[5] Daily Mail, 24 December 1935.

[6] Armstrong, Christmas in nineteenth-century England.

[7] Martin Johnes, Christmas and the British: A Modern History (London, 2016), ch. 4.

[8] Paul Davis, The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge (New Haven, 1990), 136-150.

[9] Jeffrey Richards, Film and British National Identity: From Dickens to Dad’s Army (Manchester, 1997), pp. 336-7. For a discussion of other film versions of the story see James Chapman, ‘God Bless Us, Every One: movie adaptations of A Christmas Carol’, in Mark Connelly (ed), Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema (London, 2000), 9-37.

[10] Mass Observation day survey, 25 December 1937, respondent 284.

[11] Karal Ann Marling, Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday (Cambridge, 2001), ch. 4.  Paul Davis, ‘Retelling A Christmas Carol: text and culture-text’, The American Scholar, 59 (1990), 109-15.

One Response leave one →
  1. Trev Broughton permalink
    December 17, 2016

    Thanks, Martin, for reminding us of the work of the much-missed Neil Armstrong. His book and essays on the Victorian Christmas are such important constributions to the field.

    Great post!

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