The surprising story behind Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’s classic Christmas tale A Christmas Carol was published over 170 years ago, in 1843. Since then, there have been countless stage, screen, and radio adaptations of the classic story. The first film adaptation was a short silent movie version in 1901, titled Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost. There have been opera and ballet versions, an all-black musical called Comin’ Uptown (1979), and even a 1973 mime adaptation for the BBC starring Marcel Marceau. The Muppets, Mickey Mouse, and Mr Magoo have all featured in adaptations of the book.
It wasn’t the first Christmas story Dickens wrote. It wasn’t even the first Christmas ghost story Dickens wrote. He’d already written ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’, featuring miserly Gabriel Grub, an inset tale in Dickens’s first ever published novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7). The tale shares many of the narrative features which would turn up a few years later in A Christmas Carol: the misanthropic villain, the Christmas Eve setting, the presence of the supernatural (goblins/ghosts), the use of visions which the main character is forced to witness, the focus on poverty and family, and, most importantly, the reforming of the villain into a better person at the close of the story.
The family in A Christmas Carol whose plight helps to bring about Scrooge’s change of heart is the Cratchits, the father of whom works for Scrooge. Tiny Tim was not the original name for the little boy in Dickens’s novella: originally he was going to be called ‘Little Fred’, possibly after one of Dickens’s brothers, two of whom were called Frederick and Alfred. Dickens altered the name just before the book went to press.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks during October and November 1843, and it appeared just in time for Christmas, on 19 December. The book’s effect was immediate. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian (whom Dickens greatly admired), went straight out and bought himself a turkey after reading A Christmas Carol. The book has been credited with popularising the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, a greeting which, prior to Dickens’s story, was not widely used. The term ‘Scrooge’ has entered the language – and the Oxford English Dictionary – as shorthand for a tight-fisted and miserable person (although whenever we refer to a Christmas-hater as ‘a Scrooge’ we overlook the fact that Dickens’s character comes to embrace the holiday as a time of goodwill and good cheer at the end of the narrative). ‘Bah! Humbug!’ has become a universally recognised catchphrase, although Scrooge only uses it twice in the book. A species of snail, Ba humbugi, has even been named in honour of the character.
Dickens’s rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, called the book ‘a national benefit’, while fellow novelist Margaret Oliphant said that although it was ‘the apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding’, it ‘moved us all in those days as if it had been a new gospel’. The book was more or less single-handedly responsible for the tradition of the Christmas Eve ghost story, which remains with us to this day.
Dickens began his series of exhausting public readings from his work – the readings which would eventually contribute to his early death at just 58 – with performances of A Christmas Carol in the early 1850s. On days when he gave public readings, Dickens’s diet was eccentric, to say the least: he had two tablespoons of rum flavoured with fresh cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before the start of his performance, would drink a raw egg beaten into a tumbler of sherry (which, if unappetising, is at least rather Christmassy).
Of course, the success of the novel didn’t single-handedly create, or popularise, the modern idea of Christmas. Dickens himself acknowledged the influence of Washington Irving on his Christmas work, as we’ve discussed in a previous post on this fascinating writer. But Dickens’s book was part of a wider culture which helped to form the modern conception of the Christmas holiday. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert played their part, with Albert in particular importing numerous elements from Germany. The first Christmas cards were also sent in the same year as Dickens’s story was published. But A Christmas Carol has a special place in the literary history of Christmas, and is worth celebrating whether as a ‘gospel’, a ‘carol’, or simply a very good tale – and, of course, is always worth rereading.
Discover more interesting Charles Dickens facts here and see if you agree with our assessment of his best novels. If this blog post has whetted your appetite for more festive trivia, check out our compilation of great Christmas facts and our pick of the best poems for Christmas. And if you’re looking for the perfect Christmas gift for a book-lover, check out our book crammed full of interesting literary trivia, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.
Image: A Christmas Carol: Mr Fezziwig’s Ball © 1843 John Leech, public domain.
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Reblogged this on nativemericangirl's Blog and commented:
One of my most favorite Christmas Stories
This is fascinating information about Dickens. I have always loved “A Christmas Carol” and try to watch it every year. It’s message that anyone can change no matter how old he is, or set in his ways, is so inspiring. And it’s amazing how many expressions and customs he has added to our culturel. To think that he wrote this in 6 weeks? What a talent. Thank you so much for following my blog. So much great information here, I will follow yours with great interest.
Thanks very much! I wholeheartedly agree about Dickens. He was a one-off. And I am following your blog with interest! Keep up the superb work :)
The life of Charles Dickens fascinates me beyond comprehension. It is interesting how a man so bizarre (in an interesting kind of way) helped create the icons of Chrismas. We all need a bit of crazy to get our stuff together I reckon.
I agree wholeheartedly!
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is one of my favourite stories and I watch at least one film adaption of it every Christmas :-) Your blog was really interesting to read.
Merry Christmas also
Thank you, Anita! And (belated) Merry Christmas to you too :)
This is a great post. I studied and enjoyed “A Christmas Carol” in seventh grade (I am a high school senior now). I still have this book in my library with worn pages.
P.S. I would love your opinion on my blog: http://mybeautifullife96.wordpress.com
Thanks – glad you enjoyed the info. Looks like a fantastic blog, which I’ve followed and will read in more detail tomorrow. Keep up the good work!
Great post again. Enjoying all the facts you glean about everything!
Thank you! Glad you enjoy the facts – more on their way soon!
Reblogged this on Jelly-Side Up and commented:
Good evening, dear readers. I hope your weekend was lovely, and, if you’re lucky (like my sister, for instance), your break may continue through the holidays. Mine will not, but Marianjoy has been doing so full of festive celebrations the last couple of weeks, that work has been extra fun. :)
I wanted to share this wonderful history a fellow blogger (“Interesting Literature”) posted about the history of “A Christmas Carol,” which just celebrated its 170th birthday a few days ago. Not only is it timely, but it’s especially relevant to my family. This is a tale we have enjoyed ever since I was little, and it’s become as integral to our thoughts of Christmas as it has to worldwide culture. In fact, my dad has watched different versions of the movie three times in the last three days–I kid you not. I watched it with him today, while we drank holiday-blend coffee. :)
Please enjoy this fascinating account of the timeless tale and the history that surrounds it.
Now I have realised of whom Simeon Lee, Christie’s character in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, reminds me. Thank you for the insights, particularly as to the origins of ‘Merry Christmas.’
My pleasure! Glad you enjoyed it :)
A very informative and entertaining post. Thank you for sharing this fascinating history with us! :)
My pleasure. Glad you enjoyed reading it :)
Reblogged this on Granny Robertsons Cookbook and commented:
This struck a chord with me and goes into more detail than I would normally. A well presented article, I enjoyed reading it. Nicely done.
Thanks for the reblog! :)
Pingback: The First Film Adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1901) | Interesting Literature
A fascinating blog post, I never realised quite what an influence A Christmas Carol had on Christmas. I wonder how many people could do a reading after a pint and a half of champagne.
I know – apparently he couldn’t eat much on the day of a public reading (much as some stand-up comics say they have no appetite before a gig, maybe!). Thanks: glad you enjoyed the info!
Best short story ever, so tightly written and now nicely rounded out with the background info, top post thanks!
Thanks very much – glad you enjoyed the piece!
Thank you for this background information on my favorite story of all time–written in six weeks for pounds sterling or not.. I am lucky enough to live about 2 hours from the only manuscript version, with all of Dickens’ original text and his emendations, which is housed at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. I haven’t visited yet, but plan to soon. You can view the handwritten MS online: http://www.themorgan.org/collections/works/dickens/ChristmasCarol/1. Here in the US, we are treated to annual screenings of various film versions, but only one actor captured the quintessence of Scrooge–Alastair Sim in the 1951 film version also called “Scrooge.” Watched it for the hundredth time last night. Hope you buys in the UK appreciate this treasure as much as I do over here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrooge_(1951_film).
Wow, thanks for these links to the manuscript – what a treat! I’ve heard great things about Alistair Sim’s Scrooge – may have to seek it out online for next year’s festivities. Thanks!
I love A Christmas Carol! Can’t wait to watch it again and again…and again this holiday.
I hope you enjoyed watching it and had a good Christmas! :)
Love Dickens, but A Christmas Carol has always veered too close the ‘Xmas card’ sentimentality for me. The account of Mr Pickwick’s festivities is far sharper. Alas the ‘poor relatives’ who ate too much lunch, didn’t go for a bracing walk afterwards, and were tortured by indigestion all evening. ‘Welly sad’, as Tomm Veller would say.
Know what you mean about A Christmas Carol, though I suppose it’s lasted better than a lot of Victorian sentimentality from that era (the rest of Dickens’s oeuvre included). Pickwick’s a good one, especially the frost fair and skating on the Thames!
Appreciated your post. Thanks♥ Merry Christmas
Thank you for the comment, and Merry (belated) Christmas!
Smart idea to let us in on the background to ‘A Christmas Carol’ at Christmas time, Oliver. Fascinating as usual, m’dear … have a merry Christmas!
I hope you’ve had a very merry Christmas, Angela – and you know me, I never miss a literary milestone in the calendar! ;)
It’s amazing to me that he wrote it in six weeks and published it right away. These days, it takes years. I love Dickens and his sense of humor though so that’s ok. Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas (very belatedly, for which apologies)!
Reblogged by ghsenglishdepartment.wordpress.com – thank you for your seasonal and erudite insight into this novel! Much appreciated! Thanks for following our blog- we’re just getting started!
Thank you for the reblog! And good luck getting the blog off the ground – it looks fantastic so far.
Reblogged this on ghsenglishdepartment.
My appetite is indeed whetted, for a Dickens classic, not the sherry/raw egg concoction! I had no idea his diet was so unusual. I have never read Little Dorrit so I’ll be seeking that one out this festive season.
How have you found Little Dorrit? I always like to hear how people get on with a new Dickens, especially at Christmas. I loved it when I read it on holiday, especially Rigaud/Blandois!
Wonderful post as always. I just recently saw A Christmas Carol also cited as one of the earliest examples of time-travel in literature because of the way Scrooge goes back to view his past. Dickens was always ahead of the game!
That’s an interesting point – especially when you consider how Twain, Morris, Wells, and others would use time travel as a device in fiction later in the century. I hadn’t thought of A Christmas Carol in that respect – thanks!
What a fun article and what a wonderful way to get into the holiday spirit. I’ve never reblogged a post, but this morning I did just that on http://theviewfromsarisworld.com/. Thank you!
Thank you for reblogging, especially as you don’t normally! :)
Reblogged this on The View From Sari's World and commented:
A reading of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” has long been a tradition in our house. I just had to reblog this from Interesting Literature. Enjoy
Reblogged this on Ninteenth Centuryist and commented:
I always find it interesting that of all of Dickens’s Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol is the one that has lasted. This great article gives an overview of some of the things we’ve gained from the story and a bit of its history.
Thanks for the reblog, Emily!
Dear Dr. Tearle,
I re-read this tale every Christmas season. I enjoy the fantastical elements – which as a child I found scary. As I got older, I enjoyed the moralistic thought of redemption or man’s ability to ” turn a new leaf”. Of course, the book and the many film adaptations have shaped our Christmas traditions for generations – which warms me to my bones.
Thanks for blogging about it this season of joy!
Sorry for the late reply, but thank you for the nice comment! The test of a timeless story is how it continues to speak to ensuing generations, and A Christmas Carol has certainly passed that test.
Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
A very seasonal post with interesting facts about Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Read on …
I love this story so much. Moreover, it inspired me to write ”A Christmas Carol Betwixt’. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas.
Fantastic! And Merry Christmas (terribly belatedly) to you!
Dickens was pretty smart to alter his name, probably never would´ve heard of him if he hadn´t done it. Now in 6 weeks he finished the book? That´s something and then it comes out right the day of Christmas and the best of all is that we have to credit him for the sentence Merry Christmas. Also how come all the great writers die at an early age. I´m starting to thingk about becoming a full time writer. Always a fun and interesting read.
Thanks! It’s amazing how much influence and popularity the book has had/enjoyed – though I forgot to mention that Dickens initially made very little profit from it :)
Seems most of these writer died without a penny….hope I don´t end like one of them.
Reblogged this on Ellen Waldren and commented:
A fascinating post about Dickens’ book “A Christmas Carol” from Interesting Literature. Puts me in the festive spirit, no Bah Humbug from me
Just seen the previous comment, so will do as she has done, Happy Christmas – no Bah Humbug from me :)
I look forward to your blogs, always fascinating. Keep up the good work. Will try and vote for you, I tried yesterday but the Blog Awards website was having a hissy fit. Probably overloaded by folk trying to vote. What is the etiquette for reblogging? I would love to reblog this post to my followers?
Thank you! Hope the blog awards website was okay in the end? Sorry for the late comment, and Happy Christmas!
Reblogged this on Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings and commented:
Excellent post about the most wonderful Dickens book “A Christmas Carol” from the always intriguing Interesting Literature blog!
Thanks for the reblog (belatedly)!