Tis the Season to be Spooky: Revisiting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Updated: Oct 13
With the holiday season fast approaching, I thought I would write a short festive entry about ghosts and Christmas. Are there any better Christmas stories featuring spirits than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?
SOURCE: Frontispiece and Title Page to the First Editor ofA Christmas Carol (1843)
First published on the 19th of December in 1843, A Christmas Carol tells the story of a miserly old man named Ebenezer Scrooge, who, during the days leading up to Christmas, is visited by three spirits: “Christmas Past,” “Christmas Present” and “Christmas Yet to Come.”
SOURCE: Portrait of Charles Dickens
With each visit from the spirits, Scrooge learns a valuable lesson about how his selfish and cruel actions over the years are leading him toward a lonely and ultimately gloomy end.
Early into the narrative, the story, as I am sure you know, takes on supernatural elements. After refusing an invitation to join his nephew Fred and his family for Christmas dinner, and turning away two gentlemen who were seeking charitable donations, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley.
SOURCE: Marley’s Ghost, Illustrated by John Leech, First Edition A Christmas Carol (1843)
It had been seven years since his death, and Marley’s spirit warns Scrooge that if he continues behaving in this heartless manner, he is doomed to wander the Earth entwined by heavy chains and money boxes forged during a lifetime of greed and selfishness.
Marley explains to Scrooge that he has a single chance to avoid the same fate. In the coming days, Scrooge is to be visited by three spirits each night and either Scrooge listens to their warnings or is to be cursed to carry even heavier chains those of Marley’s spirit.
The four ghostly characters are essential for the book’s narrative, and for the first edition of A Christmas Carol the famous Victorian illustrator John Leech created some wonderful images for each of the spirits.
SOURCE: Portrait of John Leech
But why did Dickens choose the Christmas season as the setting for his book?
When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, celebrating Christmas was becoming increasingly popular in Victorian society.
For example, Christmas trees were introduced in England during the eighteenth century, but were popularised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the middle of the nineteenth century. Soon, anyone who could afford one had a tree in their home for the holidays.
It was also during the nineteenth century that the practice of carolling became quite popular. It is one of the reasons why people often dress in Victorian-style clothing today when they go carolling. It is an homage to the practice’s past.
If you’ve never read A Christmas Carol, you are truly missing out. It is a great piece of Victorian literature. Moreover, if you’re a fan of ghost stories, you will love Scrooge’s encounters with the various spirits.
Each of these spirits have very different personalities and appearances, and the messages that they attempt to share with Scrooge all relate in various to his mistreatment toward others over the years.
SOURCE: Cover to First Edition of A Christmas Carol (1843)
As Dickens describes in his novel, the Ghost of Christmas Past was an androgynous, white-robed figure. Its age is unknown, and its head is ablaze with light, almost like a candle burning. The ghost also carries a metal cap, not too dissimilar from a candle extinguisher.
After showing Scrooge a scene from his childhood, when he was a lonely boy at boarding school, Scrooge is next shown a scene from his past where he is in a heated conversation with his former fiancée Belle. The young Scrooge ends his relationship with Belle so that he can focus his energies on making more money.
Upset by what he has just witnessed, the elderly Scrooge extinguishes the Ghost of Christmas Past with its metal cap and then finds himself back in his bedroom alone.
SOURCE: Scrooge Extinguishing the Ghost of Christmas Past
The following night, when Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present, he is confronted with an entity that personifies the Christmas spirit of celebration. Sitting in a half-opened robe and surrounded by food and wine, this new ghostly vision seems like quite the party monster.
Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present soon find themselves in a happy and busy market, where everyone around them are busy buying various goods for their Christmas parties and dinners. Scrooge is reminded that he will be spending that time alone due to him rejecting his nephew's invitation to attend the family party.
Next, they find themselves at the home of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s underpaid and often abused clerk. It is there that Scrooge’s sees Tiny Tim, Cratchit’s sickly son.
The Ghost of Christmas Present explains to Scrooge that if things continue as they are for the Cratchit family, Tiny Tim is sure to die.
After some further conversation, Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present visit the home of Scrooge’s nephew Fred. The Christmas Party is in full force and Scrooge is reminded once again that he too could have been there, participating in the joyous festivities. However, because of his meanness toward Fred and his family, Scrooge is spending the evening all alone.
SOURCE: Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present
The final spirit that Scrooge encounters during A Christmas Carol is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This final ghostly visit is much different to the two previous ones. Silent and shrouded in a black cloth, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come resembles the Grim Reaper.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge a not-too-distant future where Scrooge is deceased. Most this encounter revolves around the pair visiting different graves, including one belonging to Tiny Tim. Learning of the child’s death, Scrooge becomes upset.
Finally, Scrooge visits a neglected grave and learns that it is his own. No one ever visits the site because Scrooge was such a cruel and selfish person during his life.
Frightened to learn of this potentially grim future, Scrooge pledges to change his ways.
SOURCE: Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
When Scrooge awakens the next morning, he’s a changed person.
First, he gives a large charitable donation to the two gentleman who he had turned away the previous day.
Then he sends a large turkey as a gift to Cratchit and his family for their Christmas dinner. In addition, he gives the clerk a pay raise and acts kindly toward Tiny Tim. Scrooge is almost fatherly in his behaviour
Finally, Scrooge visits the home of his nephew Fred and spends the afternoon with him and his family.
From that day on, Scrooge has a much stronger and more pleasant relationship with everyone around him. The lonely and grim future, which the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showed him, is no longer his destiny.
The moral of A Christmas Carol is clear: the pursuit of money will not make a person happy. Happiness is not found by amassing tremendous wealth through selfish acts. It is found through kindness, devotion to family, and friendships.
If you only focus on yourself and your own betterment, you will miss out on the joys of life.
Although we often think about Victorian Britain as the golden age of spiritualism, ghosts, and hauntings, it is significant that Dickens published his story five years before the famous Fox sisters came to prominence in the United States in 1848.
Thus, Dickens was writing about the spirit world well before the craze surrounding séances and other types of psychic performances hit Britain in the early 1850s. Perhaps Dickens saw what the future had in store for popular Victorian entertainment…
As far as sales go, A Christmas Carol was a huge success. The first edition print run of 6000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve of 1843 - that's five days! The publisher Chapman and Hall had to issue two more editions by the end of that year just to meet the demand. By the end of 1844 eleven more editions were released.
How much did a copy of Dickens' classic Christmas tale cost in the early 1840s? It was 5 shillings, which, in today's money, is around £26. It would have been a great present to receive at the time. In fact, if you are thinking about buying someone a gift, A Christmas Carol still makes a great present, especially if it is a first edition!
Hope you all have a pleasant holiday season and remember to be nice to people. If you are cruel and selfish you might just find yourself in the company of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come!
You can read a free version of the first edition of A Christmas Carol here.