This essay comes from the author's 2003 Broadview Press edition of A Christmas Carol, which contains, in addition to the text and an introduction, selections from relevant writings by Dickens, contemporary reviews, and other materials. (The preceding link contains the full table of contents.)
n creating A Christmas Carol Dickens gathered up the grim memories of his father's imprisonment, his depressing year in the blacking factory, his outrage over the condition of the poor and uneducated, especially the children working in the mines and industry, and remarkably fused these dark visions with the bright prospects of a Christmas celebration. He drew upon his earlier work, The Pickwick Papers, to recreate the joyful scenes of dancing, singing, eating, and drinking that flesh out the good feelings of the holiday. Also in that novel Dickens has Mr. Wardle tells the party that it is customary for everyone to while away the time until midnight, when Christmas is ushered in, by playing games of forfeits or telling ghost stories. Mr. Wardle then relates the tale of a morose, lonely, and mean-spirited sexton named Gabriel Grub who, after being visited by a frightening group of goblins who show him the past and future, is transformed into an amiable man "who saw that men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the fair surface of the earth." Unlike Scrooge, whose conversion is seen and welcomed by all around him, Gabriel could not bear the thought of returning to a place where his repentance would be scoffed at and his reformation disbelieved. He vanishes for ten years and returns "a ragged, contented, rheumatic old man."
Dickens's memorable descriptions of the Christmas scene in both Pickwick and A Christmas Carol owe a great deal to an American writer, Washington Irving (1783-1859). At a New York dinner, hosted by Irving, Dickens amusingly revealed his devotion to the great American author: "I say, gentlemen, I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me" (quoted in Kaplan, p. 133). Irving traveled extensively throughout Europe recording his experiences in notebooks, and he was especially fond of England and its old world character. He spent a couple of years living in Birmingham, where he wrote some of his most famous stories, including "Bracebridge Hall" (1822), a blend of fact and fiction that centers on an old manor house, its residents and guests, and their elaborate parties and tales. The largesse of the English nobility and their ancient traditions held a fascination for the American author. Bracebridge Hall was modeled after Aston Hall, recently leased from Adam Bracebridge by James Watt, the son of the famous industrial pioneer. It was here that Irving enjoyed and later recorded the grand Christmas festivities and English rituals that had largely faded from the nation. In the semi-feudal community of Dingley Dell in Pickwick Papers, Dickens's portrait of Mr. Wardle is designed after that of Irving's genial Squire Bracebridge. Irving's descriptions of the Bracebridge Hall Christmas celebrations, with their dancing, singing, games, tales, mistletoe and holly clearly helped to shape those seen in Dingley Dell, Mr. Fezziwig's ball, and at the home of Scrooge's nephew, Fred.
Irving's comment upon the short and cold winter days reflects the underlying reason for the conviviality that reaches back to the Saturnalia and forward to A Christmas Carol:
In the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and are brought more closely together by dependence upon each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms; and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity. [Old Christmas , pp. 6-7]
What could be more Dickensian than these words?
In addition to creating a powerful tension between the merriment of Irving's nostalgic account of Christmas with his own dark vision, shaped by his painful childhood memories and by his sympathy with the suffering of children brought on by the Industrial Revolution, Dickens changed the tradition of a twelve-day festival set in a manor house to a one-day celebration set in a city warehouse (Mr. Fezziwig's ball) and in the homes of middle and lower class families, namely those of Scrooge's nephew, Fred, and Bob Cratchit. As Paul Davis observes, "The Carol melded country customs and Christmas lore with a Londoner's vision to create a new Christmas story that was particularly attuned to the emergent urbanity of early Victorian England" (25).
Whereas Washington Irving discovers the ancient rituals of Christmas to be very much alive in the country mansion of Bracebridge Hall, Dickens relocates Christmas squarely in the heart of London. In place of Irving's idyllic, broad, snow-covered landscape with its quaint church, playful dogs, stage coaches crowded with Christmas fare and cheerful travelers, Dickens envelopes his denizens of the city with a claustrophobic fog and bone-chilling cold, as if London was in the grip of a final ice age:
. . . . the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in the brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.
The cold and misanthropic atmosphere of London's streets, however, does not preclude the warmth of Christmas, albeit, on a less than manorial scale. The Ghost of Christmas Past conjures up the memory of Scrooge's old employer, Mr. Fezziwig, who converts his warehouse into a festive hall in which to celebrate Christmas: "Clear away. There is nothing they [Fezziwig's employees] wouldn't have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter's night." Thus the ledger books, the daily grind, and the cold give way to music, dance, games, food, and fellowship. Christmas, Dickens seems to be saying, can now be celebrated by anyone, that its rituals and joys are no longer the exclusive province of the upper classes in their country estates, but can be found in a London warehouse or in a simple London home, such as that of the Cratchit family. Because the population of London was growing exponentially its inhabitants could look to A Christmas Carol for much needed inspiration during a period of great economic and social stress.
Davis, Paul. The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Ed. Richard Kelley. Broadview Press, 2002.
Irving, Washington. Old Christmas. Tarryton, New York: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1977.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: a Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988.
Last Modified 7 March 2008