Without a doubt, the most famous Christmas story is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Adapted into numerous films, plays, and radio presentations, it is cemented in our minds as “the” definitive wintry tale. It is the story of a wealthy miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who through the intervention of three ghosts comes to comprehend the true spirit of the season and changes his ways. While it is a story about redemption, it is also frightening at times, which makes it unusual in Christmas literature.
Or… is it so unusual?
While Dickens may have set the standard against which seasonal ghost stories are measured, he did not originate the tradition. American writer Washington Irving noted the reading of ghost stories at Christmas in his works and to this day the British continue to indulge in them.
What is it about Christmas, a time of happiness and joy, and remembering the birth of Christ, that brings to mind ghost stories? The answer lies with the Victorians. While the holiday was celebrated prior to the 1800’s, many of its traditions were shaped during that period. Christmas trees were first introduced in the early half of the century by Prince Albert, and it was not widely celebrated as a festive holiday until Dickens generated interest in surrounding it with feasting, games, and family through his descriptions of such glad gatherings in A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers.
One of the popular forms of entertainment were penny magazines in which many writers (Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others) became famous. They sold especially well at Christmas since even poorer families could afford to purchase them. The Victorians were fascinated by supernatural events and printing tales about monsters, vampires, and ghosts became lucrative. No one knows for certain how the tradition got started, but Dickens forever defined it with A Christmas Carol, which sold out its initial printing run of 6,000 copies in only five days. Publishers scrambled to print more and it gained great popularity not only in high society but also the lower and middle classes. The tale reflects certain aspects of the author’s own life (the living conditions of the Cratchit family are much like his own impoverished childhood) but also contains a subtle condemnation of known public figures and the overall mentality of the Victorians. Dickens was waging a war on the behalf of “the poor man’s child,” and the sad plight of Tiny Tim reflects his anger over extreme poverty and workhouse conditions. One factory owner was so moved by a public reading of the story by the author that he not only broke tradition in closing his business on Christmas day, but also gave all his employees a turkey!
Although ghost stories are not Christmas tradition here in America, A Christmas Carol remains popular due to its universal themes of forgiveness and redemption. The story is about “spirits” but the mentality and message are very Christian in origin. Scrooge is selfish and bitter until confronted by the spirit of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, who is bound in eternity in chains forged through his selfishness in life. He returns to warn Scrooge not to follow suit. The Spirit of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a journey of regret in showing him everything he has lost through his decision not to love his fellow man. Scrooge feels guilt and repentance in the presence of the Spirit of Christmas Present, and begs for forgiveness when the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come reveals to him his eventual sad and lonely death contrasted with the heartfelt sorrow over Tiny Tim’s passing. Scrooge goes from selfishness to regret to repentance to salvation, which completes an immediate transformation in his life and reflects the message of Christianity, since it is a journey all Christians must take.
Many have argued that Dickens wrote the first nonreligious Christmas story, starting a trend of secularism that continues to taint the holiday to this day. Even C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay “The Decline of Religion” that Dickens replaces angels “by spirits of his own invention.” Yet it may be due to the use of ghosts instead of angels that the story remains widely popular. Hollywood may not have adapted the story over and over again, ensuring its continued success, had it been more openly religious. Thus, we do have “spirits” instead of angels but the touching theme of redemption continues to be told and re-told to audiences during the holidays.
Whatever our preference, whether we indulge in “other” Christmas ghost stories or not, there is something deeply moving about one man’s journey from selfishness to redemption. It is if nothing else a reminder to echo Tiny Tim in his eager prayer of, “God bless us, every one!” ♥