The ultimate ghost story
Although written 175 years ago, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol did much to create the image of Christmas we have today
Do you, like Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, face the festive season with the attitude, ‘Bah! Humbug!’? If so, it may be time to read (or reread) his classic tale A Christmas
Carol and think again.
Why? Because, apart from cementing in our culture its association with snow, turkey and plum pudding, this short novel cuts straight to the true message of Christmas, with kindness and generosity taking centre stage.
In it, we witness the fairytale-like transformation of a miserly monster into a compassionate man. But
first, prepare yourself to
encounter gloom, hardship, misery – and ghosts…
When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, he framed it as a moral tale. Incensed by the appalling treatment of the poor – in particular, children – he was determined to effect change through an emotionally engaging novel. His love of Christmas also shines through.
The story is told in five ‘staves’, or chapters, and opens late afternoon on Christmas Eve in a bleak, Victorian counting house. It’s bitterly cold with fog ‘pouring in at every chink and keyhole’. Owner Ebenezer Scrooge is still hard at work, as is his poor, downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit. When visitors call, Scrooge dismisses them.
First comes his cheerful nephew Fred, inviting his
uncle to Christmas dinner. Next, two ‘portly gentlemen’ collecting for the destitute, are turned away, with Scrooge sniping, ‘Are there no prisons? … And the Union workhouses… Are they still in operation?’
That night, returning to his spartan lodgings, Scrooge sees on the door-knocker the face of his dead business partner Jacob Marley. Shaken, but not unduly disturbed, Scrooge retires to bed. But Marley’s ghost stands before him, weighed down by chains made of ‘cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel’.
Because in his lifetime he had cared only for money, Marley is now doomed to wander the afterlife restlessly. He warns Scrooge that the same fate awaits him unless he mends his ways.
One by one, three spirits arrive. First comes the Ghost of Christmas Past – old and small, with long, white hair. The spectre whisks Scrooge back to his lonely childhood and snow-filled Christmases, to his sister Fan, his kindly former master Fezziwig, and his fiancée Belle, who we witness sadly releasing Scrooge from their marriage contract as he has replaced her with a new idol – gold. Next, comes the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is often assumed to represent Father Christmas. Tall, vigorous and clothed in a green robe edged with white fur, he leads a nightgownclad Scrooge through snowy streets full of jovial people, past packed churches and into the loving, if poor home of Bob Cratchit, where we see a frail, young invalid, Bob’s son Tiny Tim.
The final spirit is the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. This spectre is silent, shrouded in black, with a single pointing finger visible. It shows Scrooge a mystery corpse. The man’s chattels are being sold off, and his body lies discarded under a ragged sheet.
In a churchyard ‘overrun by grass and weeds’, the ghost points to a tombstone. Shaking, Scrooge reads the inscription, which, of course, is of his own name.
Ebenezer is transformed. The fog – which represented his blindness to his failings – has lifted to reveal a bright, clear Christmas Day. Laughing with the relief of a man reprieved from the gallows, he vows to live ‘in the Past, the Present and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach’.
Whooping with joy, Scrooge sends a prize turkey to the Cratchits’ home, where Tiny Tim is now thriving; he donates a large sum to the ‘portly gentlemen’ and heads off to his nephew’s house for dinner. The miser’s conversion is complete.
The book is often very funny and has many joyous scenes of Christmas merriment, with abundant food, music, games and dancing. Like greed and avarice, isolation from society is seen as bad, while joining in is good. Scrooge’s young nephew and Bob Cratchit’s family embody this ideal.
Dickens’ overriding message is one of compassion – and we, the readers, are meant to hear it alongside Scrooge.
Ghost of Marley by Arthur Rackham
John Leech’s Ghost of Christmas Present
Dickens became a social reformer