When Charles Dickens penned A Christmas Carol in 1843, he was writing much more than a tale of Victorian Christmas. He was writing a story of the Victorian culture and lifestyle. Beyond being a beloved part of our Christmas literature and part of the lore of Christmas, A Christmas Carol illustrates many of the views of the Victorians and many aspects of their lifestyle. As with most of Dickens’ works, it is a book emphasizing the problems of Victorian society as he viewed them and a call for social reform. Thus, he notes in his introduction to A Christmas Carol, “I have endeavored in this ghostly little book to raise the ghost of an idea” which he hopes “shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.” Dickens means not the Ghost of Christmases Past, Present, or Future but a fourth ghost, the Spirit of Future Reforms. It is this ghost he wishes “may it haunt their (his readers’) houses pleasantly and no one wish to lay it (reform, not his book) down.”
A Christmas Carol illustrates many of the traditions of the newly emerging celebratory Victorian Christmas: the family feast, gift-giving, the Christmas tree and caroling, to list a few. But it illustrates much, much more about the Victorians and the lifestyle and philosophies and is critical of much of both.
Dickens’ main focus is the impact of industrialization and urbanization upon society. In A Christmas Carol, we see Scrooge as the exemplification of the evils of complete laissez-faire Capitalism: its Social Darwinistic attitudes about the poor and their plight, the materialism and greed Capitalism can inspire, its classic “workaholic” attitudes, and its obsession with differentiating between the upper classes and the lower classes, between superiors and inferiors. The Victorian obsession with being genteel and the moral, evolutionary, and social superiority it implies is also richly illustrated.
A Christmas Carol is obviously full of Victorian Spiritualism. There’s a trio of Christmas ghosts. A ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s departed business partner Jacob Marley returns to join in an attempt to reform him. The spirits of Scrooge and others travel through time and eventually change the future by changing Scrooge’s spirited soul.
In this reform of even Scrooge and the negative aspects of Victorianism he represents, we see the Victorians’ seemingly irrepressible optimism that all will eventually work out for the better and that all problems can and will be solved and all evils eventually eliminated.
Dickens, reflecting Victorian views, extols the virtues of family life and both its effects on a man’s character and soothing effects after a day’s struggle in the business world. How happy the Crachits are, despite their problems. How Ebenezer Scrooge’s life might have been changed by marriage to Belle.
Since A Christmas Carol is a Victorian tale, we see in it the clothing, manners, and appearance of the era illustrated in addition to its attitudes.
The reasons for the great appeal of A Christmas Carol in Dickens’ Victorian Era are obvious. Why then its ongoing popularity? The fact that it has become a tradition of that most traditional time of the year, Christmas, is only part of the answer. Why has it remained so popular over the subsequent decades and eras that it has achieved this status of being a tradition? Perhaps its messages, about Christmas and beyond to the lifestyles of these decades, still strikes a chord in our hearts which resonates in our souls and spirits which are particularly receptive to them during the Christmas season.
A retired history teacher, school administrator and university professor, Dr. R.E. Heinly writes a weekly column on the Victorian Era in the Cape May Star & Wave. He is MAC’s Director of Museum Education and portrays our own Dr. Emlen Physick.