19.12.2014 by Andrew Nixon

What to Read on Your Sofa: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

In our series What to Read on Your Sofa, sofa.com culture editor Andrew Nixon recommends great books, old and new, to curl up with. As a festive special, here's the ideal book to snuggle up with on a cold Christmas Eve, ideally accompanied by mince pies and a glass of something warming...

A Christmas Carol is so ingrained into the collective consciousness that you may wonder whether it’s worth the bother of actually reading it. You know the story. Cranky old skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three Christmas Ghosts who show him what a mean thing he is and how he’ll end up dead and alone if he doesn’t mend his ways, resulting in his overnight transformation from miser to generous festive merrymaker.

But perhaps you may not realise the full extent of the influence of Dickens’ novella on our whole conception of what Christmas is supposed to be. Indeed, the historian and author Peter Ackroyd has described Charles Dickens as having ‘almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas’.

The invention of Christmas

In A Christmas Carol Dickens not only invented the antithesis of the season – giving us the noun for a seasonal party-pooper (a ‘Scrooge’) and the relevant catchphrase (‘Bah, Humbug’) – but he also gave us the thesis itself: the popular idea that 25 December is meant to be the holiday of big family feasts, parlour games, and above all a spirit of fellowship, charity and goodwill to all. The scenes in which Scrooge’s nephew hosts a jolly Christmas party, eating well and playing Blind Man’s Buff, were hugely influential in establishing the idea of how the day ought to be celebrated. The story even popularised the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’.

Christmas as a religious festival was of course observed pre-Dickens, but it had nothing like the central place in public life that it has now. In the early 19th century it was scarcely worth a mention, and people would conduct ordinary business on Christmas Day itself. The Victorians transformed the holiday into a major event, thanks in no small part to the popularity of A Christmas Carol. 

‘A new Gospel’

As a parable, Dickens’ story is memorable, easily understood, and remarkably effective. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge how he has failed the promise of his younger self; the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals the brave sufferings of others, especially Tiny Tim, the crippled son of Scrooge’s maltreated clerk Bob Cratchit; and the final, terrifying Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his unmourned death and untended grave.

Even in our cynical times it is nigh on impossible not to be moved by reading A Christmas Carol , by the outpouring of relief and joy when Scrooge is granted a chance to change his ways. For the Victorians it was a sensation. Dickens’ contemporary novelist Margaret Oliphant recalled how it was treated as ‘a new Gospel’. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported a sudden burst of charitable giving in early 1844 which it attributed to Dickens’ book.

The effects continued for decades, and internationally. In 1867 an American factory owner called Fairbanks saw Dickens reading A Christmas Carol in Boston and was sufficiently moved to send his workers home on Christmas Day with a turkey each; while the Queen of Norway took it upon herself in the early 1900s to send presents to crippled children in London adorned with the message ‘With Tiny Tim’s Love’.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Muppets, Zombies and Klingons

In the 20th Century perhaps the most pervasive legacy of A Christmas Carol is the incredible number of adaptations for stage, screen and radio.

There are at least 28 film adaptions – with the earliest being a five minute silent movie from 1901 and the most recent a 2009 Jim Carrey vehicle – plus countless television versions, pastiches and parodies.  For my money the best movie adaptation is either the 1951 Scrooge with Alastair Sim in the title role, or the 1988 update Scrooged starring Bill Murray. But the tale has been given every conceivable treatment, including by the Muppets [above, with Michael Caine as Scrooge], Mickey Mouse, Blackadder, Bugs Bunny, Mister Magoo, Sesame Street, Barbie, the Flintstones, the Jetsons, the Smurfs , Doctor Who and  even, believe it or not, Sonic the Hedgehog.

There is also a Wild West version starring Jack Palance, a stage adaptation set in the Star Trek universe called A Klingon Christmas Carol; a canine version called An All Dogs Christmas Carol; and a novel by Adam Roberts in which it turns out that Tiny Tim was carrying an infectious virus that threatens a zombie apocalypse, leaving Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future to save humanity (straying pretty far from the original, that last one).

Of course, the first adaptor of the tale was Charles Dickens himself, who performed A Christmas Carol on stage many times, using it for his very first public reading at Birmingham’s town hall in 1853, and for his very last, at St James’ Hall, London just a few months before his death in 1870. Audiences were enraptured by Dickens’ acting skills, transforming himself without props or effects into his own larger-than-life characters, particularly the vicious Scrooge.

Charles Dickens on stage

So is it worth actually reading?

So, given that you know the story off by heart anyway, is it worth spending a couple of hours on your sofa reading A Christmas Carol? Absolutely it is, if nothing else to appreciate Dickens’ masterly skills as a storyteller and scene setter, not merely as a moralist. The appearance of Marley’s Ghost – the spirit of Scrooge’s former partner who comes to warn him about his imminent spectral visitations, clanking around in a great chain representing his selfish earthly sins – is unforgettable. And Dickens’ turn of phrase is always a joy (“In came Mrs Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile”).

In the 170-odd years since Charles Dickens penned his great ghost story, many families have made it an annual tradition to read A Christmas Carol as the 25th approaches – you certainly could do a lot worse than giving it a go yourself.


Three ways that A Christmas Carol created our idea of Christmas

Aside perhaps from Prince Albert, who gave us the Christmas tree, and Coca-Cola, who popularised the image of the red-and-white robed Santa in their adverts, nobody has more influenced the modern idea of Christmas than Charles Dickens…

  1. The language of the season – As well as coining ‘Bah Humbug’ and any accusations that someone is a ‘Scrooge’, Dickens gave us Tiny Tim’s ‘God bless Us, Every One!" and even popularised the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’
  2. A White Christmas – snow at Christmas time in England is relatively rare now and it was in the 1840s too, but Dickens wrote as if a ‘white Christmas’ was the norm. (Interestingly, Peter Ackroyd has observed that during the first eight years of Dickens’ life there was actually a white Christmas every year, so perhaps that’s how he genuinely thought of the season.)
  3. A time for givingA Christmas Carol helped to popularise the idea that Christmas was not just another religious holiday, but specifically a time for family gatherings, roast fowl dinners, and a festive spirit of generosity and giving.

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