It’s been more than 175 years since Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol, but the book is as relevant as ever. Join Natalie McKnight, president of the Dickens Society, as she talks about Dickens and Christmas.
What did Christmas mean to Charles Dickens and how did he typically spend the season?
A Christmas Carol—and the many other Christmas stories and novellas Dickens wrote—capture best what Christmas meant to him. It’s a time for celebrations among friends and family, a time to be generous—and to try to continue that spirit throughout the year, a time for people to treat others, even strangers as friends and family.
Charles Dickens embodied the Carol philosophy in his own celebrations for Christmas, which were packed with friends and family, rich foods, Christmas punches (I still make one based on his family’s recipe!), and magic shows and theatricals.
Which works of Charles Dickens relate to the Christmas season?
Obviously, A Christmas Carol, most notably, but also The Chimes, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain—two of his other “Christmas” books (the other two he wrote at Christmas time are not focused as much on the season).
Many short works of fiction and nonfiction focus on the holiday as well, such as Christmas Festivities, A Christmas Tree, and What Christmas Is, as We Grow Older, all of which are available in Penguin’s A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings.
In addition, there are memorably Christmas scenes in The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations, too.
What is A Christmas Carol about?
It’s about a miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who gets visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve.
Over the course of the night the ghosts reveal to him what he has become through visits to his past, current Christmas moments, and dark glimpses of what the future might bring.
Through the ghostly visitations, Scrooge learns to live and love again and to share what he has generously with those around him.
The Carol is a ghost story, a story of redemption, and maybe above all a story of what often happens to people as they grow older and what we all must guard ourselves against: Getting so caught up in the daily grind that we forget to connect and care for those around us.
What can readers learn from Scrooge’s sense of humor displayed in the beginning of A Christmas Carol?
This is one of my favorite parts! His humor lets us see early on that he is NOT beyond redemption, that there is still a human being inside there—and one who is clever and imaginative.
Why draws so many people to A Christmas Carol on a yearly basis?
I think we all like to think that people can change for the better, and this story shows that dramatically and powerfully better than just about any other tales I can think of.
And, as I said above, most of us—including Charles Dickens—have a tendency to shut down, close ourselves off, become a bit miserly when overwhelmed with work, requests for money, etc. It’s human nature, and the Christmas season can add to the pressures.
The Carol helps us see what is perennially wonderful about the season, and how the real danger is not in opening ourselves to that wonder, but in shutting it out.
Talk about the theme of redemption in A Christmas Carol. How does Charles Dickens succeed in presenting such a deep theme in a simple story?
As I mention above, there are signs early on that Scrooge is not beyond redemption—in his humor and imaginative turns of phrase. And as early on as the visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past he starts regretting how he treated carolers earlier that day.
His redemption really begins when he feels for himself as an abandoned boy at school, and he weeps.
Having let himself feel his own pain, he starts being able to feel for others.
What would Charles Dickens think about his role in contemporary Christmas celebrations?
Charles Dickens would be amazed, and joyful, and humbled. His presence at Christmas 150 years after his death is ubiquitous, and while he may have dreamed that would be the case, I think he’s still be shocked at how much the Carol shapes our holidays.
Are you working on any projects related to Charles Dickens and Christmas?
Yes! I’m writing a chapter on Christmas fiction for the Oxford Companion to Christmas.
Any other thoughts you’d love to share about Charles Dickens and Christmas?
God bless us everyone—and a Merry Christmas to all!