Before "Miracle on 34th Street," before "It's a Wonderful Life," even before "The Nutcracker" ballet, there was "A Christmas Carol." Charles Dickens published his "Ghostly little book" in 1843, just in time for the holiday shopping rush, and it became an instant runaway hit. The tale has never lost its momentum. It has been filmed some 200 times, with actors as varied as George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, and Scrooge McDuck playing the leading role.Why is this story so popular? 1. It resonates.
2. It's Victorian.
Dickens was in some ways a literary pioneer, for instance revealing the awesome commercial potential of the serialized novel, but he did not invent the storytelling craft. "A Christmas Carol" echoes medieval morality plays, in which otherworldly beings attempt to influence a human protagonist toward good or evil. Such plays often featured accounts of unhappy death to scare the main character—and the audience-straight.
Medieval Europeans—who lacked a strong sense of salvation by grace—cared much about dying well. Dickens's readers thought comparably less about the afterlife, but they, too, confronted death—from untreatable disease, from childbirth, from dangerous work and squalid living quarters—regularly. For contemporary readers and viewers, it may be Scrooge's bald materialism that provokes chills of identification. Whatever the cultural climate, the "Carol" works.
Most of what we think of today as "traditional Christmas" hails from the nineteenth century. Sure, some European cultures have awaited Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas for centuries, but the jolly old elf we all know and love was invented less than 200 years ago by poet Clement Clarke Moore and illustrator Thomas Nast. Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" first appeared in 1823, a year after Britain's first Christmas card was printed. Nast refined his vision of Moore's white-bearded, red-suited, jelly-bellied Santa toward the end of the century, eventually producing the image everyone now recognizes. Victorians bequeathed us Christmas shopping, too. "A Christmas Carol" taps into nostalgia for this formative holiday era.3. It's Religious:
The novel's most famous line is Tiny Tim's prayer, "God bless us every one." The novel centers on a Christian holiday and the Christian virtue of charity. Church bells ring out at key moments, and the crowds in the street dutifully heed their call to worship. The novel even ends with a kind of conversion, when Scrooge decides to start loving his neighbor as himself. Who wouldn't applaud that?4. … but not too religious.
Dickens attended an Anglican church, but his beliefs were Unitarian. His God blessed all, his Christ was a very good man, his religious countenanced no creeds, and his Bible yielded only noble precepts for living. In his posthumously published The Life of Our Lord, he put it this way: "It is christianity to do good always—even to those who do evil to us. It is christianity to love our neighbor as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to shew that we love him by humbly trying to do right in everything." Not surprisingly, then, there is no Christ in "A Christmas Carol," which unfortunately renders the story highly suitable for network television and school productions.
Perhaps, then, "A Christmas Carol" is not only still a hit, but still a cautionary tale. Thanks to Dickens and a host of other Victorians, Christmas consistently warms the heart. Changing the heart, though, requires an entirely different story.
For more information:
An article on the faith of Charles Dickens is tucked at the end of CH issue 27: Persecution in the Early Church.
A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations
Everyman, a 15th-century morality play
Thomas Nast's Christmas Illustrations (illustrated catalog)
Incidentally, E.T.A. Hoffman wrote "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" in 1816, but it was not popularized with Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky's music and Marius Petipa's choreography until 1891.