“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book,
to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put
my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other,
with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”
Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.
Charles Dickens was thirty-one years old in 1843 when he produced A Christmas Carol at his own expense as a Christmas gift for the world, with lavish binding, gilt edging, and hand-colored illustrations, yet priced at only five shillings a copy (a price that almost everyone could afford). The overnight success of the little book, which continues to this day, has made Dickens a sort of literary Father Christmas: his images of biting cold, snowy London streets, and the traditions of the time—from roasting turkeys and bubbling puddings to the Christmas tree, only recently introduced by Prince Albert— contributed a great deal to the spread of Christmas celebrations around the world. The story has proved timeless; the readings and performances that Carol has received over the years, from family readings by the fireplace, to one-man shows, to major motion pictures, are numerous, to say the least.
So why do it again? Why does a Christmas story set in the brutal era of Victorian England call us to repeat it, year after year? On the social level, Dickens had specific personal and political intentions that might not apply to every individual in this day and age: reliving the best of his childhood memories, spreading his belief in the necessity of helping the poor, raising the importance of children, to name a few. While 21st century Americans don’t face the horrors of debtors’ prison and child labor, the squalor of tenement houses, or a life expectancy of twenty-two like the lowest classes of 19th century London did, not many are untouched these days by economic uncertainty at some level. And very few of us could not manage to look around, and find someone to whom we could reach out at this time of year.
No doubt charity is a good practice both then and now, and the resolve to give is, in some sense, an easy fix. But Dickens wrote that he hoped to “haunt” people with his Christmas Carol. The characters that he created certainly imbed themselves in our hearts, whether flesh-and-blood like wretched old Scrooge, poor Cratchit, and innocent Tiny Tim; or more conceptual, but no less real, like the terrifying personification of Ignorance and Want, and the Three Spirits of Christmas itself. The City of London comes to life with its own personality in Dickens’ story too, not just as scene and setting, but as a watcher and contributor to the lives that run up and down its streets, or sing carols on its corners, seeking shelter from the icy wind and trying to scratch out a living.
But most haunting is the mystery that Dickens creates as he weaves Scrooge’s past, present, and future together in such a way, that the tortured, shriveled soul chooses to be reborn. The Three Spirits of Christmas do not erase Scrooge’s past. The pain of the boy deserted at school, the young man too proud to love, and the cruel employer will always be a part of him. But at the bottom A Christmas Carol is a story of redemption: an old miser, past hope it seems, without a friend in the world, gets a chance to start again. Isn’t that what most of us secretly dream of: a clean slate, the means to make amends, finding a way to live differently? When we review our own shortcomings, realizing this kind of change seems like an impossibility. But A Christmas Carol tells us that we can.
Join us as we allow ourselves to be haunted once again by Dickens’ tale. In his words, God bless Christmas, and God bless us all, everyone.
Dramaturg, Elements Theatre Company