Introduction by Professor John O. Jordan

Inasmuch as the Dickens Project seeks to promote study and enjoyment of the life, times, and work of Charles Dickens, it is fitting that on the 150th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, we mark the occasion by offering a new publication which we hope will further appreciation and understanding of Dickens’ best know work. No other book of story by Dickens or anyone else (save the Bible) has been more enjoyed, criticized, referred to, or more frequently adapted to other media. None of his other works is more widely recognized or, indeed, celebrated within the English-speaking world. Some scholars have even claimed that in publishing A Christmas Carol Dickens single-handedly invented the modern form of the Christmas holiday in England and the United States.

As G.K. Chesterton noted long ago, with A Christmas Carol Dickens succeeded in transforming Christmas from a sacred festival into a family feast. In so doing, he brought the holiday inside the home and thus made it accessible to ordinary people, who were now able to participate directly in the celebration rather than merely witnessing its performance in church.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in the 1840s. These were years of famine in Ireland as well as of severe economic depression worldwide. Dickens knew and understood the effects of poverty, and, by having Scrooge notice homeless mothers huddled in doorways at the end of the first Stave, he was writing from his own observation and experience. So today, A Christmas Carol along with other works by Dickens continues to direct attention to the problems of homelessness and economic injustice on our very doorsteps. In focusing on such questions, Dickens is a writer for all historical periods, including our own.

It is useful to recall that Dickens had written an earlier version of A Christmas Carol several years before taking up the story of Scrooge in October 1843. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), contains an interpolated tale, “The Goblins Who Stole A Sexton,” that anticipates A Christmas Carol in several interesting respects. Told at a Christmas party, the story recounts how Gabriel Grubb, a drunken, cruel, misanthropist, is visited one Christmas Eve by goblins, who torment him physically and show him scenes of the happy domestic life from which he has deliberately excluded himself. The lessons they teach him result in his redemption. He reforms his ways and eventually leads a long and happy life.

The major change that Dickens made in 1843 when he revised his earlier tale was to transform its central character from a member of the working class–a sexton–into a wealthy businessman, thereby introducing a different and considerably more “radical” social message into the story. Nevertheless, the basic situation in the two stories is quite similar. Both Gabriel Grubb and Scrooge are spoilsports. That is, each refuses to join and participate in the communal festival or sacred “sport” of Christmas. In both stories the spoilsport receives supernatural visitors who instruct him in the human values appropriate to the Christmas season, and in both stories the spoilsport undergoes a conversion that reunites him with the spirit of the community and fellowship. In both stories, moreover, a child or group of children plays an important role in the redemption process.

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens unites important features of the two Christmas stories he wrote for the December number of Pickwick Papers, joining the family feast of Dingley Dell with its games, intergenerational bonding, and domestic rituals together with the story of a supernatural visitation leading to conversion.

The various Christmas Carol adaptations listed below reflect only a fraction of the many ways in which Dickens’ original tale has been transposed to other media. In a sense, the story itself is already a multi-media production, especially the scenes where Scrooge is made to witness a series of visionary tableaux in which he can not participate. It is almost as if Dickens were writing a story to be told by media not yet available in the Victorian age. Yet no sooner was a new technology invented in the intervening 150 years than A Christmas Carol was quickly adapted to it.

Reactions to A Christmas Carol have varied tremendously over the years, with each generation finding in it a message–spiritual, psychological, or political–applicable to the needs of the different audiences. Clearly the Carol is an ideological work, both in and for our own time. The enormous success of its multiple adaptations testifies to its enduring value as a marketable commodity. Ostensibly its message is one that decries the commercialism of a debased Christmas celebration. yet ironically, the story itself continues to be bought and sold, packaged and repackaged to meet an apparently inexhaustible demand. Indeed, the book you hold in your hands is itself a result of the Dickens Project’s participation in the commercialization of A Christmas Carol. However pure our motives in seeking to promote enjoyment of the Carol, we also knew that we could sell our little book and turn the profits to some practical use–a good one, we assure you! In the end, it may not matter that A Christmas Carol has been commercialized, since its story of the strength of community and the power of love is not lost in the buying and selling.

Curiously enough, Dickens himself made little money from A Christmas Carol, although he had high hopes for its commercial success. In its first edition, the Carol was a beautiful little book, well made and lavish with illustrations. Our little book, not so lavish or beautiful, nevertheless attempts to reproduce some of the spirit that animated the original. May it bring you pleasure and good cheer!


John O. Jordan
December 1993