Christmas in Britain and the US used to be a relatively minor religious festival involving a day off work and a trip to church but not much more. Then, in the Victorian era, Christmas celebrations suddenly became much more elaborate and started to prioritise family gatherings, food and fun above the religious elements. An important contributor to this change of emphasis was the writer Charles Dickens, who wrote five books about Christmas!

The short novel A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, is the best known of these Christmas books and also one of Dickens’ best-loved works. Over the years there have been numerous versions of A Christmas Carol made for stage and screen. According to some academics, A Christmas Carol is still having an impact on the way we celebrate Christmas now, over 175 years after it was first published.

A Christmas Ghost story

Set in Victorian London, A Christmas Carol tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly businessman, who has plenty of money but no friends. The tale opens on a freezing cold Christmas Eve as Bob Cratchit, a poor clerk employed by Scrooge, is hard at work beside a tiny fire. When two men come collecting money for the poor, Scrooge refuses to give them anything, even though he is rich, saying he would prefer poor people to go to prison or to the workhouse. As night falls, Cratchit goes home to celebrate Christmas with his humble but loving family while Scrooge goes home alone, resentful about having to pay his employee for a day’s holiday, and with no intention of celebrating Christmas himself. When his nephew wishes him Merry Christmas, Scrooge’s response is: “Bah! Humbug!” — the phrase is still used today as a bad-tempered way to say you don’t like something.

That night, the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s dead business partner, visits Scrooge with a terrible message. If Scrooge doesn’t change his miserly ways he will be condemned, like Marley, to a horrible punishment after death. Marley warns Scrooge to expect three visitors that night.

Time to change

As Scrooge lies frightened in bed, one by one, three ghosts visit him. First to appear is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Next comes the Ghost of Christmas Present, and finally the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Each ghost shows Scrooge scenes from his life that highlight the wrong choices he’s made. But it’s the last ghost that brings the scariest revelation. Giving Scrooge a view into the future, he shows him the home of Bob Cratchit, where the family is in mourning because their youngest child, Tiny Tim, has died. The ghost then takes Scrooge to the funeral of a man who has nobody to mourn for him. Scrooge sees with horror that the name on the gravestone is his own.

When the ghost has left, Scrooge runs out into the street. It’s Christmas morning and he’s delighted to find that he’s still alive and has the opportunity to change his ways and so escape his terrible fate. He immediately donates a large amount of money to charity, has the biggest turkey available delivered to Bob Cratchit’s home, and goes to join the Christmas party at his nephew’s house. From then on, Scrooge is a reformed character. He becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim who, thanks to Scrooge’s generosity, doesn’t die and is able to end the novel with the famous last line: “God bless us, every one!”

It’s morally right to celebrate

Academics suggest that A Christmas Carol is partly responsible for the social pressure we often experience to be sociable and jolly at Christmas. There is a feeling that if we don’t spend time with family, don’t eat and drink to excess, and don’t exchange presents, we are being like the immoral Scrooge. After all, Scrooge, the miser, sits alone, determined not to celebrate, while everybody else, whatever their circumstances, is busy making the most of Christmas. The poor Cratchit family celebrate joyfully with the little they have. Scrooge’s nephew lays on a party. Even two men, isolated in a solitary lighthouse, wish each other Merry Christmas and enjoy a drink of grog (rum and water). At the end of the book, after Scrooge has experienced his radical transformation to become jolly and generous himself, we’re told that Scrooge now “knew how to keep Christmas well.” And the narrator adds: “May that be truly said of us.”

So the message of Dickens’ Christmas ghost story is clear. Celebrating Christmas is not just a fun thing, it’s a moral thing. Some people would probably agree with that; others will say “Bah! Humbug!”